Friday, December 7, 2007
Aaron Sorkin Returns to Television
He's not back on the air just yet-- and after critics and bloggers grossly slagged Studio 60 like it was the second coming of Stanley Kramer (while falling all over themselves to praise the enjoyable-but-erratic Heroes, and the godawful Heiglianism of Grey's Anatomy), I can't say I blame his reticence--but he's tackling the medium's history in a new play, The Farsnworth Invention, which just opened on Broadway. Influential NY Times critic Ben Brantley posted a mixed-to-negative review, which makes me suspect the project might have worked better as a TV show (Sorkin's ideal medium, I suspect, despite the commercial failure of Sunset Strip).
Of course, Sorkin's been over this territory before-- one of the best moments of the late and lamented Sports Night was William H. Macy's monologue about Farnsworth (shockingly not posted to YouTube, although Muffmann fans can get their fill of Dana-and-Sam mashups here), which summarizes the figure's historical importance through a succinct anecdote, then uses that anecdote to reveal hidden character motivation. It's a graceful dance of humor, history, camerawork and narrative, and it doesn't really need an expansion into a full-length narrative. This is not to say The Farnsworth Invention, which I haven't seen, is necessarily as bad as Brantley makes it sound-- only that Sorkin is at his best when history and politics (or sports, or TV production) are used as jumping-off points for other imaginative wonderings, and not as the subjects in and of themselves (even The West Wing-- which was often brilliant in its concise and screwball articulation of various policy issues-- was less about day-to-day politics than about a more general sense of grace, especially grace under pressure).
You can watch an interesting interview with Sorkin about the play here. There are mirrors within mirrors in that piece: it's perhaps an ironic, implied bit of support for Sorkin's wider points about TV's commerciality that Studio 60 isn't mentioned among Sorkin's credits in the piece, even though (or perhaps because?) the interview is broadcast by that show's old network, NBC (a network founded by one of the play's characters--and targets-- David Sarnoff).
In the interview, Sorkin says the play is less about the characters or the medium, and more generally about a "spirit of exploration," which isn't a bad summation of a lot of his work, especially the underlying optimism and hope that such a spirit requires. Giving witty articulation to that hope-- while also recognizing its potential dark side-- has been his gift, which makes me intrigued about his collaboration this winter with Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson's War. I think it's fair to say that Nichols approaches his work from precisely the opposite position-- starting with a cynical take on a certain public pose, and perhaps (although not often) finding the humanity underneath--and that's led to work that is much broader, more satiric and far more acidic in its take on human nature than, say, The West Wing. Toss in well-known stars like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, and the whole thing could either be a brilliant or messy clash of styles and viewpoints, but that potential messiness might not be a bad allegorical framework for its real-life tale of a crazy Texan hurling himself into the Cold War.
All of this is just prelude, of course, for Sorkin's next project, a stage adaptation of (I kid you not) The Flaming Lips album, Yoshima Battles The Pink Robots. Any chance we might get Allison Janney to play Yoshima?