Aaron’s talkin’

I heart Aaron Sorkin. I know he’s had his ups and downs. And some feel he’s consistently failed to beat The West Wing in the years since he left the show that sealed his legend. Certainly, his most celebrated works post-West Wing have been movies: his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network, and his Oscar-nominated decisive final draft of Moneyball. But those who felt that TV had lost him to Hollywood – or lost him back to Hollywood, as that’s where he learned his licks after a foundation in theatre – were wrong, and HBO’s The Newsroom was breathlessly anticipated, not least in my house. Many felt he had something to prove. I didn’t. But they did.

I say: if Sorkin had just written The West Wing – or to be specific, the first four seasons, which is 88 episodes, by the way – he’d have a seat for life at the top table of all great screenwriters for either of the two main types of screen. Some consider its follow-up Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip to have been a “down” for Sorkin, as it was cancelled by NBC and lost a lot of viewers, but for me it had merit. An heroic failure, maybe. Even more critics consider The Newsroom to be a “down”; it’s certainly had a lot of flack in the US.

As a Sorkin groupie, I tried harder than most American critics to love The Newsroom, which was easy enough for the pilot episode, but more difficult for Episode 2. But Episode 3, The 112th Congress, rewarded me for my loyalty and my patience (I’m calling it “the Network episode”), and Episode 4, I’ll Try To Fix You (and yes, it is named after the line in the Coldplay song), which I watched on Thursday night after the Olympics had finished (the Olympics never finishes), took the show up to where I think it belongs. I’m saying nothing about the plot, as many of you won’t be able to watch this legally until it comes out on DVD, or may have taped it, but suffice to say, it built up to an amazing climax, built around Fix You. It danced close to schmaltz, but trod on no toe, and my heart was in my mouth.

What I’m saying is: if you gave The Newsroom a look and bailed before Episode 3, bail back in. Loving Aaron Sorkin has never been a walk in the park. You have to strap in.

Because The Newsroom‘s initial reviews were lukewarm at best, lukecold at worst, HBO has since been accused of “creativity” with the quotes it plastered across print ads for the show. For instance, the critic from Salon, Willa Paskin, was quoted as having hailed The Newsroom as “captivating, riveting, rousing,” when in fact she actually said, “The results are a captivating, riveting, rousing, condescending, smug, infuriating mixture, a potent potion that advertises itself as intelligence-enhancing but is actually just crazy-making.” Naughty.

I am a writer. I started out writing prose journalism. (Actually, I wrote, or co-wrote, two amateur stage plays before I got my first job in journalism.) For the last 15 years I have written scripts. I’m currently writing two scripts, both pilots, in development. The first of the two is not going at all well. The second is going better, but negativity from the first infected the second this week, and I found myself blocked. There are many ways to clear writer’s block. One of them is to watch other scripts that have been made, in order to inspire you. I watched The Newsroom Episode 4 on Thursday, after a very frustrating day’s writing (or not writing), and it did inspire me. Oddly, it also reminded me that I’m never going to write anything as good as The Newsroom Episode 4. (It should be stated that Sorkin wrote the first episodes of the first season by himself. There are other writers on the team – most of whom were let go at the end of the first season in a night of the long typewriter ribbons – but Sorkin still writes alone.)

The scripts I am writing are comedies. They are not The Newsroom. But The Newsroom is comedic. Aaron Sorkin is a writer of drama – talky drama – that finds natural humour in the cadences of speech. Much of his dialogue is banal. And yet, once it’s stacked up into conversations that, for me, recall the best of screwball comedy (a form at which the Americans reign supreme), it flies. It is airborne. There is much to learn from Sorkin, as a comedy writer. In Sorkin, a punchline doesn’t have to be a joke, it just has to be the last line in an exchange.

I also watch Veep, currently, as inspiration for writing my own comedy. Although it also comes from the HBO stable of overt, cocky smartitude, it is British-written – in fact, often by people I know – and it, too, gives confidence, despite being skyscrapingly brilliant. It’s also screwball, without the portent of The Newsroom’s one-hour running time, or the portent of The Newsroom’s brief. It’s good to aspire, I find, no matter how ludicrous that aspiration.

Sorkin does not just use mundane office conversation as a Trojan horse for melodramatic, political or narrative impact. Sometimes, he just writes a Big Speech, and gives it to one of his principal characters. In The West Wing, most of the White House staffers spoke in speeches. Not everybody does in The Newsroom. But Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, once Dumb and Dumber, now Clever and Cleverer) does, all the time. He began the season with a Big Speech. I’d like to reprint it, in full. This kind of TV writing should either inspire you to greatness or retirement. (I’m currently wavering between those two impostors, and treating them just the same.)

McAvoy is on a panel at a university between a left winger and a right winger. He is unengaged by the debate. A student steps up to the mic during the Q&A and asks what makes America the world’s greatest country. The panel moderator keeps needling him for a proper answer to the question, which he is avoiding. Will states, “It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor, that’s my answer.” Pushed further, he dismisses the liberal (“Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fuckin’ smart, how come they lose so GODDAM ALWAYS!”); then he dismisses the conservative: “And with a straight face, you’re going to tell students that America’s so starspangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.” And then hell is unleashed. Ready?

