Television at Christmas time isn't the same without an Aaron Sorkin series on the air. There may be those who criticize his cutesy fast-paced dialogue, smug characters, and propensity for turning his scripts into "teaching moments," but when it comes to holiday episodes, Sorkin is a master like no other. As a loyal viewer of Sports Night, The West Wing, and, for that ever so brief period, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, one of my favorite Christmas gifts each year was the reliably stellar television events—yes, for me, these were events—that Sorkin would produce.
He had a knack for capturing a holiday spirit in the lives of these politicians and TV executives, and then make it resonate in our own worlds. Along with the comedy and heartwarming nature of reconnecting with friends and relatives, Sorkin always also acknowledged the tragedy and hopelessness that inevitably haunts the holidays. But more than that, like the best Christmas stories of our time, there were always lessons: vignettes that capitalized on the paradox of the season, one that mixes generosity with capitalism, to remind us of the way we should be living our lives.
Take The West Wing's strongest Christmas offering, "In Excelsis Deo," for example. Toby is contacted when a homeless man—a Korean War vet—dies in the cold; the man was wearing a jacket Toby had donated to Good Will. Moved to find the man's next of kin, Toby discovers that the his son is also a veteran, and also homeless. Angered by the situation, Toby uses his White House influence to organize a proper military funeral for the man. When chastised by the president because his actions may have set a precedent for all veterans, Toby replies, "I can only hope so."
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was an admittedly uneven show, but "The Christmas Show" was one of the 2006's best-written episodes. Bit by the holiday bug, Matt decides to put on an entire Christmas-themed episode of the series' central late-night sketch program. He's met with unanimous derision from his jaded crew, who gleefully go about debunking Christmas legends. But when Matt devotes an entire five minutes of the broadcast to allow out-of-work New Orleans musicians perform a wrenching version of "O Holy Night," the Scrooges are silenced. Even in the face of hopelessness and devastation, the musicians use their platform to trumpet faith, optimism, and the necessity for good cheer...especially in the worst of times.
Then there's Sports Night, whose Christmas episode, "The Six Gentleman of Tennessee," is a seasonal reminder of the people who affect our lives even without us noticing.
While Sorkin is full steam ahead on the Oscar train, there is certainly a void left on television in his absence, particularly at this time of the year. That doesn't mean, however, that some of this year's holiday-themed TV episodes aren't worthy successors to the Sorkin throne. Here are seven holiday lessons from some of The Atlantic's favorite TV series.