Old Media:  On Aaron Sorkin




Old Media: On Aaron Sorkin by Phillip Maciak

The writer is king on television, in part because Aaron Sorkin staged a coup.

July 8th, 2012 reset - +

IN A 2010 INTERVIEW with the Writers Guild of America, Aaron Sorkin canonized himself. Specifically, when asked what had attracted him to his new project — the David Fincher collaboration, The Social Network — Sorkin responded:

What attracted me to it had nothing to do with Facebook. The invention itself is as modern as it gets, but the story is as old as storytelling; the themes of friendship, loyalty, jealousy, class and power. This is the story that Aeschylus would have written or Shakespeare or Paddy Chayefsky. Luckily for me, none of those guys were available, so I got to do it.

His response is funny, literate, irreverent, sentimental, and more than a little braggy — in other words, very Sorkinian — and its casual bravado is meant to enable the line to pull a kind of double duty. We’re supposed to laugh at the improbable genealogy but also to take it seriously. And in that way, it’s an expert pitch meant to justify an earnest dramatic film about something so trivial as the social network we use to share pictures of cats in socks. The great Greek Tragedian, the Bard of Avon, and the explosively talented screenwriter of Network would probably not have wanted to write about cat videos, but they would, of course, all be interested in writing a movie about “the themes of friendship, loyalty, jealousy, class and power” — that’s what they did. It’s not a bad argument, and it actually does characterize the film, which is a little more complex than it might otherwise seem. But his response is not just about Facebook. Sorkin notably does not name-drop famous plays or even their conflicted heroes. He shouts out playwrights. It’s not necessarily that The Social Network is like the Oresteia, or that Mark Zuckerberg is like Hamlet, or even that the social context of Network has echoes in the present. No, it’s that I, Aaron Sorkin, am a little bit like Shakespeare, right?

Sorkin is one of the only commercially bankable and socially conscious screenwriters now working; his writing style is fast, fluid, and instantly recognizable, and, since leaving television for feature films after his exodus from The West Wing, he has become possibly the most sought-after screenwriter in Hollywood. So while David Milch and Matthew Weiner might be likelier candidates for the screenwriting Shakespeare of the quality TV generation, if there is a contemporary canon, Sorkin is in it.

No matter how justified, though, Sorkin’s line is all the more Sorkinian because, while it reads like the off-the-cuff bon mot of a great wit, the kind of thing he manages to give his characters regularly, it was by no means off-the-cuff. It’s a written line of dialogue. He repeated it, complete with the “Luckily for me, none of those guys were available” punch line, to Charlie Rose, Nightline, an audience of undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, and a number of other news outlets during the press tour for The Social Network. Press junkets, of course, demand such repetition. But as the recent YouTube supercut of re-used lines from his film and television work will attest, Sorkin is a great writer but also a great repeater. “Well that was predictable,” “More and more, we’re getting less and less,” “Luckily for me, none of those guys were available” — they’re all great lines, they all do their jobs. But how many times? It’s hard to doubt the greatness of a show like The West Wing, its sheer energy, intelligence, and loftiness. But how long can a writer, no matter how great, cannibalize himself before there’s nothing left?

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Sorkin’s new HBO dramedy The Newsroom, his third television series about the inner workings of a television series, and another in a long line of meditations on the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of the powerful, at times feels like the last straw. Devoted fans of West Wing and Sports Night, his first TV show, have long known that Sorkin cribs lines. In the same way that Woolfians know that the Mrs. Dalloway in The Voyage Out is a first draft of the Mrs. Dalloway that would later appear fully formed in Virginia Woolf’s great novel, Sorkinites know that The American President’s Andrew Shepherd is merely a first draft of The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett. What president wouldn’t question the virtue of a proportional response? This kind of genetic criticism is applicable to most great artists, and the idea of revisiting and perfecting older material, staking out and then mastering intellectual terrain, is a perfectly normalized mode of artistic production. Nobody gives Martin Scorsese a hard time for making too many movies about organized crime.

