We can't go back to the salad days of Aaron Sorkin

EVERY Wednesday night, I used to race to the downtown Berkeley BART station and wend my way to the last San Francisco stop, Balboa Park. Then I would walk up the hilly terraces to my boyfriend's place, or he'd pick me up in a long ago-junked Saturn. We'd make salad and pilaf and watch our TV shows.

What I'd give now, five years later, for a real California salad. We always had fresh local produce for those Wednesday nights, even in January. We learned our favorite combinations of spinach and avocado and beans and tomato, and it always went well with the Near East boxed rice pilaf. Now he's my husband and a much better cook, and he makes pilaf from scratch, but we're on the produce-bereft East Coast! Woe.

The TV shows are gone, too. Every Wednesday in the 2001-2002 season, we watched "Star Trek: Enterprise" and "The West Wing" — live, as they aired, because he didn't have TiVo. There are no new "Star Trek" episodes on TV anymore, although the movies and books keep coming, and my husband and I can still reliably have a half-hour conversation about "Trek."

And "The West Wing" is gone, too. At least we "West Wing" addicts have a sequel of sorts: Its creator, Aaron Sorkin, has a new show on NBC, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

It's all gone. San Francisco, early love with a new boyfriend, ubiquitous produce, our Wednesday shows: The whole ritual's blown to the winds.

This past week, I relived a bit of that time, because I watched all of "Sports Night."

That was Sorkin's first TV series, and like both his others, it's a workplace dramedy. It bewilders me that I watched more than 15 hours of a show in two days, and I'm even more stumped by the effect it's had on me.

I'm tired of Sorkin! I thought I'd enjoyed his dialogue and characters and watching more of his work would only please me more. Instead, I've gone off his style and find his quirks irritating.

I thought I was a fan, even fanatical. But it turns out that Sorkin's work doesn't actually reward deep fannishness. "Star Trek," like sci-fi in general, soap operas, professional sports and opera, rewards sustained watching. The more you learn about the domain, the more you get out of it. There's a learning curve, but once you get past the first few episodes or games, you start to appreciate nuances.

But "Sports Night" and Sorkin's other work reward the casual viewer more than they reward, say, the gal sick at home who's blowing through six DVDs in two days. It's chocolate mousse, not lasagna. Continued attention only reveals the unbalanced, unfulfilling homogeneity of the thing.

The entertainment that rewards the dedicated fan more than it offers the casual viewer gets a weird rap in our society. Sci-fi fans are nerds, classical fans are snobs, and who knows what people think of soap opera fans. It's as though enjoying something that requires an investment scares everyone else, makes them worry that they're missing out on something. So, if we can't tell from the outside whether a five-minute clip is a boring bit or a deep meditation on the essence of the form, then we stick a "weird" label on it and shy away.

And then those of us inside a subculture get picky and insular. Just because I'm at a stage in my Sorkin appreciation where I can tell when he reuses a plot, a character or a line from show to show, does that mean I should scold him or call him a hack? I wish instead I could look at those episodes with beginner's eyes. Oh, to enjoy those "Star Trek: The Next Generation" cliffhangers as I did the first time.

Oh, to be in new love again, avoiding the cat hair on the roommate's sofa and watching "Star Trek: Enterprise" (which was pretty bad) on a 1980s TV set. Oh, to feel the old love I feel now, with a million inside jokes in a home we share.

Maybe some Wednesday this year, I'll scare up some DVDs of shows we like — "Arrested Development" and "Battlestar Galactica" — and we'll make a salad and pilaf to go with them. The fresh greens will come round again, and for dressing we can use the infused vinegar his late mother made for us. I can already envision unscrewing that red plastic cap and smelling it, aged and piercing new all at once.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.