Aaron Sorkin & Modern TV: An Ode to the American Playwright (Kind Of)
“You need an agent, Ainsley. You’re gonna be a star.”
“Used to be, you had to sing and dance.”
I can’t talk about the show yet; it isn’t time. For the next nine weeks I’d like to take some space at Digital Americana and review, explicate, and explore the world of The Newsroom. I want to do this because I believe the show is an important part of the universe of Aaron Sorkin’s America, which, whether you like his work or not, cares a great deal about the real America and especially your America and is specially important to both. But I can’t talk about the show yet. First I have to spend a little time unnecessarily rehabilitating my favorite writer. (Don’t worry; it won’t take long. The real column starts after tomorrow’s premiere and if you get bored you can always go over to Gawker and make yourself sad.)
A familiar trope of art criticism is to complain that the artist is resting on their laurels, that their work has become derivative of itself—or, worse, derivative of others’. Another familiar attack takes the opposite view: What is this? Give me the old stuff. Stick to your wheelhouse.
Recently, Aaron Sorkin has had the misfortune to receive a conflicted message from his fans and detractors: Great job with the Oscar! Now, cut the experiments and take us back to the long(ish)-running show you wrote and produced for four out of seven seasons in the middle(ish) of your career.
Tomorrow night, Sorkin’s latest ode to American idealism, The Newsroom, premieres its second season. The show’s first season debuted to a wealth of praise over the first episode and hiccupped mightily to a stampede of mixed reviews. Critics have panned the show’s portrayal of women, its perceived tone-deaf relationship with relationships, and many pined for more of the…whatever that made The West Wing such a phenomenal success. (Sort of. Among PoliSci majors. Mostly after it went to DVD.)
I’ve been waiting for almost a year for season two of The Newsroom, which premieres tomorrow night on HBO at whatever time it’s on. (I’ll be watching on the internet after midnight from an undisclosed location.) I am an unapologetic fan of Sorkin’s work, from A Few Good Men to Sports Night to The Social Network. I even liked Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, which almost everyone else hated, though by that point I was in the full throes of addiction. I’d been hunched in the corner of my bedroom tied to the radiator, sweating and cursing my sponsor as I waited for the next bump of dialogue-heavy American idealism.
“New Sorkin? What do you mean—“ [scratching] “—new?”
When Studio 60 premiered, Sorkin had been absent from The West Wing for two years and that show, which won seemingly everyone who touched it an award of some kind, was coming to a close. There was no continuing The West Wing without Martin Sheen; the show may have been dropping viewers, but it made it to the only logical end: the last days of the Bartlett presidency and the beginning of a new era.
Which is exactly what it was. The West Wing did for evening dramas what Queen did for longhair rock. It’s not that the show invented or reinvented dramatic television; at the time it came out there was ER and The X-Files and any number of police or hospital procedurals that arguably carved the way for its entrance. (Interestingly, personal favorite and enormous time-suck SVU debuted the same season as TWW.) What it did was take the best of TV drama and speed it up, raise its IQ, and bring back a sense of television as serial theater. ER comes closest, but at the time there was nothing as smart and funny and heart-wrenching as The West Wing on the air. ER was largely as good as it was because Michael Crichton, though weird, could write, and his cast was incredible to write for, but there was something different about Sorkin’s writing and Thomas Schlamme’s directing and whatever John Wells does with TV shows. To crib from an episode (and partially the brilliant Tom Hanks speech the episode itself borrows from), the scripts, if nothing else, believed that a person should reach for the stars and hope to walk among the crowded streets of heaven—and what ever that meant to you was fine with them.
At the same time, though, the show strove to shine a light on the American workplace, but more importantly the American sense of collective growth through small teams of dedicated people. I’ll get made fun of for this and I don’t care: The West Wing showed us certain things that we do every day that make everyday life possible, in a way that made the mundane feel euphoric. Yes, it was the White House (or for that matter a SportsCenter-style highlight show or a group of lawyers getting drunk before trial), but it was every American workplace at its best.
