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Three things Aaron Sorkin doesn’t understand: Comedy, sitcoms and women

What ‘Being the Ricardos’ gets wrong about Lucille Ball and television history

From left, Alia Shawkat as Madelyn Pugh, Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance in “Being the Ricardos.” (Glen Wilson/AP)
correction

A previous version of this article misquoted a line from the film. Desi Arnaz refers to Lucille Ball as “kinetically gifted,” not as having a “kinesthetic gift.” The article has been corrected.

Aaron Sorkin loves watching talented people do what they do best. In his latest film, the biopic “Being the Ricardos,” Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) demonstrates why her husband, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), calls her “kinetically gifted.” She envisions the now-famous scene from “I Love Lucy” in which her character, Lucy Ricardo, travels to Italy and stomps in a barrel of wine grapes. Ball realizes that her character needs to lose an earring in the vat for maximum comic impact. This epiphany happens in slow motion, tense music underneath, accompanied by the abrasive roar of the studio audience’s laughter. The original scene is fondly remembered because it’s funny. But there’s no trace of humor in this scene in the film, no lightness of touch. Sorkin’s interest lies in the competence, not the comedy.

Of all the writer-directors to take on Ball’s story, Sorkin is both a sensible and a terrible choice. His penchant for professional, powerhouse women with messy personal lives means he has been in training to make this movie for decades. (Think of Jessica Chastain’s tough-cookie title character in “Molly’s Game or any woman — younger than 50, that is — in “The Newsroom.”) But his fetishization of this archetype often veers into exploitative territory, as though engineered by that guy friend who shrugs and says: “What can I say? I like ‘em crazy!”

“Being the Ricardos” is not all bad: Kidman and Bardem share legitimate chemistry, while the supporting actors pull off their rapid-fire dialogue even when the script goes sideways. The jaded, sophisticated language, the glamorous Los Angeles architecture, the dramatic lighting — it’s all very film noir. (This might be an homage to Ball’s early roles in films such as “Lured” and “The Dark Corner,” or maybe Sorkin just digs noirs, as do I.) And I’ll admit, despite myself, that most of the emotional beats landed, even the one involving everyone’s favorite deus ex machina … J. Edgar Hoover? Still, there’s something amiss in “Being the Ricardos,” something beyond the familiar critiques of Sorkin: the too-clever-by-halfness, the masculine posturing, the preachy monologuing.

It’s that Sorkin isn’t a fan — of Lucy, of sitcoms, of any comedy that isn’t his own.

Because the sitcom has domesticity in its DNA — in the stories it tells and the way it typically gets watched — it is a more female-coded television genre than, say, the western, the game show or the legal procedural. In my forthcoming book, “Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television,” I look at the female writers and performers such as Ball, Madelyn Pugh (“I Love Lucy”), Gertrude Berg (“The Goldbergs”) and Peg Lynch (“Ethel and Albert”) who adapted the sitcom from radio to television. In this translation, they used the form of the situation comedy to argue for their own professional autonomy and to communicate their value to a growing media industry at midcentury.

How do you write political satire when politics are a farce?

As television was finding its voice and its viewership, these writers and actresses asked: Who better to tell stories for and about families than America’s hard-working wives and mothers? With every joke about a girl playing dumb or a housewife seeking an outlet for her creative energies, Pugh and Ball wove themselves, as professional women, into the future of American television. The situation of their shows focused on the daily challenges of running a home and caring for a family, but the comedy showcased for audiences and executives alike what a female perspective had to offer television: relatability, hilarity and heart.

Still, Sorkin told the Hollywood Reporter, “I Love Lucy” is “not a show that if we took a fresh look at today, we’d think was funny, I don’t think.” It’s a sentiment that echoes the arc of his career, which has found him turning away from — and sometimes scoffing at — the form of the sitcom and the kinds of humor it emphasizes. The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch has described Sorkin’s television debut, “Sports Night,” which ran from 1998 to 2000 on ABC, and which phased out its laugh track by its second season, as a “quasi-sitcom.” With “The West Wing,” in which he gave Allison Janney a pocket full of zingers to sprinkle down the hallways of the White House, he began to show that while he loves the comedy in politics, he has never cared about the politics of comedy. That came through most clearly in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, his short-lived, defiantly unfunny drama about a late-night comedy-variety program, the failure of which was cast into relief by the triumph of Tina Fey’s actual sitcom about the same subject, “30 Rock.” (Sorkin made a delightfully self-effacing cameo in the fifth season of “30 Rock,” in which he walks and talks with Fey’s Liz Lemon, warns her to shut up about “Studio 60” and whines that no one pokes him on Facebook. “I’m cool!” he insists.)