But there’s something very different about The Newsroom. Sorkin obviously has a great interest in television and in the way decisions about what we see onscreen are made, and there’s presumably great value to be had in a popular artist whose oeuvre is committed to anatomizing mass media writing another production procedural, just as Scorsese has repeatedly anatomized criminal networks. The Newsroom could have been a revision of the catastrophically smug Studio 60, softening its self-satisfied pomposity, and a sequel of sorts to the madcap juvenilia of Sports Night, complicating the gender dynamics of and breaking the lock-step banter of producer and host. Great writers write thematically connected trilogies, don’t they? Sorkin needed merely to follow the advice of that great editor, Ezra Pound, and make it new. But The Newsroom, more than perhaps any other Sorkin production, feels distinctly old. And it’s not just that the lines are familiar from previous series and films, and it’s not just that we’ve seen this scenario from him before. The Newsroom feels old because, after seven years away from the medium he helped to transform, the great Aaron Sorkin has become an anachronism.

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Tina Fey, David Milch, Matthew Weiner, Lindelof and Cuse, and now Lena Dunham — it’s hard to think of an acclaimed contemporary television show that isn’t the product, or at least pitched as the product of writerly auteurship. What’s remarkable about this, though, is that, while television has historically been focused on the producer or even actor as creative agent, and film is still very beholden to the director as prime mover, contemporary television alone is a cult of the writer. Since the days of David Lynch, television has tended toward indulgence with its screenwriters. But Aaron Sorkin, who frequently and publicly claimed unequivocal authorship of The West Wing, was one of the earliest and most visible popularizers of this model in this latest generation of quality TV. The writer is king on television, in part because Aaron Sorkin staged a coup.

As with any auteur, it’s easy to identify an Aaron Sorkin script. The legendary walk-and-talk staging, characters constantly repeating themselves, chaotic behind-the-scenes intrigue, a harried female producer, a magical elder statesman, an arrogant young hotshot, a courageously reckless, truth-to-power speech that throws everything into flux, people talking over each other with such spectacular coordination that it sounds like a Robert Altman opera libretto — these are some of the many imprimaturs of a Sorkin script. These tropes and techniques show up in the play and film A Few Good Men, reach their stride in his three consecutive TV series, Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60, and were ordered, as if from a style menu, by the producers of The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Moneyball. Sorkin is a brand with an extraordinarily reliable signature. What’s more, he has earned, over the years, a reputation for artistry without artistic pretension. He is a formalist, a classicist, a conservative stylist with a safely liberal perspective. Audiences can rightly feel that they are in the hands of a master craftsman, but his style is direct rather than obtuse, polemical rather than ambivalent, and inclusive rather than alienating. He is, as was said of President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing, “good for all time zones.”

But, back in the early days of the new TV golden age, Sorkin committed the cardinal sin of trading up to film. The last time Sorkin was a major presence on television was at the very start of the huge upswell of new structures and attitudes in serial television around the turn of the twenty-first century. The West Wing premiered the same year as The Sopranos, and for a few years after, these shows split acclaim and awards basically down the middle. A large percentage of the Emmys doled out for drama in those early years currently reside in the living rooms of people who worked for either Aaron Sorkin or David Chase. Representing drastically incompatible narrative approaches and engaging with opposite ends of the heroism spectrum — from Saint Jed Bartlett to Tony Soprano’s tortured Beelzebub — Sorkin and Chase could not have been more different. And understanding these differences is at the root of Sorkin’s recent, awkward return.

For one thing, Aaron Sorkin self-identified as a playwright at a time when “novelistic” was becoming the most valued — if often misapplied — qualifier on television. Starting with The Sopranos, serial television has become increasingly interested in the workings of narrative, in the pauses, gaps, and long arcs afforded by Premium Cable. Sorkin is avowedly traditional in this respect. His shows work in acts, in beats, from within the unit of the episode. In a recent interview about his upcoming Steve Jobs biopic, Sorkin said, “all I have to do is turn [Walter Isaacson’s biography] into three acts with an intention, obstacle, exposition, inciting action, reversal, climax and denouement and make it funny and emotional and I’ll be in business.” It’s this kind of formal unity that makes Sorkin’s scripts both reliable and a little bit out-of-step. Nobody’s getting killed off on an Aaron Sorkin show, no information is going to be withheld, and every episode is going to be a self-contained, organic whole. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he is absolutely uninterested in the idea of an episode of television in which nothing happens. As he said recently, in relation to his own method of television writing, “To resolve a melody, you have to end on either the tonic or the dominant. Try humming 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' right now, but leave off 'snow.' You'll feel like you need to sneeze.” This is a cute joke, but it’s also the fundamental disconnect between Sorkin and the Chase School of Dramatic Anti-Climax. Serial television today is built around avoiding the sneeze. Aaron Sorkin is the episodic television writer par excellence in the post-episodic age.

