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?