“On some level, The West Wing was clearly intended to be somewhat grounded in the real world; the show’s tendency to create plots built for maximum educational potential — with facts, figures and statistics filling discussions of policy and political intrigue to both bring viewers up to speed — makes that abundantly, and often boringly, clear,” said Graeme McMillan at TIME. “When it comes to sausage making stories, he’s the best there is. But keep him far, far away from this kind of soap opera BS,” said Chris Swanson at WHATCULTURE! of the first season of The Newsroom. And here, among the caps-locked titles of old and new, we have the essential matter, and it’s as old as criticism: People like Sorkin’s writing for what it is to them, and for nothing else. The West Wing made listening to writing both fun and important again—at least that’s how it felt—and writers of all stripes came out, in their time, to define what it is that was best made of those musical words. And we ate it up at whatever speed we wanted because as my little brother and favorite critic once said, “The West Wing is just so good it’s boring now.”
Everyone wants The Newsroom to be The West Wing, yet their critiques of Sorkin’s new show are often some of the attributes that made his earlier show so incredible. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker complained that the show lacks the energy of Sorkin’s earlier projects because it is set in the recent past, calling it “an odd structural choice” and “literally old news.” What she forgets is that The West Wing’s reprisal of the Clinton/Bush era White House was even older news, but it worked the same way all of Sorkin’s TV dramas do: through the writing. He’s also been open in interviews about a desire to look at the recent past and write for characters who do what we all would have done with the benefit of hindsight—and without the goal of influencing our behavior towards the future (at least not explicitly). The goal has always been to inspire through compelling drama, and the inspiring diatribes and quixotic character pursuits are and always have been a part of that drama, but not its endgame. The essential truth that the critics miss is that The Newsroom is Sorkin being Sorkin as he always has been and always will be: one part pioneer; one part self-conscious romantic; two parts actual Lewis & Clark-style pioneer, trapping his way across an old, old idea of an America that can always stand to raise its game—but most importantly, spinning a good yarn while he does so.
The most frequent complaint I read is that Sorkin’s female characters are great when it comes to workplace dialogue but turn into ditzy does whenever they speak to a male love interest. This is sometimes coupled with a criticism that his shows never portray same-sex couples and often gets wrapped into a larger criticism that Sorkin doesn’t know how to show romance without showing unrequited, teenage love written for characters that are ostensibly professionals at the top of their game.* This is the most consistent complaint I have heard, and I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising given the strong female roles of C.J., Abby Bartlett, and Harriet Hayes in Sorkin’s past. But I would invite the critics (specifically indiewire) to reverse the sexual roles in their head when watching episodes from season one. Everyone on the show does goofy slapstick idiotic things when they’re in love because everyone does goofy slapstick idiot things when they’re in love in real life. That’s kind of the point, I think. Sorkin is doing his best to show an intensely intelligent environment that deals with real, difficult issues, but that at the same time is populated with real human beings that fall in love and act bizarrely. And he has an hour to do it. And he’s also done it in every other show, including The West Wing, which all Newsroom haters uniformly love. Part of me thinks the critics’ problem here is less with Sorkin than with television—or perhaps it’s a product of the new level of television that Sorkin has raised our networks up to. Either way, it’s nothing new and even at its worst moments the writing blows the doors off its competitors.
(*I am choosing not to defend Sorkin’s lack of same-sex relationships because I can’t, except to say: look at when his former shows were on the air and the difference between LGBTQ then and LGBTQ now in both popular and civic culture. See also: the complicated Log Cabin Republican from The West Wing and the dressing down of his main character by a LGBTQ Romney supporter on The Newsroom.)
Which brings me to another odd criticism: “Sorkin’s America isn’t real. Everyone is flawless and knows everything—and you know it would never really go that way!” Well, yeah, of course it wouldn’t. Again, television. Peter De Jonge wrote that “with characters that have no flaws, it is impossible to give them significant arcs.” I have to wonder what these critics are comparing him to. The Wire? The “significant arcs” is a bit of a tell. Though gritty, well-written and comprising wondrously long and steady plot-arcs, The Wire is equally unrealistic if you’ve ever been to a courtroom, newsroom, police station, or ghetto before. But it feels real, and the dialogue is just as sharp as Sorkin’s. But it’s a different show with a different writer. The Wire’s characters (and Game of Thrones’s for that matter) are full of flaws, but so are Sorkin’s. The difference is that David Simon, David Benioff, and D.B. Weiss lead with them and lean into them, whereas Sorkin leads and leans into their interactions as a method to expose their flaws—at breakneck speed.
