big block of cheese, pt. 2

To be fair to Mr. Sorkin, sometimes the recycled bits work. In particular, the West Wing episode “The Leadership Breakfast” takes pieces from two separate Sports Night episodes — the belated realization of a mistake in “When Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and the wandering panties of “Louise Revisited” — and adds to them, making a new comic bit that’s quite funny, actually tops the original, and doesn’t feel at all forced or out of place. I suspect that when he doesn’t have anything invested in it and is simply working as a craftsman, Mr. Sorkin is quite capable of taking old bits and refining them — just as the Marx Brothers used to take gags and work them over into a new idea.

But some of the ideas that crop up in both shows seem rudely inserted into the story for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with craft; indeed, sometimes they simply bring the show to a halt.

The foremost offender, in this regard, is Mr. Sorkin’s seeming obssession with Freudian psychoanalysis. This manifests itself on the small scale in the way that characters on both shows are always revealing their true thoughts through slips of the tongue. (To cite just two examples from The West Wing, President Bartlet does it in “A Proportional Response,” and Sam Seaborn does it in “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail”.) This is a cheap and annoying trick in the writing (does anyone ever actually do this in real life?), but we as viewers could learn to live with it, to overlook it. Harder to avoid are the larger plotlines in which a seemingly normal, balanced character is suddenly revealed to be falling apart at the seams — and psychotherapy the only cure.

It happens first in Sports Night. At the start of the show, the troublesome character is certainly Casey; in the first episode, he’s probably days away from getting fired. (Come to think of it, in the West Wing pilot, Josh is on the verge of being fired.) He’s mopey and hostile because of his divorce, and he can’t get his feelings together about Dana. Dan, on the other hand, seems like the stable, “okay” one. This is a matter of degrees, of course — both seem confident, outgoing, and relatively well-adjusted. Over the course of the first season, Dan shows himself to be a reliable friend as well as someone for whom making new friends isn’t exactly difficult — see his wooing of Rebecca, for example.

Then out of nowhere in the second season, Dan is revealed to be massively insecure, unable to have a serious conversation or indeed any conversation for more than a few seconds without needing to run away and throw up. He is apparently suffering, as mentioned before, massive guilt from a sibling’s death, and also his dad doesn’t like him. But how do we discover these things about him? Are they gradually revealed through his actions or the actions of people around him? No — instead we are abruptly introduced to this backstory through a sexy and perceptive psychiatrist whom Dan meets in a bar. It’s telling that even the way they meet doesn’t work — it’s supposed to be a cute gag in which he’s not sure if she’s giving him her number for a date or for an appointment, but the joke seems flat and forced, especially given what follows. And what follows is that she is so perceptive that she can deduce, from a couple of conversations, all the dreadful aspects of Dan’s life we’ve mentioned above. This is fortunate, because up to the moment she tells us about them, Sorkin has given us absolutely no demonstration of the way these problems are affecting Dan’s life. He seems like a remarkably even-keeled, happy guy — but lo, the penetrating gaze of the shrink reveals all, even if it was never written into earlier episodes. One later episode, “The Cut Man Cometh,” does a pretty decent job of showing that, indeed, Dan’s father is an asshole who doesn’t like him much. But that episode would have stood better as drama on its own; following these Freudian couch revelations, it comes off like an attempt to validate the good doctor’s profound insight.

To his credit, Sorkin handles the same psychiatric revelations somewhat better in The West Wing — but still not well. Early in the first season, Josh goes to see his psychiatrist, and they talk about the death of his sister, Joanie. The scene itself works well enough, but the show then goes on to use it as a launching pad for all kinds of revelations about Josh’s character that don’t work at all, including a particularly grating episode dealing with his PTSD after being shot. Again, the episode jumps out at us because of poor story editing — there are nine episodes between the shooting and Josh’s meeting with Dr. Keyworth, and in none of them do we see any particular changes in Josh’s behavior. Instead, the show backdates itself, showing incidents from “three weeks ago” which, nonetheless, were not brought to our attention three episodes prior. (This episode also features, again, the annoying Sorkin-Freudian slip: Josh says “I can hear the damn sirens all over the building,” when he means to say “bagpipes.”) The episode is irritating despite the director and actors Bradley Whitford and Adam Arkin pulling out all the stops to make it work. It’s irritating because of the writing. It’s irritating because it follows the same tired, cliched path that the Sports Night bits about Dan followed: the doctor knows everything about the patient within moments of meeting him, while the patient displays no self-awareness whatsoever — nor for that matter, any awareness of TV cliches about psychiatry. (He should have watched Chicago Hope — Adam Arkin used to get more interesting cases and better writing.)

I should point out, again, that when Mr. Sorkin is not so personally invested in trying to make a point (what point we will discuss later), the show can accommodate an episode coming from left field with a great deal of skill and sensitivity — consider the episode “The Long Goodbye,” which leaves most of the cast behind and concentrates on C.J.’s trip home to Ohio to visit her father, who’s struggling with Alzheimer’s. It’s a devastating show. (Unfortunately, it’s also written by someone else.)

