The Family We Make: Chosen Families of Whedon and Sorkin
Once upon a time, in a pub not too far away, I asked a friend of mine a question. I asked him to try to decide who would win in a war of words between Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon. When I was asking the question, I knew full well that it’d be a question that I’d have a very hard time answering myself even though I thankfully I didn’t have to. Answering your own questions in a public place isn’t a good idea and would most likely lead to a visit from men in white coats who are driving a van with a padded interior.
But that’s not to say that I haven’t been thinking about how I’d answer the question, mainly due to the fact that I have a lot of free time during bus journeys, and my mind tends to wander. When I thought about it, the only way that I could try to come up with an answer was to try to think about what the differences are between the two writers — what separates them and how those differences would make them stronger or weaker than the other. But I couldn’t help but coming back around to what unites them, what they share, what makes them great, what makes us keep coming back to the works that they have done. And above all else, what they do best is that the write families. Neither seems to have a great interest in writing traditional families, because that’s not where they find their inspiration. In the worlds and dimensions and workplaces of Whedon and Sorkin, family are the people who you spend your time with, who you see every day, who have your back, who will help you through the bad times as well as the good, who will inspire you. And most of all, they’re the people in your life who seem to have the most natural dialogue and give the best speeches.
(Warning: Spoilers for Sorkin’s and Whedon’s shows follow!)
Sorkin’s predilection towards this sort of unconventional family is evident in his television shows if not so much his movies (though sometimes it’s hard to rip The American President apart from The West Wing, not that that’s in any way a bad thing). Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 are all about families that are built in the workplace. Whedon’s leanings towards the unconventional family are most evident in Buffy, Angel, and Firefly. Especially Firefly.
Firefly is probably the Whedon show that has the most in common with Sorkin’s shows. The family on Firefly is a family that has for the most part agreed to work together. Some got on the ship for different reasons but they all ended up in the same place. Firefly is arguably Whedon’s biggest success despite the fact that it wasn’t a success at all and more than any other work that Whedon has done, it was a show that gave the characters a single place to call home where they could all interact through the course of the series. In Angel, the location of the “home” changed each season just as the show changed each season and through the run of Buffy the apocalypse-y nature of Sunnydale meant that the Scoobies had a lot of different homes too. Though for some reason, the homes in Buffy always seemed to house a lot of books.
Now, I can’t read minds or see in to alternate dimensions, so I can’t tell what might have happened if the geniuses at FOX hadn’t killed Firefly, bit I think that it’s a safe bet that in a show that was named Firefly, the constant main set for the characters of the show was probably going to be the Firefly Class ship (though if Whedon is in any way a fan of Red Dwarf, that theory could very easily be dismissed).
From the moment Sorkin started writing TV shows, he knew that giving his families a place to call home would be an important part of making the family dynamic of the show believable. And he seemed to realise early that naming the show after the place that brought the family together would provide a constancy through the run of the show.
Sorkin’s first show showed us the family that was already established in the place of work that existed in Sports Night simply by introducing a new member in to it. It’s not exactly a revolutionary piece of writing, but it served its purpose and served it well. Josh Malina’s Jeremy Goodwin stood apart from most of his colleagues for a good portion of the run of the show. It wasn’t until the father figure in the show, played amazingly by Robert Guillame, sent him out in to the world to prove himself that Goodwin realised that he had found himself in a family and, at the same time, Sorkin told us that without reservation or doubt that being smart was not a hinderance. Speaking through Robert Guillame’s Isaac Jaffe, Sorkin told us that “if you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
Families are supposed to accept you for who you are without any questions or reservations. Jeremy found that acceptance with Sports Night, and one theme that runs through most everything that Whedon does is acceptance. For Buffy, acceptance came first from the Xander and Willow, as well as, very briefly, Cordelia. Xander and Willow were already closer than brother and sister even if Xander was blind to how Willow really felt about him, which was pretty bad considering that he still had 20/20 vision back then. Though she was one of a very few Whedon characters that actually had a biological family member on the show, Buffy initially lacked the guidance of a father figure. As time went on, though, Rupert Giles became more of a father to Buffy than her own father ever was. Giles didn’t approve of Buffy at first and it’s fair to say that Buffy wasn’t crazy about him at first either. But they developed a relationship born out of respect. Whether it’s in the library of Sunnydale High School or in the office of the President of The United States, love comes from respect and respect is born from acceptance.
Whedon’s worlds are much more rag-tag than Sorkin’s are. Sorkin’s worlds are packed full of differing viewpoints and, to a certain extent, differing ideologies. But anyone who has found themselves there is there because they deserve to be. In Studio 60, Danny Tripp tells Harriet Hayes that god had no hand in the success that Danny has found. Danny worked hard to get where he is, and whatever it is that he has in his life is there because he has done the work and has gotten what he deserves for it. This work ethic, if not that particular belief, is true of all the Sorkin characters. Whedon’s method for putting a family together is slightly different. It’s put together more by chance than by choice, and each and every time the members of the family are totally different. Be they witch and werewolf, Angel and demon, or preacher and Companion, Whedon’s families are full of starkly different members. But here’s the thing, if you’re in a group or a club or a family where everybody’s different, then nobody’s different. It all comes back to acceptance.