For Sorkin, comedy needs to be cool, but it should be fast and sleek, too. It should taste like a shot of whiskey and feel like getting swiped by an Italian sports car. Mass-market comedy, meanwhile, is an accommodating, effeminate way to assert your worldview. The smart, aspirational heroes of the Sorkin-verse can be witty, acerbic or ironic, but they are never zany or out of control. Even Janney’s wit serves mostly to demonstrate that she can hold her own in the boys’ club of the executive branch. No wonder Sorkin looks down on — or, at least, is baffled by — the broad, slyly feminist slapstick of “I Love Lucy.” And no surprise that he’d rather picture Ball as a worldly femme fatale, droll but not goofy, who “kills” every week (comically speaking) and whose only weakness is, as the noir demands, a man.

The greatest compliment Sorkin can pay to Ball is that she was better than the material she nurtured, micromanaged and bled for. This explains, in part, the casting of a pensive, porcelain-skinned Kidman and a sexy, charismatic Bardem, neither of whom makes for plausible sitcom actors. The fans complaining that Ball should have been played by Debra Messing of “Will & Grace” miss the point: Messing is too gifted a sitcom actor for a movie that doesn’t respect the form.

'Being the Ricardos' tarnishes Golden Age TV

In Sorkin’s version of events, Ball’s commitment to sitcom craft indicates that she deserved a career as a “serious actress” in movies written by, presumably, men like him. This is the only conclusion one can draw from his psychologizing account of her work, which turns even her lightest on-screen gestures into plodding signifiers of anger and grief. When Ball agonizes over the placement of flowers in a dinner party scene, a bit of prop work the character calls the “building blocks of drama,” for example, it must be a reaction to her husband’s infidelity. It couldn’t possibly speak to her pursuit of excellence, not on something like “I Love Lucy,” which Sorkin refuses to acknowledge as remarkable for its own sake or on its own terms.

Even worse, Sorkin makes his characters do the hit jobs on themselves. “We’re not doing ‘Uncle Vanya,’ ” William “Fred Mertz” Frawley (J.K. Simmons) grumbles, referencing Ball’s perfectionism on set. And in response to a session of bickering between actors at the weekly table read, writer Pugh (Alia Shawkat) turns to her partner, Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy), and quips: “That, right there, was funnier than anything you’ve written so far this year.”

I’ll admit I laughed, but it was at the audacity of the moment: Did Sorkin just brag about his own dialogue in the dialogue? By using Pugh as a mouthpiece, he asserts his writerly dominance over the team at “I Love Lucy,” certainly over Carroll, even over Pugh herself. Throughout the film, she is marked as the smartest guy (or gal) in the room, but I question whether she would appreciate being deemed the nicest house on a crummy block. As with the film’s treatment of Ball, the implication is that she is too good for the feminized media forms she helped create.

“Being the Ricardos” suffers from the heavy hand of Sorkin-the-showrunner. I hear him in Pugh’s lecture on how the show “infantilized” Ball to garner cheap laughs; in Frawley’s melancholy monologue about how a man dies a little the first time he’s called old; even in Ball’s line to Pugh: “I care about what’s funny. I don’t see myself caring about a woman’s perspective from a new generation. I care about you.” If ever an articulation of Sorkin’s feminism was needed, this is it: He dotes on the strong, messy women he writes, even giving them snappy lines to say, but he doesn’t care enough about their perspectives to stop speaking for and through them.

Aaron Sorkin might not love Lucy, but I do.

By co-opting Ball’s biography this way, Sorkin bolsters his brand of slick, principled, quality drama, foregrounding his own authorial persona at the expense of his subject. In the process, he reveals where his true allegiances lie: with himself.

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