The Newsroom began last week and amid some pretty mixed reviews, writer Aaron Sorkin became a figure for internet ridicule due to comments he made in an interview. A writer who has always been less than enthusiastic about the democratic power of the internet was suddenly feeling a pretty big backlash.
Not for nothing, but I’m an Aaron Sorkin fan. If you too are a Aaron Sorkin fan then you will have spotted the obvious Sorkinism in the last sentence. We’re not ‘other’ people. If you’re not an Aaron Sorkin fan then congrats for getting this far but this piece isn’t for you. Go buy the West Wing boxset and return in a couple of months.
Why are we Aaron Sorkin fans? Well he’s written and adapted some great movie scripts but, truth be told, it’s mainly for The West Wing. With that show Sorkin managed to pull off a few impressive tricks. One was to make the viewer feel simultaneously more intelligent and more ignorant. You liked that you were learning all this new information, but you were becoming aware of just how smart the world’s smartest people actually are. It’s a recurring theme in his work, that true, brilliant, hard-won intelligence exists in this world and it should be celebrated instead of being shoved under a bushel.
Another trick he pulled off was to show driven, noble individuals doing – or trying to do – a job well. There was little or no backstabbing, sex or violence; it shouldn’t have made good television. The fact that the main characters were political operatives made it an even tougher sell. But he sold it. The West Wing is a beautiful, rich treat of a show. Talking about it with others who loved it is almost as enjoyable as watching it. Almost.
The final trick was to, in his own frequently used phrase, make us eat our vegetables. He gave us large chunks of legalese, political jargon and statistics, whipped it up in a blender and handed us a delicious smoothie. Suddenly television didn’t need to be understood by the dumbest person in the audience, it could be intelligent and entertaining.
And then Sorkin left the West Wing and we waited. We wanted more. More rousing speeches, more quickfire banter, more endless walking down corridors (a Sorkin trick he was happy to parody in a 30 Rock cameo). And then Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip came out and for a moment it looked like we’d have more. A show set behind the scenes of an SNL-like show. All the Sorkin stuff was there; the speeches, the celebration of intelligence, the banter, Timothy Busfield… but it didn’t add up. Maybe it was the setting; investing characters with boundless ambition and intelligence but no major character flaws works in an environment where a nuclear missile crisis is a mis-step away (they have enough to be getting on with without ego getting in the way) but making a show about noble comedians just didn’t add up. Where was the narcissism, the addictions, the bust-ups?
So Studio 60 died after one series and we returned to our West Wing box sets. Which brings us to the present and the debut of The Newsroom. Sorkin’s profile means his work is held to a higher standard, or at least more immediate scrutiny, than most T.V writers and the past week saw him getting slapped around as much for comments in the media as for the show itself. But judging the show on its merits it looks to have the potential to join either The West Wing in his column of triumphs or Studio 60 in his list of failures, depending on how things develop.
In the positive column – along with Sorkin’s usual good qualities – is the use of real news stories from the recent past to frame each episode. The first episode showed how the BP Oil spill could/should have been reported, albeit with the benefit of two years hindsight, while episode two showed the news team dropping the ball on the Arizona immigration law whilst still illuminating the issue for most of us who had already forgetten it had even happened. If the show keeps going (and HBO have already renewed it) then every news story gives the show a potential plot line and an opportunity to re-examine stories that have dropped out of the news cycle.
In the negative column there’s little made of the HBO format aside from a few ‘fucks’ uttered by Jeff Daniels. Sorkin claims not to watch much cable T.V which is a pity, if he could see just how slowly paced and detailed it can be (as in The Wire). Maybe then he wouldn’t being forcing romantic plot-lines, (Donna and Josh happened after seven seasons, now that was a romance) and throwing in hokey misunderstandings – an accidental mass email in episode two was painfully inevitable. The jury is also still out on whether Sorkin can consistently write realistic female characters. Until Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie and Alison Pill’s Maggie become fully-rounded and not just ‘loveably’ scattered then we’ll just have to continue to worship Alison Janney for getting so much out of her C.J Craig character.
So there’s good and bad, enough to keep things interesting. But we’re living in an age when judgement is not only immediate but comes from a few thousand different online sources, most of whom – like me – are qualified to judge solely by dint of a decent wireless connection. Back in 1999 the judgement passed on The West Wing would barely have extended outside a few newspaper T.V columns and the show had some space to breath. Series one wasn’t perfect by any means; for one thing there was this annoying thing called a ‘Mandy’ in it. There was no army of bloggers decreeing this ‘Mandy’ aberration. Sorkin found his bearings by series two and the ‘Mandy’ thankfully disappeared.
So will The Newsroom be spoken about in the same terms as The West Wing in years to come? Possibly, we’re in a golden age of television drama and it’s hard to strike out ahead of the other fifty ‘must watch’ box-sets out there. But for the moment myself and other Sorkin-ites (a phrase he presumably hates) are just glad to once again see (fictional) intelligent people on screen giving us fact laden statements while moving at the pace of an Olympic race-walker. Welcome back Mr Sorkin, just try and be nicer to us internet types, we only poke you with a stick to show our love.