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Aaron Sorkin and the Myth of an 8-hour Workday

By Bert Ehrmann
2006-11-17
The characters of 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 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.

Sports Night would introduce Sorkin's main theme of 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.

In a way, Sorkin's fictional world mirrors our own. There is no escape from work when people can be in constant communication to the office via e-mail, cell phone or Blackberry. Work is always there, waiting.

ABC saw this dramatic series with comic undertones as a sitcom, and for a while inserted a laugh track into the episodes that didn't fit well. Sports Night never really found an audience on ABC 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 Sports Night 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 West Wing was a critical 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).   On The West Wing, these staffers almost literally work 24/7 for President Bartlet. If the characters of Sports Night had at least some relief from work, the characters of The West Wing do not. They 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 into the behind the scenes aspects of another television show, 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.

Since its premiere, Studio 60 has had disappointing ratings and the series 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."

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.