How Aaron Sorkin should fix The Newsroom

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.

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2 Responses to How Aaron Sorkin should fix The Newsroom

  1. JustMeMike says:

    Yo Gerry,

    Thanks for the excellent read and the dissection of Sorkin’s latest. I’ve regularly recapped and commented on The Newsroom which means that I’ve watched the eps multiple times. So I’m not in disagreement with your base criticisms. But I think you left one out.

    Will continually ‘defeated’ straw men. Disregarding the actual content of Will’s (Sorkin’s) diatribe – we rarely got responses ( exception was the black and gay former aide to Santorum) so that weakened their stances because there was no opposition.

    If anything at all that fact should be just as important as you saying Sorkin/Will pounded us into submission with the politics views..

    But I have hopes for The Newsroom Second season to go up a notch or two.

    a) The Don/Maggie/Lisa/Jim rectangle of a romance has been halved then quartered.
    b) My take on Sloan is that she seems vastly more confident about things personal this season. Last season she seemed confident only when on-the-air. What becomes of Sloan and Don remains to be seen.
    c) As does Jim and the character played by Grace Gummer.
    d) Mackenzie went forward TWO Steps in the season opener before Sorkin took her one step back. The bravura save on technical snafu regarding the faulty fact on DSK then the save when the board went blooey. Then she pinned Will to the wall twice in the aftermath of the drone panel talk. Nice writing on both of those – but then he has her out to meet Will in the bar and has no money (or purse) so she has to borrow the drink money and cab fare home.

    I’m signing on to follow your blog with the hope that you’ll have more to say about The Newsroom.

    jmm – PS: Jo asked Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Caffee out. Lionel Caffee was Daniel’s unseen and dead father.

    • Hey man, thanks for all the feedback! You’re totally right about Jo and Caffee, I’ve corrected that. A bit embarrassing given how many times I’ve watched that movie. That’s what I get for writing after 11pm when I should be in bed. 🙂

      I think I get what you mean about the straw men stuff and you’re right that there were rarely responses provided. My problem isn’t that, it’s that going on partisan rants like McAvoy frequently does on what’s supposed to be a journalistic program is exactly what’s wrong with the “news” media today. They’re claiming to be about fixing the broken journalism model, then they indulge in the same stuff they say is part of the problem. To make a gaming analogy, it’s the same problem I have with Ben Kuchera and Penny Arcade Report. He claims game journalism’s broken (it is) and makes no bones about the fact that he’s going to do it right, then he injects his own biases into his reporting and writes articles that are basically free PR for stuff he likes. You can’t have it both ways. Either you’re about the news or you’re about opinion and if you claim there’s too much of the latter, you can’t do it and then claim to be about the former. That’s just how I see it anyway.

      I have hopes for season 2 as well but the premiere didn’t fill me with them. I still think the entire romantic rectangle thing is just dumb and poorly executed. It just doesn’t need to be there at all and I didn’t get any vibes that Sorkin’s learned how to do that batter. I hope he has but we’ll see. I don’t really like Sloan’s character and I don’t think Olivia Munn’s a great actress but you’re right in that she seems more confident overall this time around. The thing I did like about Sloan was that she had an almost CJ Cregg level of confidence to her, until of course romance was involved. If he can step it up there too, she could become much more interesting. I’ve always liked Mac (again, outside of how bimboish she becomes when love is involved) but that whole failed board scenario was just dumb. That would never happen in real life (there are too many redundancies in a professional studio and most of those systems don’t tie together in a way that would cascade fail like that) and it made no sense. Sure, it gave her character a moment to shine and show her ability to handle pressure but again, it could have been done better. I did like the whole fact check mishap though. That was very cool and well done.

      Like I said, I’ll keep watching because there’s still enough of the Sorkin mojo in this show to keep me interested and first seasons of shows are often about everyone finding their feet. Studio 60 also didn’t last long and Sorkin hadn’t had another TV show since so it may take him a bit to get his groove back. I’m a little nervous about this whole “Maggie’s gone all emo because of some trauma thing” but we’ll see how that plays out and I really hope he doesn’t go too far evangelizing Occupy Wall Street. Again, I agree with the political ideology there but we don’t need multiple episodes of him going “No really, you HAVE to listen to me about these guys!”

      He can still bring the magic, I hope he does.

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