Whose Line Is It Anyway?

My university is really hot on plagiarism. Not in a fangirly way. In a NEVERYOUMUSTNOTEVERDOTHISNO kind of a way. And don’t get me wrong, I’m down with that. Plagiarism = bad. Especially on an English course (yes, I’m doing English, can’t you tell?). Thing is, we’re not allowed to plagiarise ourselves. Once we’ve said something in an academic work, never again. It’s basically the stuff of Aaron Sorkin’s nightmares…

While it amuses me that Sorkin rarely writes an original sentence these days, I think it is interesting to consider how effective recycling old material really is. Sorkin’s writing has received great acclaim, most notably for A Few Good MenThe West Wing and The Social Network – Emmys, Oscars, Golden Globes flying everywhere (accurate). Big Sorkin fans will no doubt have been aware of the high dosage of “Sorkinisms” that these works contain before the supercut video came along. So, question is: does all this recycling – while great for the planet – truly benefit the respective screenplays?

When Isaac from Sports Night quotes, “I don’t always know the right thing to do, Lord, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you,” does it make it less powerful when Leo from The West Wing does the same thing? Hmm. No. I don’t think it does. That said, the prominence of “Gather ye rosebuds…” in The West Wing does undermine its use in The Newsroom for me. If not just because The West Wing’s use of any of the dialogue immediately makes it law – it IS the White House after all! The show is too iconic to steal from as often as Sorkin does. Or maybe it didn’t fit the characters because they weren’t Josh and Donna, and use of the quote is cemented in my head as those characters saying it that way.

If you’re a big fan of The West Wing, you associate the words, “I go home when you go home” with Leo and Margaret (IT IS LAW, like I say). When Studio 60 tries to get all up in that, it begins to irritate me. I like Studio 60 but it needed to go further to differentiate itself from The West Wing by delivering memorable dialogue of its own. The Newsroom: take note.

So many fans of The Newsroom have commented on their frustration about the number of comparisons people make between Newsroom characters and West Wing characters. Well, surely Sorkin’s to blame for that.

There is a part of me that delights in it. I smile and think, “Oh, Sorkin,” as another, “Not for nothing” or “I’m really quite something” is delivered. It calls on memories of a TV series that truly was the crème de la crème. While it’s yet to really work for me on The Newsroom, there were certainly points in Studio 60 where cross-referencing made me giddy. That was largely related to casting choices though. He capitalised on something that The West Wing didn’t get a chance to: the chemistry between Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford (at least 80% of the appeal of Studio 60). As well as that, in a genius move late in the series, Sorkin opted to have Allison Janney play herself alongside fellow West Wing alum, Timothy Busfield. It goes to show, West Wing callbacks can seriously pay off.

I think The West Wing beautifully showcased the potential of Aaron Sorkin’s writing. The simultaneous complexity and simplicity of the dialogue was utterly genius. References to other aspects of the series are fond reminders of the dizzying heights of TV brilliance. Recycled dialogue, however, is often a wasted opportunity for exciting, refreshing new material.

What do you think, though? Besides being an amusing supercut, do you think Sorkin needs to be a little more original in his writing? Or should quoting The West Wing be endlessly encouraged?

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3 Comments

  1. Steph

     /  March 9, 2013

    I don’t mind the recycled dialogue (and frequently get a delighted little kick out of recognizing a familiar line or sentiment), but while Sorkin himself has a very strong and distinctive voice, I’m not sure that’s a skill that necessarily serves a scriptwriter. Often it seems that every character Sorkin writes just sounds Sorkin-y, and the characters themselves don’t have strong voices that differentiate them from each other. Certainly people working long hours in close quarters, the way Sorkin’s television characters invariably do, would develop a shared patois, but I think the reason the writing on TWW stands alone is that the characters each developed their own voice to the point that they sounded like people delivering their own words, not puppets delivering a Sorkin line.

    Reply
    • I’m inclined to agree with you. Do you think that it’s because Sorkin was very much at his best when writing The West Wing, or does it have to do with the casting choices?

      Reply
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