Aaron Sorkin never uttered the name of the current U.S. president, and it took a half-hour into a conversation with him about The West Wing for the reality of Donald Trump’s administration to intrude on the conversation.
But the creator of the classic NBC drama suggested there is one antidote to the times of Trump: “We need to make better voters. Otherwise, it’s bound to descend into the tribalism that we have.”
Sorkin spoke after a 20th anniversary screening at PaleyFest New York of “Two Cathedrals,” the closing episode of the show’s second season. Asked how much he reflected on the way the show plays a generation later, he initially demurred, saying it was always intended as “wish fulfillment.” But he acknowledged being nostalgic for “sanity” in “unnerving times, particularly over the past week.”
Reflecting on the plot of “Two Cathedrals,” he said it felt “quaint” to be depicting storylines like President Bartlet’s disclosure of his multiple sclerosis condition and his appointing of a special counsel that would investigate him.
Challenged during the audience Q&A portion about his indictment of the voters, rather than political leaders and candidates, he said “better voters get us better candidates. I think in a democracy, how can it not ultimately be the responsibility of the voters? Look, we’re right to point to all the people we’re pointing to in Washington and say, ‘Oh my God, this is so un-American!’ … But when are voters going to bear some responsibility?”
Depictions of politics in popular culture tend to follow two distinct lines, he maintained. “Our leaders are depicted as either Machiavellian or dolts,” Sorkin said. While he said he is a “big, big fan” of both House of Cards and Veep, those two poles “are really my lane.” Instead, he set out during the heart of Bill Clinton’s second term to deliver a TV show taking the lives and jobs of White House staffers as seriously as any medical, police or legal drama took its protagonists.
Most of the evening delivered fan service in spades, with Sorkin reminiscing about the “magical cast” of the show and polishing several well-worn chestnuts about the show’s evolution. After poor initial test screenings of the Warner Bros. Television show, he said, NBC convened a new test, which yielded strong scores among high net worth homes, college-educated homes, New York Times subscribers and homes with internet access. The dotcom boom was well under way by the time the show debuted, Sorkin noted, and “the dotcoms needed a place to advertise.”