But it’s not just a formal disagreement. Aaron Sorkin, in contrast to so many dramatic television writers in Chase’s wake, does not write anti-heroes. It’s easy to imagine a television series about the corrupt Marine played by Jack Nicholson in Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. The series would follow the life of a military man, stationed in Cuba, whose professional rigidity has hardened his soul and hollowed his conscience. The show would be called Handling the Truth or Uniform Code, it would air on Showtime, and Aaron Sorkin would have absolutely nothing to do with it. And that is because Aaron Sorkin does not write anti-heroes. Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlett or the pretentious, bloviating, humorless late-night showrunners played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford on Studio 60 or Brad Pitt’s visionary Billy Beane in Moneyball represent the gallery of morally righteous, uncannily wise men who attract Sorkin’s eye. Sometimes Sorkin even constructs hierarchies of heroism, as was the case with Sports Night, which featured Felicity Huffman’s supernaturally devoted producer, who supported and encouraged Josh Charles and Peter Krause’s crusading sports anchors, all of whom existed under the watchful eye of Robert Guillaume’s magical, God-like executive. Who knew that all the good people were in sports broadcasting? If the generic structure of complex television has come to gravitate toward moral ambivalence, violence, and the struggle between good and evil in the hearts of men, Sorkin tries to tell stories about how the world can be changed by the presence of true goodness. When it works, it can be thrilling, and when it’s off, it can seem condescending or worse, but it is Sorkin’s guiding principle and main concern as a writer.

All of which is to say that Aaron Sorkin’s crusade as a writer has become profoundly unfashionable. When Sorkin left The West Wing for film work, the scales were tipped irrevocably toward Chase. The Sopranos sired many heirs, and The West Wing's first four seasons quickly became a nostalgic archive of an alternate television history. It was a discrete work that changed the game only to have the game immediately changed again. It was also a powerful document of a time and place that has very much remained rooted in that time and place. Indeed, Sorkin’s TV aesthetic has aged very quickly. College students of a certain age and political perspective devoured The West Wing’s liberal fantasia in unhealthy servings, but, today, people don’t proselytize it in the way they do for The Wire or Arrested Development. In the game of contemporary TV, it is said, you either win or you die. Sorkin, at the height of his power, decided simply to relinquish his claim on the throne. He left for film.

Now, having penned Charlie Wilson's War for Mike Nichols, Moneyball for Brad Pitt and Bennett Miller, and The Social Network for David Fincher, Sorkin’s particular brand of screwball dramedy is the gold standard for high profile Hollywood screenwriting. But it no longer holds the same kind of esteem in histories of prestige television. His influence is palpable in the work of David Kelley, in the patter of pop series like Bones and The Mentalist, and in the sheer whip-smart capability and moral neuroses of the characters on the The Good Wife. But while it’s maybe a little unfair to say that he has not made his mark, the mark he has made is on the networks. Sorkin is alive, but he's not alive on critically acclaimed cable. As such, he is painted as Salieri to David Chase’s or Matthew Weiner’s Mozart.

And like that jealous composer, Sorkin is hard to like sometimes. He has swaggered back to TV like he owns the place. In recent interviews, he has been quick to say that he doesn’t watch HBO, he has been comporting himself with the kind of put-on humility that can only be conjured by someone with enormous self-regard, and, coinciding with the debut of his new show, he published a literal how-to column in GQ, close reading the speech that begins Newsroom’s pilot. But with The Newsroom having already been met by the online criterati as less a triumphant return than a train wreck, it’s tempting to say that Sorkin's time is over, that his aesthetic is tethered to a different time, and that television has outgrown what he has to offer.

This would suggest, though, that what Sorkin has to offer is entirely bound up in his particular style. In terms of theme and tone, Sorkin’s New Capra routine can be a useful model. The West Wing has already shown us how enthralling it can be to stay in Washington with Mr. Smith for more than two hours. How fascinating would it be to watch seven seasons of television about the day-to-day operations of the Bailey Building and Loan? There is, in other words, plenty of room in the world of TV for series that are not about grisly, violent anti-heroes and moral ambivalence. In this spirit, series like Friday Night Lights and Parks and Recreation have already proven that affirmation and optimism, the struggle for good people to continue to be good, can be as dramatically interesting as degradation. This is healthy, and it owes no small debt to Sorkin. If we continue to exclusively valorize series modeled on The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, and The Wire, we risk creating a bubble that will surely burst if, for instance, AMC continues to be ham-fisted in new series development, if HBO starts to follow the market more than its artistic instincts, or if, God forbid, Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner punt the impending ends of their series.

