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From Sports Night to Studio 60: Vulture Ranks Aaron Sorkin’s TV Characters

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On Sunday, aughts television auteur Aaron Sorkin will unleash another fiercely idealistic, alarmingly co-dependent, and unnaturally articulate ensemble upon the world. Many of The Newsroom characters will be familiar to the Sorkin faithful — the kind of people who remember Pixley from Sports Night, or can quote Leo’s Big Block of Cheese Day speech in full — because most of them owe serious debt to the fast-talkers who came before, and whom you side with on Newsroom may very well depend on whom you loved on Sports Night or The West Wing (or, um, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.) This seemed as good an excuse as any to rank the old characters, and so Vulture did — though we would like to note that the process became more emotionally draining than we could possibly have imagined. Tears were shed. Tough choices were made. And here now is our ranking of all the Sorkin television characters, from worst to best.

38. Harriett Hayes (Sarah Paulson), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
There’s a speech in episode two in which Matt Albie rhapsodizes about Harriet’s “knockout” talent: “There are maybe 50 guys in town who know how good she is.” Could those 50 guys please come forward? Because the rest of us are trying to figure out how on earth Sorkin decided to build a sketch comedy show around a deeply unfunny, proselytizing female lead.

37. Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd), Sports Night
When Sorkinese goes wrong, it goes terribly wrong — as exemplified by Natalie, who turned the rhythmic, witty banter into a grating mix of perkiness and yelling. She’s also kind of a bully in romantic relationships. Free Jeremy!

36. Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), The West Wing
Pouty, shouty, and she flirted with Danny right in C.J.’s office. She got a hostage negotiator killed, and as punishment, she vanished after the first season, never to be heard from again.

35. Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss), The West Wing
She let Charlie put oregano in chili! Bleh. Plus, anyone who dates Jean Paul for that long basically deserves to be kidnapped.

34. Sally Sasser (Brenda Strong), Sports Night
Her body was put together by a technician very close to God. Her brain was put together by the assistant night manager at 7-11. And her story lines were put together by someone with no idea how women navigate sexual politics.

33. Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Walk away from the news cameras, dude. Just Walk. Away.

32. Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
That Afghanistan situation really was a shame but: Yeah, he wasn’t funny.

31. Kim/Elliot/Chris/Dave/Will (Kayla Blake, Greg Baker, Timonth Davis-Reed, Jeff Mooring, Ron Ostrow), Sports Night
They had some valuable suggestions for play of the year, but generally, the control room characters served only as cogs in the Sorkin echo machine.

30. Suzanne (Merrit Weaver), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
We get it! She’s green! Sorry, Suzanne, but there’s no glory in being Matt’s assistant. This stab at another acolyte-boss relationship never quite worked.

29. Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Why would you put the delightful Danny Concannon on a comedy show and not give him jokes? (Follow-up: Why would you put anyone on a comedy show and not give them jokes?)

28. John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), The West Wing
“You know something, Josh, sometimes I wonder if I’d listened to you two years ago, would I be president right now?” Nope, probably not. That’s why we don’t have affairs with socialites!

27. Margaret Hooper (NiCole Robinson), The West Wing
Her loyalty to Leo is admirable, but Margaret was just a little too quirky for WW. Given how seriously everyone takes protocol and propriety, do we really think Margaret practiced forging the president’s signature?

26. Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), The West Wing
She’s a Republican! She’s Southern! Don’t tell her how to be a feminist! On her good days, Ainsley was actually a delightful foil for Sam, but on bad days, she tearfully stood up for her co-workers and insisted to her GOP pals that they were, sob, “patriots.” Oy.

25. Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Bradley Whitford made maniacal devotion to Jed Bartlet seem charming — cute, even. But Danny’s maniacal devotion to Jordan was anything but. It was creepy, stalkerish, and deeply off-putting. (And those turtlenecks were no one’s friend.)

24. Jack Rudolph (Steven Webber), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Give the man credit: He was as uncharmed by the Studio 60 cast as the rest of America. He spoke for us! Or he stared snidely for us.

23. Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker), The West Wing
If you can forgive her season-long cockblock of Donna, then Amy deserves some respect for her commitment to feminism and scaring the hell out of Josh. Bonus style points for the cell-in-the-stew move.

22. Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), Sports Night
Yes, she has moxie; yes, she fights the good anti-network fights. But how can anyone possibly forgive the worst all-time dating plan in recorded relationship history? Date other women for six months? Unforgivable.

21. Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin), The West Wing
She’d rank a lot higher if she’d never chosen Al Kiefer over Josh.

20. Matt Albie (Matthew Perry), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Studio 60 suffered a misplaced obsession with two will-they-won’t-they romances, one between Matt and Harriet, and the other between Jordan and Danny. It was bad for all of them (and for us! ho boy), but Matt seemed to escape with at least a little bit of character still intact.

19. Will Bailey (Josh Malina), The West Wing
How do you fill Sam Seaborn’s shoes? You can’t. But being a guy who’s an officer in the Air Force, who can tolerate pockets full of olives, and who can get a dead guy to win an election in the California 47th is a good start.

18. Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), The West Wing
Her final scene in “Two Cathedrals” is still the most powerful ghost-conversation dream sequence that has ever made it to television. R.I.P, Mrs. Landingham.

17. Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), The West Wing
The cutest Midwestern turned Canadian exposition fairy you ever did see! How dare Sorkin keep her away from Josh.

16. Jeremy Goodwin (Josh Malina), Sports Night
Sports Night is in many ways told through Jeremy’s eyes: It starts on his first day, he’s the only character to have any voice-overs, and as Natalie likes to point out, he’s always, always right. (Especially about how gross eggnog is.)

15. Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield), The West Wing
He’s responsible for The West Wing’s secret best character, Gail the gold fish, and his romance with C.J. is one of the show’s enduring joys.

14. Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), The West Wing
“We had a deal. Do you get that you have M.S.? Do you get that your immune system is shredding your brain? And I can’t tell you why. Do you have any idea how good a doctor I am and that I can’t tell you why?” (Bonus screwball scene.)

13. Nancy McNally (Ana Deveare Smith), The West Wing
How many people can call Admiral Fitzwallace a sissy? One.

12. Charlie Young (Dule Hill), The West Wing
Charlie’s deadpan is good, but his doe-eyed, “I just found the medical form that is going to undo my beloved boss’s presidency” face is heartbreakingly great.

11. Casey McCall (Peter Krause), Sports Night
Blame any and all Casey-Dana annoyingness squarely on Dana, who came up with that terrible date-other-women plan. Casey just wanted to love.

10. Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Consider the difficulties she faces: a tragic sketch comedy program, a jerky boss, a slightly stalkery former addict boyfriend, a mob of vengeful Christians, and an insane Afghanistan-hostage-slash-emergency-pregnancy plot. And she keeps fighting. Jordan was poised and plucky; she deserved a better show.

9. Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), The West Wing
In addition to being the prettiest speechwriter in history, he’s a nut for dental hygiene. He could have cured cancer. And one day, he’s gonna be president.

8. Admiral Percy Fitzwallace (John Amos), The West Wing
“Did you change shampoo?” “Beat that with a stick.” “No, but could you tell me more about Jackie Robinson and breaking barriers?” The noble Fitz, master of the one-liner (and the sea).

7. Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), The West Wing
Everyone in the Bartlet administration takes his or her position extremely seriously, but no one takes it quite as personally as Josh does. Not even a bullet could dampen his enthusiasm for governing. (Or for bantering with Donna, which is a whoooole other can o’ worms.)

6. Isaac Jafe (Robert Guillame), Sports Night
Sorkin loves writing noble leaders, and Isaac Jaffe was his Ur-hero: sardonic but not unkind, brilliant but not condescending. Plus any time anything involving grating cheese comes up, the first thing that pops into our mind is “it’s not something I hate … “

5. Leo McGarry (John Spencer), The West Wing
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey, you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”

4. Dan Rydell (Josh Charles), Sports Night
He loves Hillary Clinton. He dreams of growing a goatee. He outsmarts network executives by delivering a stirring monologue on the effects of drug abuse. And he worries about the “menschy thing to do.”

3. Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), The West Wing
“What’s next?” What isn’t? He’s brilliant, he’s funny, he’s wise, and he puts on a jacket better than any ten men combined.

2. C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), The West Wing
If all the Sorkin women were as classy, self-assured, and legitimately funny (the turkey pardon!) as C.J., we’d never have had the Sorkin woman argument in the first place. Also, Studio 60 might have made it through two seasons.

1. Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), The West Wing
He has Bartlet’s smarts and fury; Leo’s prickly charm; C.J.’s comedic gifts; Josh’s loyalty; Sam’s moral center. Toby is the quintessential Sorkin character, without the self-indulgence, and he brings out the best in everyone around him. Plus, he bought that house.

Vulture Ranks the Sorkin Television Characters