Spent some of yesterday evening getting caught up on “Newsroom” with my daughter Toni. I liked it about as much as I liked “Studio 60,” but not as much as I liked “Sports Night” or “The West Wing.” I’m one of those in love with Sorkin’s dialogue, and I can ignore his Rodenberryesque didacticism and get past his evident belief that women are a strange species that men will never understand. The difference between the shows I love and the shows I only like is simple: how engaging the characters are.
But what is it, exactly, that makes the “Sports Night” and “The West Wing” characters so much more engaging?
Toni is the one who suggested the answer. I first heard the term “competence porn” from Elizabeth Bear and understood it immediately. It is delightful to watch someone be good at something, both in real life and in fiction. In real life, it fascinates us, and in fiction it pulls us closer to that character. We loved watching Josh work his magic, and CJ turn everything around, and, well, like that. The moments of competence porn in “Studio 60” and “Newsnight” are rare. Sorkin’s interests clearly lie in ethical decisions made by people you don’t expect ethics from, and that’s cool. But it doesn’t pull us in as well as watching someone be brilliant.
Competence porn isn’t the only way to make a character engaging–but if, as Sorkin does (and, come to think of it, as I do) you create characters who are prickly and dysfunctional, you need to find some way to make the reader care about them, and watching them be good at things is one of the better ways.