And you – sorority girl – yeah – just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about?! Yosemite?!!!

We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.

Actually, the second movement is less important than the first, but I reprint both because I might wish to come back and read that again.

Aaron Sorkin is not everybody’s cup of tea. The Newsroom is clearly not everybody’s cup of tea. Some people don’t like tea. Some people have a far lower threshold for liberal American speechmaking than I. Some people may not like the patter of His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story or Mr Smith Goes To Washington – written, respectively, by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; Donald Ogden Stewart, Waldo Salt and Philip Barry; and Sidney Buchman – while I lap it up, like tea. Some people might prefer their drama to have action in it, rather than conversation. But conversation is action in Aaron Sorkin.

Did I mention that I heart him?

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9 thoughts on “Aaron’s talkin’

  1. Really interesting that you note the second part of that quote Andrew. I am just as big a fan as you are of Sorkin but his biggest weaknesses is neatly encapsulated there – the first part is amazing with it’s anger and analysis – the second part actually slips into what the first part is criticising. I think perhaps I’m too British and he’s too American but the only times he frustrates me is when he drifts into patriotism. Whenever ‘that music’ is playing over one of the President’s moments in The West Wing for example. But I’m nitpicking – and I agree with you that the Newsroom and Studio 60 have been treated harshly. It’s the Woody Allen problem isn’t it? Woody Allen has probably made more truly great films than an awful lot of directors but because his recent films haven’t been to the same standard the party line is that he’s rubbish. So strange how the world approaches these things.

    • I forgive Sorkin his patriotism, because it does seem to reflect the country he writes about and writes in. That sort of patriotism doesn’t slip down so easily over here (can you imagine David Cameron saying “God bless Great Britain”?), and it can stick in the craw. But even liberals believe in America as if it were the promised land over there. And at least McAvoy’s flag-waving schtick is founded on a rejection of knee-jerk nationalistic self-love.

  2. Hi Andrew, interesting article. I’ve just finished watching Studio 60. I think there are episodes and scenes that are just as good as The West Wing, which I loved but occasionally found the liberal wish-fulfilment a bit grating (even though I’m a leftie liberal)! I think Studio 60’s romantic plot lines are as moving, funny and fresh as, say, Annie Hall or The Apartment. Also, I can’t think of another drama series where the romantic relationships have have more context, history, or emotional punch. And most importantly, you really care about the characters.

  3. I can imagine David Cameron saying God save the Queen. I can imagine a mass of Britons cramming one of those self-important London streets and waving flags and singing God save the Queen and generally believing most of that second movement could apply to this country. The problem with the second movement is not simply that it’s patriotic, it’s that much of it simply isn’t true.

    I like the three films you mention at the end. I possibly even “heart” The Philadelphia Story. I can’t claim to have seen much of Sorkin’s work but that’s mostly because – to quote a song that’s been banging around my head this week – c’est pas ma tasse de thé. I don’t know what the French is for “He gets on my tits.” Sometimes it is what you say; not the way that you say it.

  4. Maybe I have spent to many hours watching Law and Order, but all I can think of when I see that first picture is two men about to be sent to Attica for 25 million years of hard labour by the ruthless Jack McCoy.

    But slightly more seriously, before this post I had not really heard of Mr Sorkin, but that quoted speech is so awesome I am going to have to rectify that.

  5. Hi Andrew – I was just in the process of writing my first blog about this show when I came across yours. I was wondering if you’ve ever seen Sorkin’s earliest show, “Sports Night”? The similarities between the two are numerous and I’m worried that it’s more than the “usual” level of recycling ideas and closer to full self-plagiarism?

    • I have seen Sports Night. But this is not a sports show, so I think he’s entitled to return to the subject of TV? (Also, that was much more of an overt comedy, I feel.)

      • Oh absolutely, I’m not being critical of that in isolation at all. I think it’s simply that it runs deeper than that – the relationships and characters are overall very similar.
        Also, Sports Night wasn’t afraid of tackling some pretty tough issues and with a strong sense of morality all the way through. Conversely in this, it feels very preachy and forced in, which isn’t working as well for me so far.

    • Poor Sports Night. It got off on the wrong platform. It should never have been filmed as a sitcom with bright, flat lighting and a studio audience. The dialogue and character arcs were too meaty, and yet it filled all the requirements for comedy, too. Maybe Sorkin is resurrecting elements of that show in a format it was destined for. And poor Aaron. He has been accused of dialogue recycling in the past, pulling lines from West Wing to Studio 60…I didn’t notice it, and even if I had, I don’t see a problem with it. He is masterful at writing dialogue. If I could come up with a tiny fraction of the gems he’s dropped I would get as much mileage as I could out of them. Comedians have no trouble reusing jokes from their standup shows to their sketch shows to their sitcom shows and you’d think that would be a greater danger since, to quote Sorkin via Matt Alby in Studio 60, “jokes aren’t as funny the second time around.” And yet I’ve seen comedians lob their jokes across 3 or 4 platforms before they finally put them to rest. That seems to be acceptable to viewers…even after the fourth round we still laugh. If Aaron Sorkin has indeed recycled dialogue or even story lines I’m all for it. I never get tired of hearing or watching it. I’m already spellbound by the above excerpt.

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