The Sorkin Dilemma: Sticking with what works or lacking in creativity?

jim harperAnyone who knows me will tell you I am a creature of habit. I buy pretty much the same stuff at the supermarket each week. The guy at Subway knows what I am going to order before I say a word. I generally park in the same area at the mall, supermarket and movie theatre (it just makes sense people – no risk of forgetting where your car is then!). In my life in general then, I am not very creative. But when it comes to actually being creative – and writing – then I try to avoid repeating the same old same old. I have written one book but want the second to be different – completely different drivers, characters, set pieces and ideology. Though – it’s a romance novel, so the end result will probably be about the same. It isn’t always easy – you write certain things because you like certain things and they work. But you can’t repeat them too often or your audience will a) get bored and b) feel a little ripped off that you haven’t managed to come up with anything new. And that is how I am feeling about Aaron Sorkin right now.

I blogged before here about his new show The Newsroom – that has finished it’s first season on Soho and been lined up for a second. When I wrote my initial review I had only watched three episodes, now I have seen the whole season. And – as much as I admire Mr Sorkin and would give my little finger for just an ounce of his wordsmithing wondrousness – I have to admit he really does just repeat what works over, and over, and over. This is his fourth show, and all four share many things in common. That is no great surprise – writers tend to focus on similar issues and like similar character traits – and that is fine. But honestly, at this point I think he might just be taking the mickey.

This was hammered home for me, in a way that made me laugh out loud – in one of the later eps of The Newsroom, where he used a cover version of ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’ to play over a montage of the cast having just achieved something momentous. Why did I laugh out loud? Because I remember very clearly in one of the episodes of Studio 60 he used the SAME SONG, albeit a different cover version, over a montage of…you guess it…the cast having achieved something momentous. Wow. Just, wow. You can’t come up with a different song, dude? Sure, that may not be his fault – but surely someone would have said, ‘look, heaps of the same people who watched Studio 60 will be watching this show and will recognise this’. And the same goes for so many other repeated offences: main character being on drugs and doing something a little crazy? Studio 60, The West Wing, The Newsroom (twice). Main character going a bit crazy on TV and saying something honest and true which the world then goes crazy about? Studio 60, The West Wing and The Newsroom. Two main characters with a complex romantic backstory that struggle to work out their feelings throughout the course of the show, to the annoyance of pretty much everyone around them? Studio 60 and The Newsroom. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

It has been pointed out too – in spectacular supercut fashion – that even his fantastic dialogue isn’t always fresh and new. He has the same turns of phrase, the same anecdotes, and same pacing and often the exact same messaging in not just his shows but also his movies. The first time you hear them – which for me was The West Wing – it was fresh and new and just incredible. The fifth time you are too busy working out in your head how many times you have heard it before to actually pay attention to the story. And, fundamentally, the problem with all of this repetition is that it takes you out of the show. You are not fully immersed because you know you are watching a Sorkin show and you know you will be hearing things again. And, if you are like me, you are just waiting to see when it happens next.

That is not to say Sorkin isn’t a great writer – he really is. But I wonder whether he needs to just throw out the old things that work and try some new stuff. Clearly lighting struck once and I am confident that, with a writer of his talent, if he set sail in a completely new direction, he could be successful there too. But maybe not. Maybe those of us who are so used to the Sorkin brand would actually be disappointed with something completely different. And that’s the tricky tight rope that creative types walk. With success comes expectation – and the expectation is usually that you will be just as good (if not better) the next time and that the next time you will do something similar but different. Some writers – Jodi Picoult is a great example – use a very similar formula each time, but focus on a completely different issue – not unlike Mr Sorkin. As a result I can’t read more than one Picoult book in a year as I feel like I am reading the same thing. Other writers/directors/musicians branch out completely – Joss Whedon into superhero film writing/directing for example – and it works. But fundamentally the things that made him successful can still be spotted in the midst of a massive studio movie. And that is no bad thing.

So I am not saying formula is bad. I am just saying there can be too much of a good thing. And that, as writers, we have a responsibility – to our audience and to ourselves – to push ourselves creatively and say ‘well, I have done that now – what is next?’ And as someone who lectures his audience on going that bit further, pushing that bit harder and being that bit better – Sorkin of all people should know that. Here endeth the lesson. Though, I should of course disclaimer by saying THE WEST WING IS STILL THE BEST TV SHOW EVER MADE. Bar none. Ok, now I am done 😉




One thought on “The Sorkin Dilemma: Sticking with what works or lacking in creativity?

  1. Pingback: Best on the Screen and Box: 2013 | andstufflikethis

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