(Sidebar: I have my own problem with Sorkin that nearly every critic seems to miss. How does this guy get away with stealing his own lines over and over again? For proof, search for “sorkinisms supercut” on YouTube. The guy’s been using some of the same dialogue for decades and nobody cares; in fact, I think his harshest critics tend to miss it.)
For me, a particularly sad moment in Sorkin fandom was the reaction to Sorkin’s most public “failure.” Studio 60 certainly had its cringe-worthy moments, which made me glad to see Sorkin returning to more solemn subject matter with The Newsroom. I loved it, as did other Sorkin addicts, but what passed must have passed. Aside from the misfortune of being a show about late-night television at the same time as 30 Rock, Studio 60 tried to do too much. The comedy would work but the drama would sag. Or the fact that the comedy was being written by a word-fiend dramatic playwright would be placed in stark relief by the fact that its vehicle was a comedy show, and not a courtroom, a doctor’s office, or the White House. Sorkin’s scripts (and especially their timing) have always been funny, but they verge closer to the musically comedic dialogue of screwball than the punchlines of Saturday Night Live. He did his best to approximate the latter, but when you place his effort side-by-side with the dramatic struggle of a team of smart people trying to do good—a realm that is emphatically his “wheelhouse”—there tends to be some metal-on-metal awkward churning, like learning how to drive stick. Also, again, he was making a show about SNL at the same time 30 Rock was on the air. I’m glad that both shows are where they are in history, but timing and the ridiculous talent of Tina Fey played their parts. (That said, full disclosure: I rooted for 60 to succeed over 30 until four years after 60 was cancelled and I had moved into a house that had Netflix.) The show earned scorn from plenty, including Louis C.K., who has said that while he loved The West Wing he “hate-watched” Studio 60, brimming with excitement for the chance to see Sorkin “take so many big swings badly.”
After Studio 60, Sorkin wrote Charlie Wilson’s War, Moneyball, and The Social Network. I enjoyed those movies, especially The Social Network, and I was glad to see a writer who had inspired me through out most of my semi-adult life (and who was still alive) pick up his medium’s highest award. It was a bittersweet Oscars Night for me, though, as I was rooting for Winter’s Bone. It was the diametric opposite of Sorkin’s writing and David Fincher’s directing style and I fell for it like a child sent to sleep before the ice cream truck rolls by. Winter’s Bone was all tip-of-the-iceberg to Sorkin/Fincher’s avalanche, and for my money it just (barely) edged them out.
The Newsroom’s pilot episode popped out with a stunning speech from Will McAvoy about the loss of American dominance and a wistful look backward to a time when Americans rested on principles instead of powdered donuts. “We sacrificed, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.” Yes, he was referring to a time that included semi-forced patriotism, an idea of economic self-realization that amounted to a gendered rat-maze, and the American apartheid. I didn’t care, because I knew what he meant, I think, and it was musical, and funny. Because that’s all that’s ever mattered for me about Aaron Sorkin: a steady, surgically-written, smart script that challenges and inspires me while making me laugh out loud at the same time. And that’s been true with every work of his that I’ve seen. (I’ve never seen Malice, but I get the impression that it will test my rule).
Perhaps the show went on to set up one of the “significant arcs” De Jonge is looking for, I don’t know. I’ve only seen one season, and as I said I’m looking forward to the next with bated breath—and realistic expectations. Remember that the first seasons of both The Wire and The West Wing were not nearly as good as their successors, but they served to lay a foundation in which an immensely entertaining drama was allowed to play out. As always in approaching and reacting to Sorkin’s work, I’m hopeful.Close