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Aaron Sorkin and the Myth of an 8-hour Workday

By Bert Ehrmann

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Fort Wayne Reader

2006-11-21


The characters in television shows written by Aaron Sorkin don’t live by the union mantra “eight hours for work, eight hours for play and eight for what we will.” They live their lives through and for their jobs. Outside of work these characters have no life, no identity. Sorkin’s world is like our own, but with snappier dialogue: when people can be in constant communication with the office via e-mail, cell phone or Blackberry, there is no escape.

Sorkin’s first foray in television was with his series Sports Night that lasted just two seasons on ABC starting in 1998. Sports Night focused on a news program covering sports on the fictional Continental Sports Channel. Much like other Sorkin television series that would follow, Sports Night would focus on what went on behind the scenes of the show where the public isn’t privy, with workaholic characters functioning only through their jobs.

In Sports Night, show anchors Dan Rydell (Josh Charles), Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) regularly worked 14-hour days producing each show. When these characters were shown outside their work environment, it was almost always together at a bar or restaurant – talking about work.

ABC saw this dramatic series with comic undertones as a sitcom, and for a while inserted a laugh track into the episodes. It didn’t fit well. Sports Night never really found an audience and, strangely enough, the last episode of the series featured an investor swooping in to save the fictional show from cancellation. Unfortunately, the real Sports Night wasn’t that lucky.

Even though Sports Night failed in the ratings game doesn’t mean that it’s not a quality show. I’d rank it as one of the best of the 1990s.

Sorkin followed Sports Night with the successful The West Wing (1999): winner of six Emmy awards and a Golden Globe, the show was a critical and popular darling that lasted a syndication-friendly seven seasons on NBC.

The West Wing focused on staffers working behind the scenes at the White House under President “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen). The staffers almost literally work 24/7; if the characters of Sports Night had at least some relief from work, the characters of The West Wing are all consumed by their work: there is no time that they’re not on call or on duty.

What these staffers gain by their jobs; shaping public policy, meeting world-leaders, traveling the globe on the taxpayer dime, is offset by their utter lack of a life outside of work. There is, for the most part, no families waiting for them at home and no children to put to bed.

Even today Sorkin delves the depths of people and their work in his latest series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Much like his two previous shows, Studio 60 peers behind the scenes, here a Saturday Night Live type show called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

On Studio 60, the writers, performers and technical people of the fictional show practically live inside the studio struggling to turn out an hour and a half of live television each week. Writer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) spends most of his week creating the show while director Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and cast rehearse, rehearse and rehearse before the show is shot live each and every Friday night.

Unfortunately, it looks as if Studio 60 might be more akin to Sports Night than The West Wing in longevity. Since its premiere, this “best new series of the season” has so far failed to become the breakout hit it was predicted to be by television critics. The ratings have been weak and the show has (so far) been unable to break into the top twenty television shows each week. But all hope is not lost. Recently, NBC announced that they would be picking up the show for the entire season and that, according to the web site Zap2It, “The series…has one of the highest concentrations of “upscale” viewers…of any show on television.” Those are the kind of ratings advertisers like to hear.

Studio 60 airs Monday nights at 10:00 P.M. on NBC. Repeats of The West Wing air Monday nights on Bravo. Every season of The West Wing and Sports Night are available on DVD.

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