Culture

Look Out, TV: Aaron Sorkin Is Going Digital

Beloved boomer fare 'The West Wing' spawns re-watch podcast. So when's the Netflix reboot?

By Shannon Rupp 27 Jun 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

Fans of the old TV show The West Wing will love the new re-watch podcast almost as much as broadcast television executives will hate seeing this sign that even the oldest of the baby boomers are being lured into online amusements.

The West Wing Weekly podcast features actor Josh Malina -- who played Will Bailey in the series -- chatting over the scripts and behind-the-scenes anecdotes with Hrishikesh Hirway (who also does the Song Exploder podcast) and guests from the cast and crew.

And it will whet your appetite for the show (which can be found on CraveTV, iTunes and in library DVD collections). The sophisticated, professional offering is obviously aimed at the boomer generation, who formed the core of that show's audience when it aired from 1999 to 2006.

I wasn't a fan of the show, but Malina is an engaging guy and I'd seen enough of the first season to find the podcast interesting. But what surprised me was everyone else found it interesting too: it became a hit in the space of a dozen episodes, despite the fact that two-thirds of podcast listeners are under 45.

It looks like nothing so much as a bid to reboot The West Wing -- something creator Aaron Sorkin just announced on the Today show that he'd be interested in doing.

If you're not familiar with re-watching, it's a trend that took off when online streaming services began padding their coffers with old series. Nostalgic fans gathered around blogs and podcasts to chew over their obsession, episode by episode, just as they were doing for current shows.

At first re-watching was the purview of series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 to 2003) and other sci-fi romps, which have always attracted the sort of obsessive fans who love comic conventions and cosplay. And the Scoobies are known as a particularly devoted fandom.

Then something unexpected happened: old shows began attracting new fans. The cult fave Veronica Mars, which ran 2004 to 2007, got a new life when the pint-sized high school detective landed in Netflix. Veronica Mars the movie, which came seven years after the series ended, made history in 2013 when fans funded the producers' Kickstarter campaign, donating $2 million in 10 hours.

Suddenly, re-watching was thing.

Until last year, Gilmore Girls was just a modest hit about a single mom and her teenage daughter that ran on the fledgling CW network from 2000 to 2007. But after it was added to Netflix in late 2014, the old fans of Gilmore Girls roped in some new ones, partly via the chart-topping podcast Gilmore Guys, done by a couple men in their 20s who nicknamed these fans Gillies.

The next thing you know, Stars Hollow alumni are featured at last year's ATX conference for TV fans in Austin. And before you can say "oy with the poodles already," Netflix announces a series reboot with four 90-minute episodes, due later this year.

As if conventional television didn't have enough competition from streaming services, series sales and pirates: now they are competing with younger, hipper versions of themselves.

Sorkin-splaining

As a number of critics have noted, TV shows have come to resemble 19th century novels more than 20th century television. Specifically, they're like Charles Dickens' novels. Long, rambling tales with richly painted characters, delivered in regular installments punctuated by cliffhangers that leave audiences jonesing to know what happens next.

That makes good TV shows just as timeless as good novels, which is why we're now treating them like classic books --- revisiting, binging and concentrating on one at a time. Communities catering to fans of particular shows have sprung up, and they're much like associations devoted to Jane Austen or Edgar Allan Poe. A combination of fanatics mixed with some genuine scholars who brandish PhDs in things like Buffy Studies.

Still, the arrival of the West Wing Weekly podcast seems out-of-step with online TV culture. While the show was undoubtedly beloved -- Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda cites it as one of the inspirations for his hit show Hamilton -- it always struck me as belonging to another era even when it debuted. Perhaps the 1940s?

It was naive and idealistic to the point of qualifying as a fantasy. And like all of Aaron Sorkin's writing it featured a character I call the Paternalistic Lecturer. (Sorkin is the screenwriter who gave us Jack Nicholson's scenery-chewing "You can't handle the truth!" speech in A Few Good Men.)

Sorkin is only 55 himself now, so 25 years ago I assumed his patronizing and often sexist characters were wish fulfillment for the powerful men in their 50s whom the young Sorkin had to please in order to get his play or script produced. Because, really, how could a guy at the tail end of the baby boom imagine the things Sorkin characters think and do?

The Paternalistic Lecturer character -- some style him the "get off my lawn guy" -- is usually in his 50s, always in a power position, and repeatedly given a platform to tell the rest of us what's-what in the world. Sadly (and sometimes, hilariously) his what's-what has only a passing acquaintanceship with reality.

When the character is supposedly the American president, and he's played by an actor of Martin Sheen's talent and charm, I'm willing to accept he is a product of his culture and voters gave him a licence to bang-on about these things.

But I've been perplexed by Sorkin's followup shows, in which the scripts always favour well-meaning authoritarianism and the gentle misogyny of chivalry in an era that finds such things mockworthy, if not downright offensive.

The most surprising success was The Newsroom, a show that almost every critic despised despite its fabulous cast -- Metacritic gave it a 57. Viewers enjoyed hate-watching it, which often made for Twitter comedy. And yet it ran three seasons on HBO (2012 to 2014).

I couldn't imagine how the company that built its reputation on quality television had given it one season, let alone three. But an acquaintance, who has Sorkin-esque tendencies himself, pointed out that while I might find Sorkin preachy, on HBO he was preaching to the choir.

Sorkin's scripts reflect the beliefs of the cutting edge of the baby boom -- which begins in 1944 -- just as they always have. Because that is where the money is.

And until now, that has been network and cable television's ace-in-the-hole. Baby boomers are both willing and able to pay the $100 a month or so that it costs for cable packages, which makes sense for a generation that has always focused on TV entertainment. The cohort that came before them adored films; the generation that came after looked online for amusement. But much of the baby boom grew up clutching a remote and channel surfing.

Conventional wisdom has it that they will have their graves wired for cable.

Maybe. But the oldest of the boomers are now hitting 72, which means they're retiring and they have a lot of time on their hands. The kind of time you can fill with re-watching and doing a part-time PhD in your favourite TV show. Or maybe lobbying for it to be resurrected.

C'mon, Wingnuts!

So I see the West Wing Weekly as something more than just another re-watch podcast. I think it's part of a bid to reboot the show, partly by luring the oldest baby boomers to online entertainment. Which will be tricky, since some Sorkin fans are just as tech-resistant as their favourite showrunner (see: the notorious email subplot in The Newsroom S1).

Then again, it appears Sorkin has suddenly decided to get with the online program. He just announced that he's joining Kevin Spacey, Christina Aguilera and other high-profile artists doing online courses for $90 at the much-satirized MasterClass.com.

Earlier this June, he and The West Wing cast did a reunion panel at that temple for TV fans, the ATX festival. A stop there was part of the Gilmore Girls' path to new life.

And if the Gillies can do it, why couldn't the Wingnuts? (They may need to work on their fandom name.)

But it doesn't bode well for conventional TV when one of its mainstays, a guy who thinks email is still a mystery in 2012, decides to take his schtick and his audience digital.  [Tyee]

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