Josh’s character is perhaps the weakest on the show; although Bradley Whitford generally holds it together with wit and charm, his primary personal characteristics seem to be womanizing and a certain flexibility in his political beliefs. This is fine, and in fact Josh often provides us some relief from the unrelenting piety of the other characters. The trouble comes in trying to explain this behavior through unconvincing backstory. When, in the fourth season, Donna “explains” Josh to Amy, telling her that everyone Josh loves goes away (his sister, his father, and very nearly the President), we certainly can’t complain this time that the show hasn’t prepared us for it. But somehow the points remain unconnected; moreover, it’s not clear that we need or want them connected. Surely there are many men of weak character where women and politics are concerned; do we always need to trace this back to family loss? Is there some reason that Josh’s issues around women can’t simply be the result of his own decisions, his own unwillingness to expose himself?

Dr. Keyworth shows up again, a season later, to help President Bartlet with insomnia brought on by Toby upbraiding him for still trying to please an abusive but long-dead father. (The father issue comes up over and over again in Sports Night and The West Wing: it is explicitly dealt with at least three times in the former (Dan, Casey, and Jeremy) and literally every major character in the latter except Abbey — not to mention a UFOlogist who shows up occasionally for comic relief and a junior staffer who’s almost fired — gets at least one episode dealing with a bad or lost father.) To Mr. Sorkin’s credit, each time he tries it, he gives the “I-don’t-need-a-shrink-oh-yes-I-do” plot sharper and more self-aware dialogue, so that President Bartlet, at least, is something of a match for Dr. Keyworth, and they approach the problem more-or-less as equals and partners. This is surely the only healthy way for therapy to work, but it’s the first time Mr. Sorkin has given us a doctor-patient relationship that doesn’t assume the superiority of the physician and the helplessness of the afflicted.

So, scene by scene, this iteration works better than the others. But still, the question must be asked — is it fair, in life or in drama, to reduce a man’s complexity, all his problems and shortcomings (as well, presumably, as his excellences and good deeds) to one childhood factor? Some good points are in fact made during President Bartlet’s sessions with Dr. Keyworth — for example, the idea of the receding goal: every time he succeeds, there’s yet another goal waiting to be conquered, so that he can never really feel that he’s “arrived.” This happens to a lot of people, and is worth talking about. It’s a fine observation, but it unfortunately falls out of its orbit and into the pull of the Bad Daddy story; the President is not merely ambitious or insecure, he’s trying to please his father.

Perhaps he is trying to please his father. I won’t deny it. But… two things. One, I don’t really care. For me, it’s enough to be shown how characters behave, and their immediate motives; more remote motives are generally uninteresting in drama. (This was a central failing in much of the psychoanalysis-inspired stage drama of the mid-20th century.) Two, the psychiatrist’s couch and the sudden interjection of flashbacks are usually very weak ways to give us information about characters, and this case is no exception. The flashback is mildly stronger, because it shows us situations instead of trying to reveal major events through dialogue; but because we, as an audience, know that that is what a flashback is intended to do, as a technique it must often work against the perception that a writer is trying to shoehorn in some characterization that he can’t accomplish through normal means. In other words, unless flashbacks are forcefully and consistently integrated into the narrative (as in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective) so that we simply accept the dual-timeline stucture, the flashback calls attention to what the writer is doing, and so draws us out of the narrative.

Why would Mr. Sorkin, who is obvious capable on the levels of both structure and moment, sacrifice both with these weak and unconvincing techniques? It feels, unfortunately, like someone trying to make a point, or at least paint a picture. It feels like someone with a great deal of faith — even awe — regarding the practice of psychiatry wanting to share some of its magic.

There are, it seems to me, several things which Mr. Sorkin views with a certain kind of awe. None of them is, in itself, bad, but his inability to see them, let’s say, objectively, leads to sloppy writing. We have mentioned psychoanalysis, to which we could easily add 12-step programs, the military, and religion. But there is a division even in this group. The first two seem to be seen from the inside — that is, Mr. Sorkin writes about them as a believer, as one who has experienced their benefits and associates himself with their principles. Particularly in the case of 12-step programs, his characters (notably Leo) can articulate those principles well and consistently. It doesn’t always make for good storytelling, but he does at least approach them with, apparently, some firsthand knowledge.

When it comes to the military and religion, however, Mr. Sorkin adopts a peculiar posture, one of the respectful, even admiring outsider. But he cannot, however he tries, find a responsible way to deal with these two subjects. Sports Night and The West Wing have an unapologetic liberal leaning, and that’s fine — that’s part of why I like them — but it often seems that Mr. Sorkin’s commitment to liberal principle leads him to see the military and religion as things unalterably alien to himself. And that sense of separation from these institutions leads him to places by turns bizarre, dishonest, and unrealistic.

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