With just four more episodes left, another Aaron Sorkin television serious will soon finish its short lived run. With The Newsroom, Sorkin returned to familiar territory by taking us behind the scenes of a TV show a la Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. In fact, one might say that The Newsroom serves as a second iteration of Sports Night, just with a bigger budget and on a more forgiving network (when it comes to ratings). However, with The Newsroom, Sorkin takes on CNN and FoxNews instead of ESPN. So, inherently, the stakes are higher.
But, unfortunately, The Newsroom has found only a small viewership and limited critical support. In part, because some people view the show as a rehash of old Sorkin tropes, while others have complained the Sorkin’s writing is too didactic, preachy and liberal. This last slight has somewhat dogged Sorkin’s television work since the beginning, though critics have grown less forgiving throughout the years. However, where Sports Night was considered a critical darling despite its low viewing numbers, The Newsroom has not been as well received. Critics praised Sports Night for its “…intelligent dialogue and a willingness to grapple with thorny issues…” (Barry Garron, The Hollywood Reporter) where as The Newsroom has been called a “blend of arrogance and contempt” (Glenn Garvin, The Miami Herald). So what happened?
First, I must admit that, though a Sorkin junky, my favorite of Sorkin’s four forays into television remains The West Wing. Though the show contains many of the same elements found in The Newsroom or Sports Night, the political setting furnishes a level of drama and importance that even The Newsroom fails to sustain. Also, shockingly enough, the major traits of Sorkin’s characters, intelligence and arrogance, sincerity and idealism, seem more believable, and perhaps just more bearable, when applied to politicians. And though Sorkin always presents his characters, no matter their occupation, as extremely dedicated and obsessive workaholics, it means more when that characters are running the country as opposed to running a late night comedy show. Also, that heightened level of urgency kept some of Sorkin’s bad habits, such as his tendency to create ridiculous relationships for his characters, at bay. In fact, Sorkin limited his temptation in The West Wing to incorporate his usual work place love affairs which feature so prominently in Sports Night, Studio Sixty and now The Newsroom (C. J. and Danny aside). Yet, he still managed to craft highly individualized characters for whom I cared a great deal.
All this said, I still think The Newsroom is one of the best things on TV. Now, TV critics (like Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker) tell me I think this because I’m an effete liberal elitist who holds up Sorkin’s shows while decrying, and generally not watching, everything else on television. That I like watching Sorkin because it makes me feel smarter than everyone else. Maybe. I suppose those might be the same reasons given for someone who watches The Daily Show or The Colbert Report (which rarely receive such harsh criticism from the mainstream media). It seems that few critics believe that someone just might watch Sorkin to be entertained. However, I would like to offer three simple reasons why I continue to watch and enjoy The Newsroom, and why I hope Sorkin’s recent comments about leaving TV forever turn out to be a severe exaggeration!
1. Idealism: Sorkin’s characters suffer from extreme cases of idealism. Sometimes that idealism lies hidden beneath a protective layer of cynicism and arrogance, but eventually germinates and becomes the character’s driving force. It’s not a simple or naive form of idealism, but something with which the character must struggle. In Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes shows like Sports Night and The Newsroom, characters must pit their ideals against cold realities like ratings and profits, where in The West Wing idealism competes with political capital and winning elections.
Critics complain that Sorkin’s idealism turns to syrup. That it comes across as didactic and preachy. And I won’t deny that Sorkin’s characters often rise up on soapboxes to give rousing monologues and stinging soliloquies. But this merely reflects the landscape in which they exist. Sorkin gives his characters strong beliefs, powerful communication skills, and readily available bully pulpits. Do we imagine that Billy O’Reilly or Barrack Obama only orate via their public personas? I seems to me that what the critics might find disingenuous is the fact someone’s off camera personality might be as passionate and prone to pontification as their on screen selves. That all politicians and newsmen aren’t merely paid actors, and when the lights go down, they could care less about causes and what’s right. But part of the charm of his characters comes from the fact that they, with all sincerity, love what they do, believe that what they do has importance, and want to do it as best they can. But I’m sure that can come across as being self-important.
Sorkin’s characters face the status quo and decide to rail against it in the name of integrity and righteousness (or what Sorkin haters would refer to as self-righteousness). His shows make me ask myself in what do I believe and what am I willing to do in support of those beliefs. His characters seek to make the world in which they find themselves better. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
(Sidenote: In writing this post, I read several critics complain that Sorkin believes his audience to be stupid and in his arrogance, writes down to them. At the same time they essentially call those who like and defend Sorkin’s work stupid for not seeing his flaws or how he manipulates them. Sorkin. It seems you either love him or hate him. But I must ask why, if you hate his work, must you also hate those who enjoy it?)
