Jon Hein knows TV. In the late 1990s, he coined the phrase "Jump the Shark" when he founded the site of the same name. Since then, he's written about television everywhere from The New York Times to TV Guide. In his column for Primetimer, he shares his thoughts on what's new and good on TV and the shows on his radar for the coming week.
There's no such thing as a sure thing. John Cusack proved that long ago.
But there are names in the entertainment industry who buck that trend. We all have them – a favorite actor, director or TV showrunner. Tom Hanks. Quentin Tarantino. Jack Kehoe (trust me).
I choose to focus on a different part of the entertainment industry – the writers. We fall in love with certain characters or shows and often attribute those feelings to the stars speaking the words. Awards shows are all about the actors. The writers are often overlooked.
Not by me.
Bankable TV writers are my sure things. Tell me they penned the series and I'm there, regardless of who is starring and whatever the premise might be.
David Simon. Damon Lindelof. Vince Gilligan. Those are just a few of my favorites.
And then there’s Aaron Sorkin – the surest of sure things. The man loves to write, as many of us do, but no one can write for the screen like he can. His credits are impressive not for their box office success and critical acclaim, but for the diversity in the subject matter he has taken on.
The written word is all he needs to get you going. His dialogue is heads above all others. The most mundane conversations become intriguing. Sure he's preachy and his soliloquies are a bit much at times, but when it's right, it's poetry.
Look at his film writing credits…
A Few Good Men
The American President
Charlie Wilson's War
The Social Network
The Trial of the Chicago 7
I'm skipping his plays which include his most recent take on To Kill A Mockingbird. (Stay tuned Tony fans, I've got a Broadway pick for you to watch this week.)
Sorkin's four TV shows were hit and miss, but I'm glad I watched every one of them. Sports Night was ahead of its time, marrying his love of SportsCenter and behind the scenes TV drama. The West Wing was a game-changer. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip once again took us behind the scenes, but this time it was a sketch comedy show and it just happened to come out at the same time as 30 Rock. Bad timing, and not a great show. The Newsroom was well acted but got way too preachy leaving no one to root for.
Not all of these TV shows may be your cup of tea, but all of them have magical moments that only Aaron Sorkin can conjure up. He is THAT good. So if Aaron Sorkin is the guy who wrote the project, you bet I'll be there to watch and listen.
There are two Sorkin specials being served up on TV this week. Of course they'll be political with a strong liberal stance. But they'll also be the most entertaining things to watch all week.
It's a sure thing.
THIS WEEK'S PICKS
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote (HBO MAX)
Thursday, October 15th
They're back… and the timing couldn't be better.
The West Wing is a personal all-time favorite. It won every Emmy award of its kind and deserved each one. This fictional presidency would be welcomed in today's world.
Following up on the film The American President, Sorkin rose to the challenge of making everyday life in the White House compelling. It seems commonplace now to capture drama in the Oval Office, but The West Wing was something novel and completely different on the TV landscape during its time.
Martin Sheen got promoted from the movie's chief of staff to the commander in chief. A young Elizabeth Moss played his daughter, Zoey. Alison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Rob Lowe… the list of actors perfect for their parts is endless, making it feel like each of us were part of POTUS' staff.
This presentation will be a staged production of the “Hartsfield Landing” episode (s3 e14). Sterling K. Brown will step into the role of Leo for the late John Spencer. There are many "guest stars" to help get out the vote, and I'll take any excuse to see this magical group reunite.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (NETFLIX)
Friday, October 16th
This feature film was made for the big screen, but COVID took care of that. Aaron Sorkin wears both hats as writer and director, and critics are already calling it an Oscar contender.
Sorkin originally wrote the script in 2007 and did many rewrites over the years. The cast is top notch with Eddie Redmayne playing Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman (he openly lobbied for the part).
The story is as timely now as it was back in 1969. We all know how Sorkin does when he tackles a courtroom drama. Enjoy this one from your couch, and see how you handle the truth.
American Utopia (HBO)
Saturday, October 17th
I'm fortunate to have attended a good number of Broadway shows and musicals. The plays are gripping, but often long. Most musicals are cheesy (why are they singing everything?) and try way too hard.
American Utopia is an exception.
Stop Making Sense is my favorite concert film, so I was a little bit biased when watching David Byrne's latest offering on stage. The show is powerful and mesmerizing – so much more than a live concert.
I had the pleasure of meeting David Byrne after the show, and he could not have been more pleasant. He just put on this huge show and took the time to converse with me when I know he just wanted to go home. Class act.
Spike Lee captures the stage performance and tries to create that fascinating theater experience. It's a good reminder of what Broadway can do. Let's hope we get to check it out live again soon.
If there's quality TV that I'm missing, please let me know.
Wear a mask. Stay healthy, cool and safe.
Jon Hein is the creator of "Jump the Shark" and author of three books. Follow him @jonhein on Twitter.