It wasn’t until that real-world debate hit the front pages that Sorkin would finally top his work in A Few Good Men. And that isn’t entirely a coincidence: As Mark Harris recently noted in New York Magazine, the higher the stakes, the better Sorkin’s work is. Which seems counterintuitive: Given the essential superficiality of his work—Sorkin has said many times that the “sound of intelligence” is what he loves, not the substance—one might expect lighter fare to be his forte. But when Sorkin does light, it’s usually awful. Witness The American President (1995), a decidedly Clinton-era, wannabe-Capra take on a widower president who starts dating a lobbyist. The movie—which, like A Few Good Men, was directed by Rob Reiner—is mostly bad, and occasionally creepy, like erotic White House fanfic written by a presidential biographer in his off hours. (“I’m sorry,” the president tells his girlfriend, “we’re going to have to cut our evening short. The Libyans have just bombed C-STAD. I’ll try to call you tomorrow.” Yuck.)
And yet The American President gave rise to The West Wing, possibly the best network drama ever made. (Sorkin used material cut from the movie for the TV series—and even some material he hadn’t cut from the movie.) What gets lost in all the much-deserved praise for the series is that the first season wasn’t that good. For a while, the show had the same problems with tone that dog The American President. After a fun pilot—Sorkin is great at pilots—The West Wing bumbled along with silly plots about Sam Seaborne (Rob Lowe), a senior staffer in the White House Communications Department, dating a call girl, and a Republican-prompted internal investigation into drug use among White House staffers.
But after the show’s fictional president, Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), survives an assassination attempt in the Season 1 finale, The West Wing picks up some steam. And it really gets going in Season 3, the show’s first post-9/11 season, when the stakes are highest. The president is finally up for re-election, there’s a Congressional investigation into his relapsing-remitting MS—which he only disclosed well into his presidency—and reliable intelligence suggests that the Qumari defense minister is funding anti-American terrorism. (Qumar is a fictional Middle East nation that’s a bit like Saudi Arabia.) This time, it’s the good guys who decide, reluctantly, that the illegal use of force is necessary to protect the United States. “It’s wrong,” Bartlet say to Leo McGeary (Jon Spencer), his chief of staff, speaking of their plan to covertly assassinate Abdul Ibn Shareef, the Qumari defense minister. “It’s just wrong.” “I know,” Leo tells him, “but you have to do it anyway.” When the president asks why, Leo replies, “Because you won.”
The episode in which Leo delivers that line is a masterpiece of smart, middlebrow television art. President Bartlet gives the order to assassinate Shareef during a performance of The War of the Roses, a musical-theater version of Shakespeare’s Henry plays that Sorkin invented for the episode, borrowing a song from The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby with the chorus “And victorious in war shall be made glorious in peace.” The Henry plays harken back to a speech a couple of episodes earlier delivered by Admiral Fitzwallace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the situation room, about how modern war has nothing to do with what was waged at the Battle of Agincourt, when one “could tell between peace time and war time.” And the War of the Roses performance provides the setting for an accidental encounter between Bartlet and his Republican opponent in the upcoming election, a George W. Bush-like figure who replies to Bartlet’s news of the murder that night of a Secret Service member just a few blocks from the theater with the comment, “Crime … boy, I don’t know.” After a few testy words are exchanged, Bartlet tells him, “In the future, if you’re wondering, ‘Crime … boy, I don’t know’ is when I decided to kick your ass.”
I haven’t even mentioned the welfare reform bill that Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is trying to get passed while his girlfriend, Amy Gardner (Mary Louise Parker), the director of the fictional Women’s Leadership Coalition, tries to defeat it. (This effectively ends their relationship.) Or the continued search for the president’s new secretary, who has to replace a woman he’d known since childhood. Or the relationship between the president’s press secretary, C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), and that murdered Secret Service agent. Each one of these storylines culminates in the last 10 minutes of the episode, which moves gracefully from one to the other. Will it change your life? No. But it will entertain you the first, second, third, and fourth times you sit down to watch it. (Really.)
It bears repeating that the series is just that: entertainment. The gravity of its situations lends the show dramatic force, not real-world application. The West Wing was never a substantive critique of American politics, and didn’t pretend to be. Rather, it gave us, to quote one critic, “an artificial world, with a neatly controlled and shapely precision which has not gone out of fashion—because it was never in fashion in the sense of using the fleeting conventions and ways of thought of contemporary human society.” The critic in this case was writing in 1957, and talking not about Sorkin but about Gilbert and Sullivan.
With The West Wing, Sorkin found the perfect vessel in which to pour line upon line of rhythmic argument, with real disputes among smart people who have important goals that butt up against serious obstacles. Those few things are nearly all that Sorkin needs to make compulsively watchable television. The last thing is a perfect cast. That may sound like the sort of thing every writer and director needs, but it’s true in a particular way for Sorkin, because he doesn’t really distinguish between his characters in any but the most superficial ways. (This may be why he likes to work with the same actors so often.) Apart from a verbal tic here or there, all his characters talk the same. When an interviewer asked him once about character development, Sorkin said, “When you say ‘character development,’ I don’t know what you mean. I feel like you’re talking about, do I grow their hair longer?” “There is no inside out,” he added. “I don’t sit there and think, ‘Oh shit, C.J. wouldn’t do this.’ C.J. would do whatever I make C.J. do.”