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You Tell a Story Like a Broken Record: Aaron Sorkin's "Newsroom" Problem

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | September 10, 2012 | Comments ()


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In an episode from the fourth season of "The West Wing," one of the characters compliments speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) on a sentence she found particularly moving. He brushed off the praise, joking that he probably lifted the line from Camelot, explaining: "Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright." The explanation itself is a meta-joke from writer and series creator Aaron Sorkin, since the line is a rewording of T.S. Eliot's "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." It's meant to be both a cute summation of the way writers always wind up borrowing ideas from each other and a wink to anyone who's done enough writing or reading to recognize the source of the joke. It works on any level you want it to.

That's not the whole line, though. The full quote, from Eliot's essay "Philip Massinger," reads: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." It's that last bit that's had me hung up as I've watched the first season of "The Newsroom," Sorkin's latest TV venture and his first since the cancellation of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" in 2007. "Newsroom" is classically Sorkin, a show full of earnest people doing difficult things out of devotion to ideals they perceive as higher than their own, but it's also his most problematic series to date because it reflects the degree to which he has little (if any) interest in doing something different from what he's done before. There have been some good moments sprinkled throughout the first season, but most of the episodes are merely proof that Sorkin doesn't want to do anything else than recycle his old stuff while delivering grandstanding speeches to the cheap seats.

He started lifting from his own work when he was only on his second series, taking dialogue and plot lines from the low-rated "Sports Night" and putting them into "The West Wing," which debuted one year later. He wasn't just revisiting themes, either. He was taking stories and sentences from one show and directly porting them into the other. My impression at the time was of a man paying homage to his own doomed work -- in addition to being rough around the edges, "Sports Night" was never the popular success "The West Wing" was -- as a kind of nod to the smaller fan base that had found Sorkin through his first series. Yet the intervening years, and Sorkin's increasingly repetitive means of telling stories, have shown that such lifts aren't intertextual or even accidental; they're who he is.

The "Sorkinisms" supercut released earlier this year highlights the similarities between his previous work, but "Newsroom" continued the tradition. Consider:

  • At the end of the third episode of "Newsroom," characters gather to chat about midterm election results while toasting "God bless America," a scene taken from the "West Wing" episode "The Midterms."
  • When Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) references an employee named Mohammad al Mohammad al Mohammad bin Bazir, he's using the same name deployed in a hypothetical argument on domestic policy in the "West Wing" episode "20 Hours in America."
  • When Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) says her associate producer "wouldn't complain if her hair were on fire," she's using the same piece of praise given to a producer character on "Sports Night."
  • When Mac, ethically tormented over some the trashier stories she's overseeing, worries about doing "a big thing badly," she's using the same specialized phrase uttered by the senior producer on "Sports Night" in a similar situation.

There have been other echoes, too, little touches that seem to suggest that each of these shows takes place in neighboring universes created by the same neurotic god. Will sees a therapist to treat his insomnia, as President Bartlet did in "West Wing"; Mac briefly dates someone in the U.S. Attorney's office, just like her counterpart, Dana, did on "Sports Night"; coworkers play Celebrities at parties; Mac's ex is a reporter brought in to write about her, much the way Sam Seaborn's ex did on "West Wing"'; Mac encourages her junior producer to "gather ye rosebuds" and chase his dream girl, using the same poem Donna used to encourage Josh on "West Wing" in a similar situation; etc., etc. You start to see the patterns pretty clearly after a while. Sorkin isn't a man given to underthinking things. Such riffs on his own work -- such self-plagiarism, if you want to get down to it -- aren't happening accidentally. No writer would be able to reuse their own words without knowing they were doing it. Just ask Jonah Lehrer.

Here's what I'm realizing, though: This isn't a departure for Sorkin from what he's trying to do. This is what he's trying to do. In fact, it's probably the purest distillation of his m.o. to date. This isn't some subconscious slip, or something he's doing as a wink to the viewer. Sorkin is interested in telling a story only to a certain point: he's more interested in making a specific argument about the human condition as it relates to his worldview and personal history, after which character and plot are harnessed in service to the goal. Long-term arcs on his series feel more like happy accidents than any planned result. Season- and series-long characters are created more to tell short stories than anything else.

This first appeared in the first season of "Sports Night," in which Jeremy (Joshua Malina, recast in so many of Sorkin's projects he's become a living Sorkinian motif) discovers that his father's been having an affair for decades. As a way to externalize his attempt to find out how/when/why his family fell apart, he throws himself into the story of The Sword of Orion, a yacht that wrecked in a race a decade earlier. The boat and Jeremy's investigation of it are never mentioned again after these particular 22 minutes are up, and his home life takes a backseat, as well. It's not about the boat, and it's not even about Jeremy's coming of age, but about Sorkin enjoying the idea of a man going through this very specific type of adult tragedy and then seeking to resolve his grief by fixing an analogous real-world problem. The fact that Sorkin ripped off his own story for a "West Wing" episode in which Sam also realizes his father's been having an affair for decades and also attempts to externalize the problem by investigating an outside betrayal is almost beside the point -- it's not so much about the recycling of the plot as it as Sorkin's inability to invent (or want to invent) something new to do. He's found a certain set piece he likes, so he trots it out again. His roots as a playwright come through here, when he could write something knowing it was designed to be put up again and again in different ways. He's just doing his own version of it.

