I’m not what I’d consider a fanboy of many things but generally, Aaron Sorkin’s work is one of those things. I’ve watched A Few Good Men probably two dozen times. I’ve watched the first four seasons of The West Wing (five on didn’t involve Sorkin and were awful and any attempts to defend them are wrong) in their entirety at least ten times. I think he’s one of the most brilliant television writers of our generation and I instantly get excited to hear about something new he’s working on. When I heard he was doing a new show for HBO that focused on attacking the cable news industry, I was stoked. A network that will let him use foul language giving him cart blanche to take the piss out of what passes for “news” these days? Yes please!
What we got was not bad but it didn’t feel like proper Sorkin. I had hopes that he would get some retooling done for season two but based on the premiere, it doesn’t feel as if he has.
Sorkin’s real talent has been his ability to take heavy, often intellectual subjects and make snappy, witty, hilarious and yet often dramatic and informative moments out of them. He’s dealt with everything from economic strife to foreign wars, to women’s issues to terrorism and managed to educate while also being funny. His writing definitely has a more liberal slant to it and he makes no bones about that. Aside from the fact that I agree with a lot of what he says (excluding his constant need to bash Canada for no good reason), I respect the fact that he owns his ideology and puts that on the page for people to judge for themselves. He also creates very detailed characters with unique back stories and personalities and really lets them shine through the run of a series.
The problems with The Newsroom thus far are two fold. Firstly is that Sorkin’s writing has become less about informing you of his point of view through exposition and discussion and more about ham-fisted soapboxing with all the subtlety of getting hit with a shovel. He thinks cable news is no longer about news but about pushing the political ideologies of the rich people who own the networks, while providing pandering, intellectually devoid, soulless coverage in the pursuit of ratings. I completely agree with that but the thing is, so does 99% of The Newsroom’s audience. Much like The West Wing, people can tell what the stance of the show is within moments of turning it on. When you’re already preaching (a word that’s very apt) to the choir, you don’t need to be so brash and blunt with your messaging.
Furthermore, the fictional show and characters Sorkin’s written don’t follow their own rules. They claim that the news and principals of journalism have been lost and then spent almost all of the first season taking the piss out of The Tea Party. Once again, I agree with what they had to say about that group but if you’re professing to be about fixing journalism, you can’t then make the lead character basically Keith Olbermann with a bigger ego (well, maybe bigger.) Having Will McAvoy continually claim to be a dyed-in-the-wool Republican while taking stances like this is even more laughable. I know that many older Republicans feel that the current party doesn’t represent them but even moderate members of that party would think McAvoy was a left-wing loon.
The problem I have is that Sorkin’s seemingly lost all sense of nuance. The West Wing had a message and was loud about it but it also allowed it to develop over time and spent more time convincing you of it. When I watch The Newsroom, I agree with what’s being said and am happy to see those points trumpteted but it’s presented with such brute force that even to a believer, it comes across as kind of patronising. He’s determined to convince you to agree with him from the first minute of the series premiere (though I do love that rant) and then spends the rest of the season endlessly beating you over the head with his ideology, just in case you forgot it in between episodes. Countering a bad way of journalism by doing many of the same things from the other end of the political spectrum is saying that two wrongs make a right. They don’t.
The second point has to do with Sorkin’s burning desire since Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to shoehorn unnecessary romantic sub-plots into everything. In his seasons of The West Wing, romances between principal characters were rare to begin with and when they did exist, they were only ever teased and never acted upon. It was only after Sorkin left at the end of season four, and the show went to crap, that those characters got together, largely because the hacks who took over for him didn’t know what else to do. In The Newsroom, he tries to make romance between multiple sets of characters a central focus from the get go and it becomes everything the show is about when it’s not preaching. It’s nothing short of awful. To put it plainly, he can’t write romance and he needs to stop trying.
Someone I know from Gamers With Jobs went so far as to say that the way Sorkin writes this stuff makes him seem like he just hates women. I wouldn’t go that far but I will agree that I hate what he does with his female characters. His works are filled with smart, confident, assertive women who are often in positions of power, get a lot of screen time and are always integral to driving the overall plot forward. I think that’s fantastic and it’s a lesson Hollywood (and frankly many other forms of media) should take to heart. The problem is that they always become a mess when romance is involved. This can be seen as far back as A Few Good Men. Any time you see once of his female characters put into a situation where they have to address someone in a romantic way, things go completely to mush. Their IQ seems to plummet and otherwise smart and confident women become bumbling, awkward, clumsy bimbos who you would think were being asked out to their first junior high dance.
Seriously, go back and watch when Jo asks out Daniel Caffey. Then watch any of the women in The Newsroom when they have to talk to men they have feelings for. It’s so childish and dumb, it’s embarrassing and it frequently makes me wince away from the screen. It’s a completely ridiculous contrast and makes a show that’s trying to be grounded in reality look like pure fantasy because people in the real world don’t act that way, at least not beyond a very small number. I don’t know if this is just the only way Sorkin knows how to write romance or if he’s trying to make some kind of nefarious point but in either case, it needs to stop. He’s not good at it, the show doesn’t need it and while I don’t think he’s writing this way with any kind of sexist intent, I could certainly see why someone might jump to that conclusion.
I continue to watch The Newsroom because despite it’s tiring bluster and junior high romances, it’s still stuffed to the gills with Aaron Sorkin’s trademark wit and fast-moving scripts. This show expects you to pay attention and roll with it quickly and that’s something sorely lacking from a lot of what’s considered popular television these days. I also agree with the message he’s pushing enough that I can still enjoy the show despite it’s ham-handedness. However, the show’s only good to me right now and there is incredible potential for greatness here, the likes of which is found in Sorkin’s past. He just needs to make his development and characters more like The West Wing. Witty, sharp, quick but also subtle, able to make a point in an episode rather than a scene and making their stories about them, not their inner twelve year-olds attempting to ask each other to dance. Things can easily be retooled from good to great, I hope he does it before the show burns me out and many others who seem to agree with me based on season two’s premiere this past Sunday.
Oh and guys? If you’re going to have blatant BlackBerry product placement in your intro sequence, you might want it to be with the new BlackBerry 10 devices and not the 9900 which the company is desperate to make people forget about. If you’re going to pollute my show with in-line ads, as least make them current.