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In recent years, the Internet — thanks to the proliferation of social media and streaming services, not to mention illegal downloading — has been cited for upending the television landscape. But way back in 1999, it was the very thing that got The West Wing on the air, according to creator Aaron Sorkin.
“The pilot did not test through the roof, it didn’t do great and NBC was on the fence about putting it on their schedule,” he recalled during a panel for the series Saturday at the ATX Television Festival.
Warner Bros. TV, which produced the series, came up with a creative solution to entice NBC. The studio invented four new demographics to show The West Wing’s potential appeal, which included households earning more than $75,000, households with at least one college degree, households where they subscribe to the New York Times and households with Internet access — a luxury in 1999 rather than a necessity.
“That’s what got us on the air and if you were to go back and look at the episodes with the ads in them, more than half the ads were for dot coms,” Sorkin said. “I’m grateful to the Internet for getting this show on the air.”
Sorkin was joined on the panel by stars Bradley Whitford, Dule Hill, Janel Moloney, Joshua Malina, Richard Schiff and Melissa Fitzgerald as well as fellow executive producer Thomas Schlamme.
Even before the pilot was made, Sorkin remembered the long process from script to screen for the political drama, which went on to win four back-to-back Emmys for best drama series.
“The first time around, I literally, I type, ‘Fade out,’ on the pilot and a few minutes later, Monica Lewinsky happened so there was a general sense… we simply can’t do this right now,” Sorkin said. “People will giggle. You got to wait a little bit. We did wait a little bit.”
During that time management at NBC also changed, which Sorkin viewed as a positive after receiving some interesting notes from the original team.
“I don’t do any network bashing but they wanted things like Josh [Lyman] to literally go out in a boat and help those Cuban refugees,” Sorkin said. Interjected Whitford, who played Josh: “Like Rahm Emanuel in a speedo.”
Added Sorkin: “This is just people talking and they had trouble with that.”
Even after the series was picked up, Sorkin recalled another problem he had writing the early episodes of the series once the show was picked up:
“Toby and C.J. were the two characters that I was having the most difficult getting the bat on the ball with,” Sorkin said. “I knew how good Richard and Allison [Janney] were and I knew how good these characters are. … Tommy would come into my office several times a day and say, ‘I really think you can give Richard and Allison more to do. I think you’ll really be happy with what you see.'”
The episode that changed the tide was season one’s “The Crackpots and These Women,” which began with a scene that Sorkin had written specifically to audition the two parts. “I really found out where true north was on Toby,” Sorkin said of the episode, which revealed why Toby wasn’t Bartlet’s first choice for the job. “I loved it. I wanted more of it.”
The team was able to really crack C.J. when Schlamme heard Janney singing “The Jackal” in her trailer between scenes. “We were wise enough to say, ‘Aaron, come listen to Allison sing ‘The Jackal,” and the next week at the table read, ‘The Jackal’ was in the script,” Schlamme recalled.
Said Schiff of Sorkin: “All you have to do it give him a little inking, a little spark and he comes up with brilliance.”
When the panel turned to fan questions, the questions turned immediately to Sorkin and Schlamme’s departure at the end of season four. When asked specifically about Sorkin’s final episode, which ended with the President’s daughter being kidnapped and the President signing the 25th amendment to temporarily step down as the commander in chief, he defended his decision to leave a cliffhanger for the new incoming showrunner, John Wells.
“[I was] trying to set the table for the people coming in. I didn’t want them to have to come back that July with a completely blank piece of paper,” Sorkin said. “I wanted to make a clean break of it and let them make these decisions. I was absolutely not trying to burn the Earth. I was trying to seed it.”
Moderator and former consulting producer Lawrence O’Donnell recalled returning to the writer’s room for season five after Sorkin had left and called it a “banquet. It was, look what the master has left us.”
But how that cliffhanger, and the series, was wrapped up remains a mystery to Sorkin, who said he still has never seen a episode from seasons five, six or seven. That decision was inspired by a call he received from Larry David the day his West Wing exit was publicly announced.
“Larry David left Seinfeld early too and he said, ‘Listen, this is very important — you can’t ever watch the show again,” Sorkin recalled. “Either the show is going to be great and you’re going to be miserable, or the show is going to be less than great and you’re going to be miserable. Either way you’re going to be miserable.”
Sorkin didn’t initially heed his advice and requested a copy of the season five premiere. “I put it in my VCR,” he said. “But it just felt like I was watching someone make out with my wife, it felt horrible. I couldn’t do it again.”
Although Sorkin did not work on the series for three of its seven seasons, those on the panel heaped praise on the series creator, who also received a standing ovation from the packed house at Paramount Theater.
“I went back to watch the pilot just recently and was shocked at how wonderfully everything fit together,” Schiff said.
Whitford echoed the same sentiment, and emphasized the length of Sorkin’s four seasons on the show, during which he wrote or co-wrote many of the 22 episodes per season. “That’s 11 feature films,” Whitford said. “It will never, ever happen again.”
Whitford, who later worked with Sorkin and Schlamme on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, praised the opportunity of The West Wing.
“It’s a miracle to get a job that’s not humiliating. It’s a miracle to get a job that is the creative experience of your life. It’s a miracle to get a job that is the creative experience of your life that is about something,” Whitford said. “Also, we were lucky because… we realized this is the first line of our obituary.”
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