Why Aaron Sorkin Left ‘The West Wing’


Many critics regard Aaron Sorkin as one of this generation’s preeminent writers: his career-defining series The West Wing won 26 Emmys throughout its television lifetime, he snatched up the 2010 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network, and a string of other nominations or award statues trailed after him almost wherever he set foot. With that said, as an individual, Sorkin has an unfortunately longstanding reputation for being anywhere from prickly to harshly overbearing, especially to his coworkers/employees. Sorkin’s departure following The West Wing’s fourth season was a surprising, messy moment with multiple perspectives regarding why the writer left at the arguable height of his pop culture fame — and revisiting the situation brings to mind differing, complicated opinions on Sorkin himself.


Aaron Sorkin Allegedly Isn’t Easy to Work With


Some of Sorkin’s less stellar moments in recent memory include his dismissive response to pushback over the casting of Javier Bardem as actor Desi Arnez in Sorkin’s biopic Being the Ricardos. Sorkin also drew fire for defending Netflix’s decision to not take down comedian Dave Chapelle’s highly controversial specials that included transphobic content. In 2014, Alena Smith, a member of Sorkin’s The Newsroom writers room, alleged that Sorkin “screamed” at her when she objected to an episode about sexual assault. Indeed, the episode was controversial when it aired, drawing widespread criticism for its disparaging tone toward the college campus rape epidemic. Sorkin’s response claimed that Smith wouldn’t “move on” from her concerns, so he sent her home for the day. (Smith later served as showrunner for Apple TV+’s acclaimed series Dickinson.)

RELATED: The True Story Behind Aaron Sorkin’s ‘A Few Good Men’

Also in 2014, leaked emails from the Sony Pictures hack revealed Sorkin thought it was easier for women actors to win awards because male roles demanded more effort (and, by implication, talent). In a similar vein, the writer has repeatedly drawn ire for the way he writes female characters.

To his credit, Sorkin has discussed in detail his past struggles with overcoming addiction. During the second season of The West Wing in 2001, police arrested Sorkin for possession of illegal drugs. “My big fear when I quit drugs was that I wouldn’t be able to write anymore,” he shared with Men’s Journal. “Because if you’re a writer and you’re on a roll — and I was on a roll when I was high — you don’t want to change anything about the way you work.” As of 2023, Sorkin has been sober for over 20 years.

Sorkin Insisted on Writing 99% of ‘The West Wing’ Episodes

President Jed Bartlet sits back in the Oval Office
Image via NBC

Since the series’ conclusion in 2006, several West Wing actors have spoken about their ringleader’s meticulous control over the series’ creative direction. Sorkin wrote or supervised almost every script during West Wing’s first 88 episodes. Taking the old 24-episode per-season, one season per year timeline into account, that’s an inhuman task for a single person. Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, a prominent West Wing guest star, called her time on the series a “profound experience” and praised the quality of Sorkin’s verbiage. But she also noticed none of the actors adjusted their dialogue or improvised during scenes. Her role as a political polling analyst involved complex math equations, so she asked Sorkin if they could adjust her lines to make the translation to sign language easier (Matlin is deaf). Sorkin replied she had to match the script exactly. Matlin doesn’t seem upset by this moment, but it evidences the iron fist by which Sorkin ruled his scripted kingdom.

As such, Sorkin missed script deadlines, episodes repeatedly went over budget, and without material to film, scheduled production days were halted. In a retrospective with The Hollywood Reporter, Sorkin revealed that he and executive producer Thomas Schlamme first eyed leaving during the third season. “It was an impossible decision,” Sorkin said, but he and Schlamme knew it was wise, and time, to pursue other professional ventures. John Wells, one of the series’ executive producers and its showrunner following Sorkin’s leave taking, told Empire Online Sorkin felt “exhausted” since at least the third season due to the Herculean task of crafting each episode.

NBC Wanted to Change ‘The West Wing’ Because of Sorkin’s Delays

Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman and John Spencer as Leo McGarry in The West Wing Noël Episode
Image via NBC

Perhaps unsurprisingly, NBC network executives wanted to limit Sorkin’s prized control. This intention was an obvious no-no for Sorkin, which is absolutely understandable to some extent in certain conditions. Many writers can attest that allowing another to hold sway over your creations is difficult, odd, and even terrifying. Nevertheless, it made sense from NBC’s perspective as a business to tighten up production and meet budget constraints.

Season 4 in particular saw pointed strife unfolding between Sorkin and NBC. According to Wells, “the network was very unhappy that Rob [Lowe] was leaving and wanted Aaron to craft larger stories for him to convince him to stay.” Sorkin, a dialogue-driven writer, refused to move beyond his signature style of characters discussing moral and sociopolitical issues. By the end of season four, Sorkin gathered his main cast together in the Oval Office set after they finished filming the cliffhanger finale and informed them he was leaving. At the time and in recent interviews, Sorkin claims he and Thomas Schlamme quit of their own volition. Wells asserts the writer resigned by accident in a meeting with NBC executives.

The Aftermath of Sorkin’s Departure

Photo via NBC

Either way, the result was devastating for the cast. Josh Malina said “there were a lot of tears and a lot of protestations” in the aftermath; Richard Schiff was also stunned but ultimately understood and supported Sorkin’s decision. “I wouldn’t want to change the way I worked if I was Aaron,” he told Empire Online. Four-time (for The West Wing) Emmy-winner Allison Janney expressed to The Hollywood Reporter how “it was a tremendously sad day and I’m sure I will never understand exactly all the reasons why that happened.”

On Thomas Schlamme’s part, he gave no indication of one day revealing all of his and Sorkin’s reasons. It may have been a conflagration of overlapping factors, and there are many sides, perspectives, and feelings attached to the story. Whatever the definite truth may be, Sorkin’s departure from The West Wing was complicated, contentious, and remains somewhat of a mystery.


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