Aaron Sorkin Has Asked the Same Question With Every Show: What Kind of Day Has It Been?

Photo: HBO

Endings matter. TV viewers are trained to look for — and expect — answers, on both micro and macro levels. Lucky for said viewers, Aaron Sorkin is more than willing to oblige. He’ll answer every goddamn thing. Sorkin often looks at finales as an opportunity to ask and answer one final question with regards to his shows: “What Kind of Day Has It Been?”

That title has been used four times in four separate Sorkin series. Each time, the question is answered unequivocally — the day has either been amazing or somewhat shitty, depending on whether it was a season or series finale. Let us look back.

Sports Night, “What Kind of Day Has It Been?” Originally aired: May 4, 1999
On the first “Day” in question, Casey (Peter Krause) struggles to maintain his relationship with his young son in the aftermath of his divorce, while co-anchor Dan (Josh Charles) pines for a lost love. Their producer Dana (Felicity Huffman) has purchased a camera to funnel all of her excess energy into, and associate producer Jeremy (Josh Malina) spends much of the episode cryptically hoping for a ninth-inning rally in a baseball game.

There’s much in this episode that represents what would become major Sorkin hallmarks in years to come. Casey’s fixation on showing his son that he loves him and his anguish at the thought that he may not be communicating that emotion well comes up time and again in the years to come for Sorkin protagonists, who are often weighted down by the burdens and responsibilities of fatherhood.

The episode also sees Dana’s fiancé unceremoniously dump her before informing her that she’s hung up on Casey. Who could be expected to put up with that? It’s a plot point Sorkin has returned to again and again, but most recently on — you guessed it — The Newsroom, where Maggie was dumped by a boyfriend because she was hung up on Jim, even though said boyfriend had known her for maybe two weeks (and probably less).

But despite all this conflict, this first “Day” ends on a positive note. Dana takes the end of her engagement in stride, as she and Casey share a moment. He, in turn, is able to express how much he loves his son. And finally, as the staff gathers to take an office photo, the show’s managing editor, Isaac (Robert Guillaume), miraculously returns from the leave he’s undertaken as a result of a recent stroke. Even Jeremy gets his ninth-inning rally, an apt metaphor for a show whose own ratings mirrored those of the struggling fictional show it depicted. (It would score a second and final season, but this would have worked perfectly as a capper had it needed to.)

What kind of day was it? Pretty good, actually. Thanks for asking.

The West Wing, “What Kind of Day Has It Been?” Originally aired: May 17, 2000
This finale is much more dire. With an in-medias-res beginning that implied awful things to come, the audience knew that no matter how the day’s minor matters were resolved, things were going to get significantly worse in the future. But which corner would the horribleness come from? The American pilot shot down over Iraq? The malfunction on the space shuttle — a shuttle containing the estranged brother of a White House staffer? Or President Bartlet’s town hall meeting at a college campus?

Point by point, these issues were resolved positively, with a successful extraction of the downed pilot and the safe landing of the space shuttle. The town hall meeting also went off without a hitch as Bartlet effectively blamed and exonerated the youth of America for the downfall of the country. (Shorter Jed Bartlet: “You’re apathetic, but the Baby Boomers ruined the country, so who can blame you?”) Of course, that opening scene had to pay off somehow, and the episode ends with the world’s worst assassination attempt (with handguns! From a nearby office building!), resulting in a remarkably effective season-one cliff-hanger.

What kind of day was it? Bad. And then pretty good! And then really bad.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, “What Kind of Day Has It Been?” Originally aired: June 28, 2007
By the time the series finale of the only Aaron Sorkin show that can be classified as an unmitigated disaster was made, everyone involved knew what its fate would be.

Because of that, perhaps, Sorkin just decided to wrap up every single loose end he could find. Interestingly enough, he wrapped them all up as positively as humanly possible. (This will come up again.) Each and every plot — from the weird romance of Danny and Jordan (which also entailed him trying to adopt her baby as she was/wasn’t dying in a hospital, and actively calling the baby his daughter, which she wasn’t, on any level); to the on-again/off-again love affair of drug-addict/“genius” Matt and religious-extremist/“genius” Harriet; to the terrorist hostage situation in Afghanistan involving a cast member’s brother (yes, this actually happened on this show); to the anti-American PR disaster surrounding the show’s star; to the hidden story of the unfair circumstances that drove our heroes from their show five years ago — was wrapped up in a tidy bow of all-consuming self-righteousness and bluster. In other words, this is a terrible episode of television.

But this “Day” is interesting for another reason. Awful though it was, it began to clarify a more prominent Sorkin trend, especially with regards to finales: The man likes happy endings, especially for those he deems worthy, and especially on shows that have suffered from endless criticism in the press. If nobody’s going to be nice to these characters, dammit, Aaron Sorkin will be.

What kind of day was it? The best.

The Newsroom, “What Kind of Day Has It Been?” Originally aired: December 14, 2014
Though centered around the events of a funeral for a beloved character (who is in much of the episode thanks to flashbacks), the episode is a largely joyous one that inexplicably reveals more character depth and pathos than most of the 24 episodes that precede it. (If Sorkin had bothered to do much of this from the first episode, this show might not have been such a curious failure.)

This “Day” opens with news of an unexpected pregnancy (revealed at the aforementioned funeral, no less), then spirals out to examine the joy and meaningfulness of fatherhood and how important it is to be just and true, and how those who are just and true will surely find love and probably get a promotion to boot. Somehow, it doesn’t end with Will McAvoy walking out of the ACN studios to find a cliffside on which to perform Slash’s guitar solo from the “November Rain” video.

What kind of day was it? Awesome. (Save for the funeral.)

On this “Day,” the Sorkin ideology is ultimately crystallized. At one point, Will McAvoy speaks about his deceased friend and declares that said friend’s religion was decency.

Really, this can be said of all of Sorkin’s beloved characters. Regardless of whether the audience agrees with him or not, Sorkin always makes sure that his protagonists are solidly aligned on the side of what he has determined to be moral and good. Because these characters possess such supreme righteousness and have such ultimate faith in the justice of an Aaron Sorkin universe, they are summarily rewarded with love, babies, good jobs, and — most important — the ability to lord their successes over those who have wronged them.