Aaron Sorkin VS. the Moralists

No one would ever accuse The West Wing of being anything but a defiantly liberal show. And in many ways, that was part of its charm: It wore its big-government liberal bona fides on its Brooks Brothers sleeves, dispensing with any of notion of cloaking its ideology in disingenuous objectivity. But for those who didn't share the show's political assumptions, it could also be frustrating to watch as series creator Aaron Sorkin orchestrated the show's events to match his ideological agenda.

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Now, after a three year hiatus, Sorkin is making a return to television with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a series which chronicles the backstage travails of a Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show. The West Wing focused on the role of the Presidency as a society-shaping institution, and Studio 60 looks poised to do the same for television. And although the show retains Sorkin's unabashedly liberal outlook, its primary targets have shifted with the milieu: Instead of beating up on tax-cutting politicians, Studio 60 aims its wrath squarely at America's moralist censors and the FCC. It may turn out to be the sort of liberal programming that libertarians can love.


If tonight's pilot is any indication, Studio 60 is going to do for Hollywood and television what The West Wing did for government and the presidency: make an impassioned plea for the renewed relevance of what Sorkin sees as a declining institution by vigorously urging it to give up on appealing to the lowest common denominator and embrace the mores, tastes, and predilections of the cultured intellectual class. This means that instead of rightwing budget cutters and proponents of small government, the show's primary enemies are FCC indecency regulators and religious moral scolds.


Sorkin's oeuvre firmly marks him as a true-blooded big-government progressive. He is reported to have done uncredited rewrite work on Warren Beatty's hyperleft, rapping-Senator political fantasy, Bulworth, which bluntly argued, just to pick one example from its slew of liberal causes, that Democrats should openly embrace socialist healthcare. He also wrote the screenplay for The American President, which may be the only A-list romantic comedy ever to revolve around Congressional support for restrictive gun laws and environmental regulations. Heavily influenced by mid-20th century socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht who argued that theater should push audiences toward political action, Sorkin's work has often played like a sort of modernized Epic Theatre. With The West Wing, Sorkin's political fervor reached its zenith. Like a kid with a Hollywood-studio-funded sandbox full of Administration action figures, he staged dramatic predetermined battles between the Democratic forces of light and the Republican forces of dark. The show set itself up as a paradigm for the liberal ideal of classy, intellectually respectable government that could—and would—fix all of society's ills through well-funded programs and egalitarian idealism. Constantly railing against what it saw as pandering to the backward masses, the show argued instead that intelligent, educated, cultured people driven by good intentions could come together to create classy institutions that benefited society. All you need, the show seemed to say, is a Nobel Prize winning economist professor from the Northeast to run the country, right? Sorkin may have cast Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen as his fictional Presidents, but it always seemed as if he were personally running for official representative of the coastal liberal elite.


Studio 60 may not mark a new political direction for Sorkin, but it does shrink the distance between his brand of liberal politics and the views of small-government libertarians. The pilot opens with what is essentially a statement of intent: After an argument with a network representative about offensive content in one of the evening's planned sketches, an executive producer (Judd Hirsch) of a popular comedy show interrupts a live broadcast to make an impassioned speech declaring that television, as a medium, has gone to hell and that the FCC and uptight religious groups are largely to blame. Or, as he puts it, “The two things that make [networks] scared gutless are the FCC and every psycho religious cult that gets positively horny at the mention of a boycott.” By the end of the show, we learn that the sketch that caused the initial disagreement is titled “Crazy Christians.”


The producer's outburst exclaims that his network is “hell-bent on doing absolutely nothing that just might challenge an audience,” and, as might be expected, it causes an immediate uproar. But instead of trying to gloss over the situation, a new network executive (Amanda Peet) takes the furor as an opportunity to refute the producer's rant by reinventing the show as a classy, astute program not afraid to push some boundaries. She starts quickly, ordering the show's new producers to open the following week's episode with the offending sketch. The clear suggestion is that by refusing to pander to bureaucrats and moral handwringers, and by relying on dedication and intelligence, Hollywood can still turn out relevant pop-art that succeeds both critically and financially. In other words, it takes the idealism that drove Sorkin's problematic ideas about the wonders of government and applies it to a private institution where it might actually succeed.


Now, Studio 60 is by no means a “libertarian” show. It seems too ready to be critical of the lowbrow pull that capitalism can sometimes exert (the producer's tirade includes angry references to the crassness of reality television), and, with the producer's labeling of TV as “this country's most influential industry,” it will likely view Hollywood as too much of an instigator of social change.


But even with these caveats, it's refreshing to see a show take up the cause of free speech so bluntly and so eloquently. For even when Sorkin's ideas lack credibility, they always make for compelling, thoughtful drama. Sorkin has become one of television's most successful, respected writers by creating shows that appear to actually work on their own premises. They're the determined products of wit, class, and good intentions—and more often than not, they're dazzlingly entertaining. No matter which way he veers politically, Sorkin doesn't just argue for good television—he shows us how it's actually done.