We are at a moment of possibility with regard to what Sorkin’s return to TV might provide. At the end of the Clinton era and the beginning of the Bush era, television viewers wanted and needed a fantastical idealism, and West Wing provided that in heaping spoonfuls every week. Sorkin might seem less suited to today’s social and political scene, but, despite his unfashionable aesthetics, I think Aaron Sorkin might still be a perfect scribe for a year that has seen both the disillusionment of Obama Democrats and the rise of the Occupy movement. Sorkin’s Newsroom does not provide escapist fantasy or searing critique. Instead, it provides an insight into the mind of a passionate centrist, a manager who passes himself off as a revolutionary. It’s not very good as television yet, but it’s certainly of its time.

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Sorkin draws his energy, his inspiration, and his moral philosophy from what we might call The System. And his favorite system is the television network. On Sports Night, Studio 60, and now The Newsroom, the ultimate structure of power is The Network. Dana Whitaker and Isaac Jaffe had to fight everyday to do “our show” the-way-we-always-talked-about-doing-it on Sports Night. Studio 60’s opening original sin occurs when Judd Hirsch’s character commits ritualized career suicide by going on television and criticizing his own network. He’s fired but immediately replaced by long exiled protégés whose own inherited revolutionary tendencies can only thrive within the confines of the network. The Newsroom is his latest take on the progressive, redemptive, even salvific possibilities of the medium.

Sorkin’s heroes are idealists and revolutionaries, but his work is primarily concerned with the upper echelons of hierarchy — the holders of power, not the disenfranchised. As such, almost all of his work consists of portraits of organizations, and if his characters are revolutionaries, they are revolutionary in the most constrained ways. As idealistic as they are, as impassioned as they may be by their dreams, these are men and women working within the system. Their moves may seem radical, but they would be nothing without the structure that is both stifling and enabling their radicalism. Tom Cruise’s character in A Few Good Men is not a small-town, Grishamian lawyer fighting a big corporation, he’s a young JAG fighting the system he’s a part of; Jed Bartlett and Charlie Wilson are career politicians manipulating the governmental process from within; and Billy Beane is the manager of the Oakland A’s, not a rogue scout. Despite the fact that many of his characters are grassroots upstarts, they will never break out on their own like Don Draper. Nobody refuses a contract, nobody tells Lane Pryce to fire them.

The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy is a heroic company man in this mold, and, as a result, The Newsroom is a procedural crusade. It begins with McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a famous newscaster known for his dispassionate, apolitical reporting, screaming at a young woman (he later refers to her derisively as a “sorority girl”) who asks him what makes America the greatest country in the world. He responds with a long, spittle-flecked, off-book speech about the inequities and stupidities that make America actually kind of a crummy country. The speech ripples outward, causing a stir on the internet, scandalizing the public, but Will’s boss, played by a befuddled, tipsy Sam Waterston, decides to take advantage of the unexpected vitriol to turn McAvoy into a more political newscaster. The series follows McAvoy and his staff as they struggle, against the assembled forces of the network and the viewers at home who run from the now-controversial show, to produce journalism that Murrow, Cronkite, etc, would be proud of.

This speech — which was the focus of the aforementioned GQ article on “How to Write an Aaron Sorkin Script” — is the perfect demonstration of how The Newsroom can be both blindly nostalgic for a mythical era when television journalism had integrity, and weirdly tone-deaf about contemporary media. It’s also representative of the kind of bone-deep righteousness that makes Sorkin an odd duck in the contemporary moment. McAvoy and his producer (a nimble if ill-used Emily Mortimer) preach a lot about how they are creating a new kind of news show based on credibility and transparency that will revolutionize the way people think about their own world. Each episode is based around the unfolding of an actual news story, and much of the oft-cited integrity of the show is to be found in McAvoy and company covering substance over spectacle or in how they endeavor to interview the best authorities on various subjects. But the program they produce feels less like a revolution in journalism and, most often, like an unfunny version of The Daily Show or a slightly less polemical version of Rachel Maddow. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and these are great journalistic models, but it’s hard to figure why an American public that watches Jon Stewart every night needs to be lectured at in this way. As a result, the radicalism of Will McAvoy’s show on The Newsroom feels an awful lot like old news.

