Last week, I found the script for the pilot of Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming new HBO show The Newsroom; the day after I finished reading it, Dan sent me the new series’ trailer. Unfortunately, the show’s genesis has twisted my mind into a cognitively-dissonant pretzel that’s harder to untangle than recent Gossip Girl plotlines. The freight train that is my belief in Sorkin’s unmatched reign atop the screenwriting mountaintop may finally face a massive roadblock in its path. Let’s break down why.
1) One of my first thoughts while reading the pilot was that this isn’t a particularly interesting idea for a TV show. I start here because that’s where most discussions of shows should start. Once more, Sorkin seems to be attempting to hide his biggest weakness-and, no, I don’t mean the ego, or the proselytizing, or weak female characters; I mean plot.
Quite often, he gets around that, much as LeBron James makes people overlook that he can’t dribble particularly well. However, struggles with plot will naturally rear their ugly heads more in a TV series than a one-off movie. I don’t know if Sorkin always does the behind-the-scenes thing because that easily affords storylines, but I wonder. But is anyone really concerned about what happens behind the scenes of a CNN-type network?
While Sorkin doesn’t thrive on his plots, his best work does typically have a strong hook or sense of irony. The Social Network’s great irony was a friendless guy creating our generation’s social network (and the secondary irony of an unhappy billionaire). The American President has a great premise that immediately sounds like a movie; A Few Good Men’s is close enough behind. (The West Wing at least had the irony of public servants who were actually decent and committed; but, frankly, I think WW is a non-replicable aberration that really shouldn’t have worked except for the fact that Sorkin’s fingers were laced with gold for those four years.)
Studio 60 and Sports Night didn’t really have hooks commensurate with the aforementioned, and they suffered. Conflicts and storylines are naturally embedded in good hooks; without them, those two shows wandered. (I should note that I’m perhaps the only person on the planet who appreciates those two shows about equally; I’m higher on Studio 60 than most and lower on Sports Night. Sports Night was decent, but it’s no undiscovered gem; S60 had about 6-7 great episodes, including the first four, and a great cast, but then Sorkin didn’t know what to do next.)
2) As an extension of that point: what are the stakes in The Newsroom? The trailer says that ‘the most trusted name in news is about to lose his audience.’ My question: does anyone care? Do I? I’m not sure.
Stakes are usually essential for a movie, at least a drama. And Sorkin’s usually great at making you feel as though what’s going on in his stories is the most important thing in the world; A Few Good Men and Social Network possessed this quality in spades.
Stakes may be less important for television, but that holds true more for comedies (so Sports Night can get a relative pass). That’s where The Newsroom makes me worried about a repeat of the vitriol that Studio 60 endured. Studio 60 didn’t have sufficient stakes, but Sorkin—in what most people viewed as a colossal misstep—tried to force them. He made the characters act as though they were changing the world with their TV show, and no one bought it. The same thing seems to be happening here. When there are legitimate stakes, Sorkin can ratchet up the intensity to bone-chilling levels. But if he picks the wrong subject, it’s more dicey.
3) The dialogue. On one hand, I get annoyed when people claim that Sorkin’s only good at dialogue. Dialogue does not make a movie, and his strengths extend far beyond that. However, I obviously can’t deny that gift.
But in The Newsroom? If I had read this script from an anonymous writer, I probably wouldn’t have finished it, for two reasons. One is the aforementioned lack of interest in the subject matter; the second, shockingly, is the dialogue. I wanted to put it down when someone says to the protagonist, “You’re smarted and talented, but not a very nice guy,” which is just awful, awful, telling-not-showing writing. That’s…that’s just not how you write. Did anyone need to say that to Eisenberg in Social? NO, because we SAW what he was like. You don’t get to define your characters that way, you just don’t. I desperately hope that line has since been cut. And on that, I need to stop talking about this.
Pretty much the same feeling applies to this line from the trailer: “He’s trying to do good, and he’s risking a lot to do it.” When I saw that quote referenced in a review of the show, I assumed the author was mocking Sorkin, was putting fictional words in a theoretical character’s mouth. I couldn’t believe it was actually drawn from the story. You don’t get to explain situations like that to us. If you don’t believe me, imagine a character in American President saying, “He would really like to date a nice lady, but the challenge of his job is making that difficult.” Arg.
Other small bits: “I’m fighting the good fight…progress is slow, but I’m in it for the long haul.” Am I wrong, or isn’t that three clichés (or at least three bland near-clichés) back-to-back-to-back? Is that the point? I can’t tell.
4) The villains. If Sorkin has the right villain—which, for him, usually means someone comedically stupid or misguided—there are few people who write better put-downs. (See Bartlet vs. the religious woman, Andrew Shepherd vs. Bob Rumson, Zuckerberg vs. the twins, Toby Ziegler vs. nearly anyone.) But, analogously to the stakes, if there isn’t a legitimate villain, he tries to force one. The attacks on technology that peppered the script just make Sorkin sound like he’s 95 years old; likewise, the “sorority girl” comment is dumb.
Sigh. I’ll still watch every single episode in which he’s involved. That’s because when he’s on, he is so good that you wish your daily interactions went the way he wrote, because your life would be that exhilarating. He’s so much more than the few lines with which people associate him. Jack Nicholson’s best moment is Men is actually, “Deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!” The best line of American President comes not in Michael Douglas’s climactic speech, but rather when Martin Sheen says “If I hadn’t, you’d be the most popular history professor at the University of Wisconsin.” Likewise, in its context, Sports Night‘s “You’re wearing my shirt” is one of the greatest lines I’ve ever heard.
In my study of screenwriting, I’ve learned something that I think people overlook–if you’re a writer, regardless of your individual strength, then you can write, period. For example, the scene descriptions and ‘unfilmables’ in the scripts of Shane Black–the creator of the Lethal Weapon series and one of the most famous writers in the business–evince a ferociously compelling and original style.
Sorkin is no exception. He gets credit for his dialogue, but his structural choice to intercut everything in The Social Network with the depositions was pure genius. (Also, read his character descriptions in that script to educate yourself.) Likewise, a lesser writer would have clued us into the president’s loneliness in American President via some awful shot of him staring longingly at a photo of his dead wife; Sorkin, however, incorporates that information into a fast-paced scene so seamlessly that you barely notice it.
So, yes, Sorkin–regardless of how the blogosphere may criticize him (fairly) for his scripts being un-cinematic and (unfairly) for them being arrogant and pretentious–has enhanced all our lives. If you’re like me, you think his ceiling is best writer alive; but either way, you can’t deny his skill. Most screenwriters out there are still trying to imitate West Wing exchanges; if you don’t believe me, re-watch the show with someone who has a brain and observe him/her marvelling at its intelligence. His skill is evident in, say, the way you feel after Toby Ziegler’s brush with a homeless veteran, or Josh Lyman’s therapy session. It’s the realness and conviction and emotion. And we’re all much better for it.
Post-script: Several episodes of The Newsroom have aired, and critics have pretty much universally trashed them, but ratings have been good enough for HBO to order a second season. And, yes, much to my dismay, I have to admit that much of the episodes have been pretty mediocre. There’s no doubt that some of my bitterness stems from my wish that Sorkin focus more of his attention on movies, where his batting average is higher. For Christ’s sake, he and Steve Zaillian (probably #2 on that screenwriting mountaintop) just made freaking MONEYBALL, with an un-cinematic book and a horrible draft of a script, into something stirring. But, even if he doesn’t, I hope he doesn’t get buried by sanctimonious bloggers who want nothing more than to marginalize his incredible talent.