Both Whedon and Sorkin seem to realise that one of the best things about family is that we’re always stronger when we have support than we are when we’re on our own. Both writers have always struck me as being very positive in their outlook on life. Whether or not that comes from their religious beliefs or lack of beliefs is a conversation for another day. But as good as they are at giving us hope (and I believe that Whedon and Sorkin are both supremely hopeful and optimistic individuals), they both know how to bring tragedy to the lives of their characters. Sometimes the tragedy is seeing your vampire boyfriend getting sucked into a hell dimension after you’ve stabbed him in the chest with a sword. Sometimes the tragedy is finding out that a lifelong friend has been hit by a drunk driver on the day that she’s just bought a new car. Whatever way you dress it up, tragedy is… tragic, and despite how any of the characters feel about it, it’s almost impossible to get through tragedy on your own.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the biggest tragedy in the works of either writer was the death of Tara in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Apart from the fact that it was, in typical Whedon fashion, a totally unexpected turn of events, it was made all the worse by the fact that Tara had only just “officially” been made part of the Buffy family. After a showdown with her biological family (which included Amy Adams, one of the very few crossover actors in the Whedon/Sorkin-verses), Tara chose to stay with the Scoobies, her chosen family, and they chose to have her as part of their family. But the real sign that Tara was fully accepted as part of the makeshift family was that Amber Benson was included in the opening credits of the show. She was included in the opening credits… for one episode. And she was included just so as to hammer home the fact that she was at last part of the group, that she was important, that she was loved as family. Losing a colleague is bad, losing a friend is worse, losing family transcends all of that. If you let it, it can destroy you.
That’s how Willow became the Big Bad of Season Six of Buffy. She lost someone who she herself made family. None of the Scoobies ever hated Tara, but it took Willow’s love for her to become family. And after Tara was taken from Willow through a senseless death (aren’t they all?), it turned out that the only thing that could bring Willow back from the brink of ultimate destruction was family. And in this case, it was Xander. Xander was the first person who ever accepted Willow and loved her (like a sister) for who she was. It was this love that ultimately stopped Evil-Willow from destroying the world. Willow could destroy the world, but she couldn’t destroy her adopted brother. Though if she was truly thinking rationally, she’d realise that destroying the world would almost definitely mean destroying Xander too.
Biological family members are few and far between in the works of both writers. The Bartlett brood are the biggest representation of a traditional family seen in any of Sorkin’s works, though more than once he’s built fantastic episodes on the very simple notion of writing a letter to a family member who is close in spirit but separated by geography. Joss Whedon only seems to allow flesh and blood family for teenage girls with super powers — Simon and River in Firefly and Buffy, Joyce, and Dawn in BTVS are the only times we get longterm exposure to actual family. Though Dawn’s inclusion as “actual” family could be a subject of debate, and both Willow and Amy are shown very briefly to have very controlling mothers. It’s necessary though to have some form of traditional family in the mix, because they’re important for purposes of comparison. You need them there to show that acquired-family is as important as the family that you’re born in to. You need them there to show that wherever you are or whatever you face, your family are the people who make you feel safe. Much more than blood or genetics, that’s what family is.
If you stack up Studio 60, Sports Night, The West Wing, Firefly, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Angel, you’ll find that you have close to twenty-three years worth of television. That’s twenty-three years of laughter and heartbreak, beginnings and endings, familiar scenes and surprises, in jokes and outtakes. You’ll find close to twenty-three years worth of family building and, most of all, you’ll find close to twenty-three years of the most natural and naturalistic dialogue that is to be heard anywhere on television. Part of what makes the Whedon and Sorkin families seem so convincing and so appealing is how they communicate with each other and the language that they use.
Like most everybody else in the world, I have found people in my life that have become like family to me and the reason that they are like family is because of how we communicate with each other. Often before we get to judge the people in our lives by their deeds, we have to assess them by their words and the language that they use. And certainly for my own part, I take an interest in people who make an effort to use language well. In this age when we have countless numbers of ways to communicate with each other, we seem to have mastered the art of saying as little as possible.
In television, this knack of saying as little as possible seems to have become a zen-thing and schedules are more-and-more packed with “unscripted” or “alternative” programming. This is basically a classier way of describing reality TV which appeals to the worst in us instead of trying to inspire the best in us. I dread the day when “alternative” is the word that is used to describe the shows that people like Sorkin and Whedon make.
What both writers realised and what they try to show us is that language is a beautiful, uplifting force. Language gives us strength, it lifts us up and it makes us strong. Anyone who’s heard Mal or Jed Bartlett make a speech or stand on principle doesn’t need me to tell them that.
Whedon’s brand of dialogue is perhaps more natural than Sorkin’s is. Whedon has the knack of hearing how people of all ages talk to each other, absorbing it and putting it on a page. Even if it can get exponentially suffix-y.
Sorkin’s brand is fired at you like a machine gun. By the time you’ve recovered from the barrage of words, you realise that you’ve just been hit in the brain pan by something educational and inspirational, but never preachy.
When my friend did give me an answer to the question that I asked him, he ultimately decided that he thought Joss Whedon would win the war of words, mainly because he thought that Whedon could write a Sorkin show more easily than Sorkin could write a Whedon show. And to be honest, on that particular point I agree with him. But in the war of words between the two, there are no losers. If we were to put the two writers to war, they’d very quickly realise how pointless that war would be and call a truce on a very public stage somewhere. And if we were lucky enough to be witness to it, we’d see that instead of fighting, they’d talk and laugh and throw around ideas like feathers in a pillow fight. And more than that, they’d make family out of us all.