Moreover, The Newsroom suffers from Sorkin’s over-indulgence in his worst habits. A good West Wing or Sports Night episode adheres to the formal principles he believes in: it builds slowly, with ping-pong back-and-forth dialogue, a few comic set-pieces, a good argument, and at most one rousing, righteous speech. The Newsroom, however, rather impatiently drills us with monologues from beginning to end. It violates Sorkin’s own code through excess. If Jeff Daniels isn’t yelling at somebody, he’s delivering the Gettysburg Address. If Emily Mortimer isn’t stumbling over her own shoelaces, she’s delivering a tearful plea for somebody to realize their full potential.

Which brings us to Sorkin’s other Achilles heel: women. Sorkin has gotten a lot of credit for writing good parts for women. But we shouldn’t mistake him for a feminist, or at least not an intentional one. Nearly all of Sorkin’s women are brilliant, capable, and visionary. They are also all neurotic, unhinged, cartoonishly vulnerable, and supplicant to heroic men. Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg on The West Wing became one of the best female characters on television, but only after digging out from a pretty big heap of stereotype. Sorkin’s writing is very much indebted to screwball, but he has a tendency to import anachronistic gender roles along with all of that snappy dialogue. And this, again, runs him afoul of all that has occurred over the last decade of television production. From Carmella Soprano and Alma Garrett to Leslie Knope, Peggy Olsen, and Alicia Florrick, the twenty-first century television landscape is littered with female characters who are not Sorkin’s girl Friday. This retro element feels all the more out-of-touch because he seems to think he’s being progressive.

What’s good about The Newsroom is what’s good about every Sorkin show without fail: the actors. Sorkin writes for actors. In a recent Fresh Air interview, Wes Anderson spoke about how difficult it is to train actors to read lines the way he writes them. According to Anderson, the halted deadpan he advocates, and that is so indicative of his style, is counterintuitive to most actors. Nobody wants to chop up a line, nobody wants to underplay an emotion. Aaron Sorkin is, in this way and many others, the opposite of Anderson. He doesn’t throw curveballs. He pitches straight down the middle. And the young cast of The Newsroom generally hits them out of the park. The show features, not only the lodestones of Daniels and Mortimer, but a spectacularly curated ensemble of young actors, anchored by the fantastic Allison Pill as a green producer. As they flawlessly intone Sorkin’s whirling speeches, however, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry that all their youthful energy is funneled into a cursory critique of a media culture that only kind of exists.

Once a master of the rhythms of the television episode, Sorkin no longer has a natural feel for the breaks. He has been much more confident, and much less frenetic, in his recent film work. Moneyball especially: it was at once Sorkin’s most quietly contemplative script and one of his strongest. Bolstered by Brad Pitt’s Redfordian performance, Moneyball was no less inspirational, no less gung-ho, and no less optimistic than Sorkin’s other work, but that was all accomplished through an aesthetic that looked and felt surprisingly like minimalism or even naturalism. It was a tale of ambivalent triumph and self-questioning, even as it dramatized the ultimate victory of idealism over stodgy conservatism. It has some great speeches, but it allowed its characters to be quiet, to accommodate inarticulacy, to think before speaking rather than declaiming in fully articulated sentences. And it ended without fist-pumping, without high fives, without any kind of smug jingoism. Aaron Sorkin, it turns out, is still able to make resonant films about the triumph of the human spirit that are not comedies. It’s not unlike what David Milch does on HBO.

Ironically, what made Moneyball so great, or at least so promising, is what characterizes a lot of the recent trend toward slow, procedural television. As Sorkin moves into the now guaranteed second season of The Newsroom, we can all hope that he’ll take the lessons he learned from that movie to heart. What’s more, his existence now in the HBO stable of talent means that he will likely have the freedom to experiment. This is the network that greenlit and renewed Luck and Enlightened just this year. It’s a network where great artists are allowed, even encouraged, to take risks. What happens if not every line sets up a punchline? What happens if the camera observes rather than stages action? And, more to the point, what can a playwright bring to a novelist’s medium? Can there be on TV not just a Moneyball Sorkin, but yet another kind of Aaron Sorkin? Like one of his own heroes, Sorkin might take his strengths as a lyrical writer, his mastery of form and rhythm, and his genius as an optimistic chronicler of the banalities of power to produce something truly new and worthwhile on television. It’s easy, as we laud and relish what has happened to American TV since his exodus, to see Aaron Sorkin as a kind of relic. He might be a prophet, too. It’s hard, yet, to tell.

 

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