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Anything written about Aaron Sorkin‘s HBO series The Newsroom is a postmortem at this point. The series kicks off its third and final season tonight, dead but not done. And yet, any time someone as talented as Sorkin is at the center of something — especially something that failed — it generates a lot of discussion.
The Newsroom will begin its end tonight, larded with much emotion and opinion and disagreement about what it was, what it could be and whether or not watching these final episodes will creatively save the series or just be more Sorkin tinder to toss onto a roaring chorus of fiery critiques.
Sorkin told the Los Angeles Times that he’s likely done with writing for television and even noted that his failures — Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and now The Newsroom — comprise more of his resume in this medium than The West Wing, his major success.
He’s actually being too hard on himself. Sports Night, which began in September 1998, was a great series that was followed by The West Wing, another great series, one year later, in September 1999. That’s pretty impressive. But to understand part of the Sorkin Issue, you need to take a snapshot of that exact time.
Sorkin had just created and written — his ass off, as is so clear now — two distinct series that hummed along on his distinct voice. If you could cut the baby in two, as it were, you’d have the perfect springboard to TV excellence. Politics and sports, as told in Sorkin’s should-be-trademarked rapid delivery, peppered with intelligence, sarcasm, self-awareness and humor, was perfect for both genres. What ultimately made The West Wing so popular and influential was that Sorkin was able to add another ingredient from his writing toolbox to that series — grandiose self-importance, which allowed a cloak of gravitas to rest atop the proceedings and made people believe it was the most important and smartest drama on network television.
Which it was.
He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for, in the early seasons, making a divided nation feel good about politics again, particularly the presidency. Only when the series had been around long enough to be nitpicked about its political leanings (which Sorkin worked hard, initially, to present as something that had a hands-across-the-aisle feel to it), did our great fracture swallow up and taint it. But at the time — wow, that was some magic trick.
Of course, you can’t be as involved in two series as deeply as Sorkin was and not get chewed up, which has already been detailed, as has NBC’s desire that Sorkin focus on The West Wing and not Sports Night.
Looking back, that was a crucial (and maybe cruel) time in Sorkin’s career. Two great series. Two different networks. One man obsessed with writing every word who could not possibly do it.
But never mind all of that. Just take a look at that snapshot. Two great series. Both with Sorkin’s distinctive writing style and both — this is essential — able to sustain that style. He made politics smart and important — fast-talking, educated people all working to make the world a better place while wringing their hands about morality and such, with witty asides splashing all around. And sports — with a reverence for it but a fondness for those who talked about it — the combination of show-within-a-show, topic and cast all meshed to make Sports Night something special.
What we learned from those shows was that Sorkin loved a monologue and a soapbox and intellectual showmanship. But the real lesson was that to make his very personalized style, which barely deviated from show to show, work for a third or a fourth time, it had to be set, thematically, in a perfect place.
A Saturday Night Live-style TV series was not that place. And a cable news channel setting was not that place. The situations could not handle Sorkin’s approach to them. Studio 60 was dull and unfunny (when the show within a show was supposed to be funny). But mostly, viewers didn’t care about the lives being lived by the characters involved. They were just actors and writers – whatever connection Sorkin was able to make between his Sports Night cast and the audience could not be duplicated with the Studio 60 cast and the audience.
Which brings back to The Newsroom, the TV series that brought Sorkin back to the small screen after success in other venues (this could very well be a column on the difficulty of, at least creatively, batting .500 in the television business, but it’s not).
The Newsroom was a bad idea almost from the beginning — maybe not a bad idea on its own, but definitely a bad idea for a show that Sorkin was going to do.
The Newsroom didn’t really need to be on HBO because it never really felt like “an HBO show,” but it probably worked for the brass there because Sorkin was going to do something big and smart and insightful about American journalism, which has that kind of “New York Times think-piece about moral obligation and workplace ethics” about it that sends certain people into orgasmic delight.
But soapboxing is bad television. Especially when its presented from the point of view of those inside a cable news channel — a species and profession with no love lost among the American public. There could be no West Wing miracle here, where pompous do-gooders seemed aspirational and patriotic, even just for a little bit.
Nope, there was and is no jump-starting or salvaging TV news journalism. Not only didn’t The Newsroom ever feel important like the The West Wing once did, the snarky nature of Sports Night could also not be revived within it either, because it felt, as late-era Sorkin projects tend to do, as if the snark wasn’t being directed at something or someone else (egotistical athletes and coaches, etc.), but at the audience that was watching.
Oh, you people, suckered in by Fox News and MSNBC, and all those talking heads with so much spin and so little fact-checked news — what a bunch of dopes you are, stupid audience. You were duped by your own political agenda into believing something was true when it wasn’t. You weren’t smart enough to think for yourself. You were only comfortable being told what you wanted to hear. Sit down for an hour and let us dramatize the implosion of American journalism and those too stupid to realize it’s happening. People like you.
Yeah, that seemed to be the working philosophy in a salt-less nutshell.
The Newsroom had — and continues to have, based on the three episodes I just watched — other problems as well. Sorkin doesn’t write female characters very well (though this season, they seem to be less likely to run into doors). His style of humor seems incapable of producing an audible laugh. And, oh dear, does he love a soapbox or what? I’m not going to get into a debate about whether Sorkin’s choice for The Newsroom — to comment on real-life news stories after they’ve happened, presented as happening in the moment — is a crutch or a clever trick. (This season kicks off with the Boston marathon bombings.) I’ll just say it doesn’t mix well with the aforementioned love of a soapbox and, for me, that was part of the problem with this series from the start.
Even that’s a tricky topic, however. Because it’s more about how often and in what scenario Sorkin chooses to use that soapbox conceit than the actual use of it. The rant from Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) in the first episode of The Newsroom remains a delicious gem. Maybe the people who loathed it — and there are many — did so because it was “typical Sorkin” or dramatically manipulative. But I’m guessing it comes from the overuse that would follow in The Newsroom and the overuse that saturated Studio 60.
It’s the Sorkin Issue. His style became too distinctive, too obvious — magnified by the misuse of the elements within that style.
If Sorkin really is leaving television writing behind, I’ll be disappointed. I still think, given the right topic, he could make another great series — make it compelling and entertaining, funny and important all in one package. But it’s also true that if Sorkin can’t or simply has no desire to curb or judiciously use his trademark writing elements, then a weekly television series isn’t the place for him because it hammers home the shortcomings in a way that a film or play never would.
I’ll watch the rest of The Newsroom, though. And not hate-watch it, either (which would have been true in season two). No, this time I want to see how Sorkin chooses to go out. Because I loved how he came into the business.
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