A letter to Wes about The Newsroom
Is there anything interesting left to say about Aaron Sorkin? Stuck in summer television purgatory last week, I watched the first season of HBO’s The Newsroom with an overwhelming feeling of redundancy. I’m not just referring to the impassioned on-air monologues, the walk-and-talks or Sorkinian trademark back-and-forth-dialogue, but every conceivable dimension of the show: the characters, the plot developments, the relationships, the character motivations, everything. It doesn’t just trot out the cliches, it executes them with near-perfect skill and proficiency. They are running a television clinic over there. This is the televisioniest television that ever televisioned. Aaron Sorkin made some of the best shows and movies of the 1990s, but that’s precisely the problem: he’s still making shows for the 1990s for an audience that’s moved on to 2013.
One caveat: I can’t criticize Sorkin for using the same phrases over and over again; most people, writers or not, unwittingly repeat themselves every day of their lives. You probably know someone who relies on a sarcastic “You think?” overly much in your own life. If you read enough of any single writer’s work in quick succession, you’ll develop a similar case of literary tinnitus. To a certain extent, this is really part of the appeal. HBO bought an Aaron Sorkin show and we volunteered to watch it. We would have been sorely disappointed otherwise.
But even so, The Newsroom feels like a Sorkin mixtape; a bit of SportsNight here, a dash of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip here.You find yourself starting to wonder if his next show will be about an embattled late night talk show host to make it an even. He also brings out the usual axes to grind: politics, religion, therapy, woman trouble. Maybe his next show should just be about Aaron Sorkin; cut the funhouse mirrors: the television studios designed to look like other television studios, the television personalities pretending to be other television personalities and let’s just get to it.
The man is also clearly a true believer in the power and importance of television at a time when most television viewers aren’t. There’s always been a lot of Network in Aaron Sorkin’s writing, no matter the setting. Network contains some of the best movie dialogue of its decade and it holds up to this day, but at it’s core, it’s a movie for its time, and some of its elements – the attitude towards women, for example — don’t hold up well. It’s also a type of writing asks its actors to be completely earnest about everything, and ends up rewarding charisma instead of his or her acting skill. If you’ve got a Tom Cruise-type star, a plot about the U.S. President, a big screen, a darkened theater and enforced silence, this type of writing can take you very far. The same type of earnestness, applied to characters working at a weekly television show, for God’s sake, is more than a little out of place. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had the bad luck of running against 30 Rock, a show that understood this precisely. And even at its worst, most insufferable, unlikeable moments, Studio 60 managed to be entertaining, supremely watchable and conversation-worthy. People loved tearing that show to shreds. They watched it with their friends with snarky, purchased episodes and read every joke about it on the Internet the next day.
It’s a shame, because Aaron Sorkin should be more than a punchline. He has an undeniable gift for dialogue and for finding a narrative when he steps outside of his own experience. He turned Moneyball and The Social Network – both stories that should have been unfilmable – into excellent, compelling original movies. Well, maybe not completely original, but you can’t have everything, I suppose.