Aaron Sorkin famously exited “The West Wing” after season four, and he revealed in a panel at the ATX Festival in Austin, Texas on Saturday that he still hasn’t watched the three seasons that followed.
He tried watching the first episode of the fifth season, but only made it about 20 seconds in before he had to stop. “It felt like I was watching someone make out with my wife — it felt horrible,” he told the crowd at “The West Wing Administration” panel, which also featured director Thomas Schlamme and cast members Bradley Whitford, Dulé Hill, Janel Moloney, Joshua Malina, Richard Schiff and Melissa Fitzgerald.
He recalled that when news broke that he was leaving the show, “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David — who left his series after the seventh of its nine seasons — advised him not to watch the show. “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,” he said David advised him. “Either way you’re going to be miserable.” But Sorkin dismissed his advice as David’s “professional” misery.
But he learned the hard way that David was right, and still doesn’t know what happened after he left. “I was not trying to burn the earth behind me. I was trying to seed it,” he said of the climactic season 4 finale.
Sorkin recalled that the initial pilot for “The West Wing” didn’t test well, but that Warner Bros., the studio behind the drama, created new demographics to push NBC and help recruit new advertisers. Back in 1999, one of those groups — households with Internet access — proved prophetic, as dotcoms flocked to the first episode. “I’m grateful to the Internet for getting this show on the air,” said Sorkin.
The show has since found new life among viewers on Netflix. Sorkin acknowledged he was grateful for the renewed attention, pointing to the young fans in the audience. “I’ve got to learn how to use Netflix,” he joked.
Sorkin talked at length about his writing process, admitting he struggled with finding deeper roles for Toby (Richard Schiff) and C.J. (Allison Janney). For Toby, it took the episode “The Crackpots and These Women,” from the first season. “I really found out where true north was on Toby,” Sorkin said, explaining that he realized Toby’s role was to challenge Bartlet. As for Janney, the cast heard her singing “The Jackal” in her trailer, and soon enough, Sorkin worked the song into an episode.
The cast said Sorkin was skilled at mining their real lives and personalities for the characters. “There is absolutely no distinction between my political point of view and Josh Lyman’s point of view,” said Whitford. Schiff recalled suggesting to Sorkin that Toby might play with a Spalding ball, and that ended up a plot point as well.
The actors heaped praise on Sorkin for his writing, opening the panel with a standing ovation:
Earlier in the day, “West Wing” co-executive producer Kevin Falls (who is now showrunner of Fox’s “Pitch”) was asked about the possibility of a “West Wing” reunion or reboot. He said the question had come up at a cast dinner, but that “it’s had its time.”
The panel wrapped with a nod to actor John Spencer, who played chief of staff Leo McGarry and died during the run of the series in 2005. “If you look up the definition of actor, you would see his picture,” said Schlamme.