2. Dialogue: Sorkin is best known for his dialogue. Rapid-fire is one of the more common descriptors of what Sorkin does. It moves. Fast. But to lay the specialness of Sorkin’s writing on the shoulders of mere speed is to miss the point.
Sorkin’s magic lies in the pacing of his words. The beats and the rests, the changes in tempo. Anyone can write words and ask people to repeat them quickly, but few can create music. At least, that’s what Sam Waterston, from The Newsroom, calls it. He says that “Aaron writes the music of American speech.”
Sorkin first wrote for the stage. After years of theatre going and earning his BA in musical theater, the echoes of Edward Albee, Jason Miller and Shakespeare ricochet all through his work. Sorkin seems to recognize that his job as a writer isn’t to create true verisimilitude or to recreate how people actually speak. Instead, he attempts to capture the essence of American patter, its rhythms and meters. Many have said that Sorkin is a romantic not a realist, and this applies to how he renders his characters’ dialogue.
Some criticize Sorkin for his use of big words (as sign of arrogance some say, though I suspect it merely reflects that the characters he creates are well educated and well read). However, Sorkin’s dialogue works wonders with small words. “Okay.” Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous words in the Sorkin universe. Yet he uses it masterfully, to slow down a monologue, to provide a beat, to encompass a character’s entire reaction to some circumstance. Each time “okay” pops up in his dialogue, it does different work. Sorkin doesn’t need big, polysyllabic words (yes, I know okay is polysyllabic, but it’s not big) to compose his verbal symphonies.
I know some people hate “Sorkin speak.” One critic actually said is nauseates him. I for one can be happy to turn on The West Wing, close my eyes, and just listen, tapping my toes to Sorkin’s music.
3. Humor: Aside from Sports Night, most classify Sorkin’s shows as dramas. And even Sports Night didn’t fit the traditional sitcom mold (for instance, Sorkin fought to remove the laugh track). However, all of Sorkin’s writing integrates a humor that achieves laugh-out-loud levels of funny.
I often have trouble explaining what makes it so funny. Sorkin doesn’t write your typical sitcom kind of jokes. He doesn’t have to dip into the extreme or the crass to make us laugh. In fact, many complained that in Studio 60, when it came to Sorkin’s attempt to write “traditional comedy,” too many of his sketches fell flat (though, to be fair, one might argue that Saturday Night Live’s sketches often suffer a similar fate). Though he often harkens back to the screwball comedy (Sorkin is nothing if not nostalgic), Sorkin’s humor comes organically from his characters, their interactions and their dialogue. It happens on the level of the word, the sentence. He weaves it throughout the fabric of his shows so that they are often as funny as they are moving or thoughtful.
Comedy clearly serves as an inspiration and draw for Sorkin. Just look at some of the actors with whom he’s chosen to work: Matthew Perry, D. L. Hughley, Simon Helberg and now Olivia Munn. Some say Sorkin doesn’t create characters, just ideas in clothing, but I think the best comedy comes from character, and if I’m right, perhaps Sorkin handles character creation with more deft that one might first realize.
Bonus for Writers: Another joy of watching Sorkin, for me, comes from the fact that the man is a writer’s writer. His shows are all about writing. They hold discourse on the creative process: the difficulties, the obsessions and manias that revolve around writing and being a writer. Dan confronts writer’s block on Sports Night, Sam skips a date to “nail” a trivial birthday message on The West Wing, and Matt constantly battles the clock to write his sketches each week in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. For Sorkin, writing is a war waged with words. He loves language, and he constantly rises to its defense. Though The Newsroom doesn’t deal with the process of writing as much, he constantly deals with language. For instance, during the second episode of the third season, Leona bemoans the shift in meaning which has occurred to the world literally. As an crotchety English teacher, I cheered her sentiments.
So, I admit it; I am an Aaron Sorkin fan. I know his work has flaws, the his scripts repeat and plagiarize themselves, that his story telling can be lazy, that his lead characters serve as thinly veiled versions of himself, that, like Hemingway, his writing style can become parody, that his female characters are often insane. Still, with all that, I’d rather watch any Sorkin show over much of what’s on network television. I that makes me an ignorant, arrogant, self-righteous, American-hating blowhard, well, then so be it.