The habit also shows up with the revolving door through which characters enter and exit with no purpose or impact beyond the metaphor they're there to convey. (Sorkin is essentially writing high-end "Saved by the Bell"-type stuff, where each episode almost exists in its own timeline.) When "West Wing" press secretary C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney) deals with a reporter recently returned from a foreign beat, it becomes clear that their history is filler and their future pointless. He's only there to let Sorkin talk about how depressing it is that the political press writes more about gossip than policy. It's not that that's not a worthwhile thing to talk about; it's just that it would be a whole lot more moving if it felt like it was coming from the mouth of a real human, not a mouthpiece. The guy never comes back. "West Wing" kind of straddled the fence with Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), a Republican hired for the White House Counsel's office so Sorkin can prove he's (very slightly) bipartisan and who was designed to have abstract debates about policy with the Democrats. She shows up in the second season and drifts along through the third, showing up sporadically and even earning a promotion at the end of the third season to a more senior role in the office. Then she vanishes and no one mentions her: she wasn't a person, just an idea. Sorkin's goals are different from what we're used to seeing.

When you start to look at "Newsroom" this way -- not as a drama that fails in normal ways, but as a reflection of Sorkin's innate desire to stage one-acts with little real long-term emotional impact -- the show makes slightly more sense. From any other writer, it would merely be written off as laziness to give every member of the "News Night" crew a personal connection to a high-level source for a major story. (e.g., Will could've broken the story about the death of Osama bin Laden if only he'd seen the email from Joe Biden, his golf buddy.) But the charge of laziness assumes that the writer doesn't know how to tell a compelling drama about journalism. Sorkin isn't interested in doing that at all. Rather, he wants to make specific points about politics and culture by having his characters speak for him. The journalism is secondary, a kind of incidental thing that Sorkin has to deal with so he can get to the preaching. Real journalism, like most jobs, is somewhat boring to watch, and it takes time and effort to turn research into drama (see All the President's Men). "Newsroom" has to condense that stuff as much as possible so it can have more time for its historical fictions. The only goal here is to rewrap an old present and offer it up as a new gift.

As a TV viewer, it's incredibly frustrating to watch someone with such obvious talent and passion say the same things over and over again. There's nothing at all wrong -- in fact, there's a whole lot that's right -- with being drawn as a creator to the same big themes. The TV creators and film directors we've elevated to the American canon all have their own spiritual homes: Spielberg's absent fathers, Scorsese's warped Catholics, Whedon's stoic martyrs, etc. Sorkin's even got his own driving theme, deep down: the uneasy marriage between public service (news, government) and the special interests that make it possible (advertisers, lobbyists). Yet Sorkin never seems content enough to find new ways to talk about it. Worse, he doesn't even seem confident enough to try. He's instead resigning himself to crafting one-sided stories reworked from the few basic character outlines he's kept all these years. He's so busy spinning his old hits that he doesn't bother to see the real dramatic potential of his new show.

In fact, the nexus of all Sorkin's hang-ups can be found in the "West Wing" episode that kicked off its third season: "Isaac and Ishmael." Written hastily as a response to the 9/11 attacks, the episode aired on October 3 of that year and began with the cast talking as themselves about how the hour was a "storytelling aberration" that existed outside the series' main narrative. The episode is a bumpy, often mawkish playlet in which characters betray their established traits (e.g., the usually peace-loving and anti-gun C.J. delivers a monologue about the virtues of assassination) just so Sorkin could try to work out his developing feelings about living in what we were already calling a post-9/11 world. The episode is mainly a series of lectures, light history, and character notes that aren't attached to anything else in the show's run, and any attempt to measure the emotions of this hour against those of the ones surrounding it ends in confusion and madness. It's merely a chance for Sorkin to get some stuff of his chest, continuity and narrative integrity be damned. That's what's plaguing "Newsroom": it doesn't feel like it was created to do anything else but give Sorkin another soapbox.

When "West Wing" was having its president gear up for re-election, one character counseled another about the direction of the campaign, saying, "I don't care how subliminal it is. This can't be a national therapy session." His point was about the danger of using their candidate to feel superior to the opposition, which is the obstacle facing "Newsroom." It's designed to let its characters use Will to make themselves feel brave and true. It's also the problem that continues to haunt Sorkin. Everything he does is a national therapy session, but he never seems to make any progress.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • kirbyjay

    I agree with stofjas. It's not perfect but it's still better than watching yet another stupid talent show with stupider judges or some redneck chase a bunch of wild hogs. Thank you Aaron Sorkin for at least trying.

