Before West Wing, Aaron Sorkin produced Sports Night. In the tradition of Mary Tyler Moore and W.K.R.P., Sports Night followed the trials and tribulations of a dedicated staff producing a second-rate sports news show in an oversaturated market. Soap opera-style office romances added a hook, but the show was cancelled by ABC after two seasons. High quality and the requirement of audience intelligence are usually cited as the culprits for the low ratings, but to be fair, all of Sorkin’s characters speak exactly the same way and repeat each other every couple of lines. It’s a peculiar style that not everyone – including the intelligentsia – will enjoy. Took me some getting used to.
But of course, what I’m writing about is the show’s handling of women characters. Viewed separately, you see two women in charge (Felicity Huffman and Sabrina Lloyd) who gossip, who have neurotic love lives, who sometimes act goofy or giddy. They also get the job done, no matter what else is going on in their lives. But if you back up and look at the whole show, you see an entire cast of men and women who gossip, have neurotic love lives, who sometimes act goofy or giddy, yet always get the job done.
Because Sorkin unapologetically examines the motivations he assigns his characters, there’s little chance of anyone reading the show as a rehash of stereotypes, or a representation of his views on how men or women “just are”. It’s also helpful that sometimes the stereotypes get gender-bent: after a bomb threat, it’s the guys who are terrified to go back in the building, and the women who are holding it together. And the fact that two women run a sports news show speaks for itself.
This is what mediocre TV writers don’t get. If you make all your women characters martial arts experts or presidents or successful career women who somehow also raise perfect children, you’re just switching politically incorrect stereotypes for politically correct stereotypes. It’s still stereotyping. It’s okay to write your characters like real people – some of whom conform (often deliberately) to stereotypes, and some of whom do not. Most people do a little of both. The trick is to give us a little insight here and there into why each character does what he or she does. It doesn’t take 5-minute dialog scenes that would slow down the action. Sometimes a camera lingering on someone after everyone else has left the room tells us everything about them.