The downside is that he worked at his own peculiar pace. As a result, the cast and crew of the White House drama often sat around for hours waiting for Sorkin to turn in pages.
In Burbank, time is big money. And idle hands are a deal-breaker. So in May, NBC took back the show from Sorkin in a bloodless coup.
Is the show better off without him?
This season has been like walking into Starbucks for your cappuccino fix and having the barrista say, "Our steamer is broken. Can I interest you in a double espresso?" The jolt is still there but frankly, it's not as tasty a treat.
John Wells, one of the show's executive producers, is now The West Wing's commander in chief. He's best known for ER and Third Watch.
Not surprisingly, what he's given us in the first two episodes is a far more conventional series, one that carries over many aspects of the established style, but lacks its crackling voltage.
First and foremost, The West Wing has lost Sorkin's trademark turbocharged overlapping dialogue. There were three shows on TV that used to drive the closed-caption people nuts because of their pell-mell verbal assault: Gilmore Girls, The Simpsons, and The West Wing. Now there are two.
That's not necessarily bad news. Many viewers complained that they couldn't follow what was going on. So the more carefully articulated audio will appeal to them.
The visual style has certainly been altered. The first two episodes were filled with shots of various characters silently reacting to crucial plot developments. There were so many long, lingering close-ups it looked like a soap opera.
There didn't used to be time for such flourishes. The director was desperately trying to cram 75 minutes of Sorkin's dialogue into a 48-minute package.
The network obviously has placed a premium on telling stories that play out over the course of several episodes, such as the cliffhanger abduction of the president's daughter by terrorists. Tonight the first lady's anger emerges, and cracks begin to surface in the Bartlet marriage.
NBC clearly favors teasing the audience to return week after week. Sorkin, like The Sopranos' David Chase, wasn't all that interested in tying up loose ends.
One troubling development is the recent reliance on familiar TV faces. John Goodman (Roseanne) was totally unconvincing as hawkish President Pro Tem Walken. Tonight, the show will introduce Gary Cole (Midnight Caller) as Bartlet's new vice president, "Bingo Bob." Also new is William Devane (Knots Landing) as secretary of state. What's next? Bea Arthur as a filibustering senator?
Say what you will about the old regime, it rarely resorted to such trite choices. The West Wing should save the stunt casting for sweeps month.
There's still a lot to love about the show, such as its great core cast (although the loss of Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn character was significant).
And it still looks great. The West Wing is one of the few shows on television with a feature-film sheen. Of course, it retains its unique and intriguing setting.
Politics makes for great drama. Where else in prime time are you going to hear a character grouse about the chain of presidential succession: "Truman wanted the speaker [of the House] third in line because he used to drink bourbon with Sam Rayburn."
There is always hope that having new hands at the helm will result in fresher stories. If there was a problem with last season it was that the plots tended to meander.
Subpar storytelling was one of the factors that some cited to explain the precipitous 21 percent drop in Wing's audience last season. All kinds of theories circulated for the show's decline. But going head-to-head with a little ratings grabber known as American Idol played a big part.
So far, fans seem to be willing to give the new administration a chance. According to Nielsen Media Research and NBC, ratings this season are virtually indistinguishable from last year's at this time. And if the revamped West Wing fails to enchant? Well, viewers hold the ultimate veto power.
Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.