  • stofjas

    sheesh. queue the trolls and the haters. The Newsroom is not as good as West Wing was, as emotional as Studio 60 or as clever as Sports Night. But it is still better than 90% of the shit that is on the TV at the moment. In an era where we are being thumped by high concept, low brain-power tv shows Sorkin has delivered something that, at times, can get you thinking a bit, for a short time anyway. His repetitive nature is a bit of a pain, but at times it is also at times something that you recognize from the other shows and gives you a warm little embrace, reminding you of the good times. The main problem with Studio60 was always the nature of the BTS part of the show. It didn't always convince and the same goes for the BTS part of this show. News gathering is a slow process where contacts are plied and worked over months, not just random phone calls, but the nature of a short season show don't allow arcs of 20 episodes to get one contact so he works with what he has.
    I don't think Sorkin will win all the awards at the Emmy's this time but his show is notable for saying a few things that a lot of news networks in the real world don't always have the balls to say.

  • Jezzer

    A troll isn't someone who has a different opinion from yours, special snowflake. And the opinions of "haters" are exactly as valid as yours.

  • Arran

    So much self-copying in The Newsroom, and yet he didn't title the first-season finale What Kind Of Day Has It Been. I don't mind saying I was let down.

  • CrashnBurn

    Did you just get a Refreshments song stuck in my head?

  • wojtek

    This. All of this.

    I watched all of West Wing, and loved a lot of it, but Newsroom made me groan out loud. Plus, I think his God complex gets worse with age.

    That scene where the main character turns to the low-girl-on-the-totem-pole and soulfully declares that he FINALLY REMEMBERS HER FUCKING NAME - and she all but pees her panties in gratitude... had I any poop handy, I'd fling it at the screen. Alas, I did not.

  • dahlia6

    I hated Sports Night. A friend of mine forced me to watch it, and all I could think was just shoot me. Seriously, the show Just Shoot Me was better, and God, wasn't that a crap stinker.

  • Slash

    Yeah, I've always found Sorkin kinda boring and repetitive. I just didn't watch enough of his stuff to know why. I watched some West Wing, but it got old pretty quick. His characters' speechifying really grates after a while.

  • I like this piece.

  • L.O.V.E.

    Agreed. Carlson nailed it.

    Sorkin has set up a rigged chess game. His characters aren't people, but pawns and knights and bishops. Straw man argument to pedantic grandstanding speech to revisionist history to dramatic pause with Coldplay song, aaaand checkmate.

    I call shenanigans.

  • Lotney

    Sorking is growing more and more frustrated with the political discourse in America and making his point elegantly (West Wing) just doesn't scratch that itch anymore so he got all his characters to scream 98% of the time in front of the camera. I totally get it.

  • Pookie

    Sorkin’s problem is himself, I never watched “West Wing” and I refuse to watch “Newsroom.” shows like this are always about the writer trying to figure out himself or herself without paying for a shrink. The header picture tells it all, these two fuckers with their bottled water sitting up on stage pontificating about some nonsense and enjoying the smell of their farts. They act like they’re handing down some edict from on high.

  • stofjas

    wait? you have an opinion without actually having seen any of the shows... so in 15 years you have yet to see a Sorkin show but you have an opinion. Isn't this sort of what Sorkin is regularly moaning about? The uniformed giving their opinions on something they know nothing about? Oh the irony (do you know what that is or should i point you to an explanation. Here it is just in case http://dictionary.reference.co...

  • Pookie

    Right, I don’t have to watch any of Sorkin’s work to know what he rails about, just like I don’t have to stick my dick in Zoe Saldana to know that she has some good pussy. I’ve seen Sorkin being interviewed a thousand times to know what his song and dance are all about.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    All the times I've tried getting into Sorkin's shows, I've felt this way. That I wasn't watching fully realized characters interact in shorter and longer storylines, I was watching Aaron Sorkin acting out conversations that he'd like to have with people in specific situations. Like when you talk to your mirror as though it's someone you really want to confront and say all the stuff you wish you could in real life. I get it. I've heard what Aaron Sorkin has to say. His shows would be much more interesting if I could listen to what his characters might have to say.

  • ed newman

    Like most of us as we age, he tends to go back to what has worked for him in the past. He is stuck in a rut that he is unlikely to ever escape. The interesting sidebar, at least to me, is that even as his ability to generate fresh stories for series TV is waning, his ability to adapt others work for the movies has never been better. Moneyball and The Social Network are two of the best movies of the last decade and are evidence that when someone else is around to rein his tendencies, he can evolve and create classic and superior "Sorkin" works without relying on repetitive themes.

  • ruby

    It's a good point about his repetitiveness in the works where he's allowed more creative discretion, though I'm not sure I agree entirely. For example, take his play, 'The Farnsworth Invention.' It featured some of the same themes that Sorkin tends to play on, such as the backdrop behind the 'story' (or, in this case, the legal battle over the copyright on the invention of television), as well as a story that he's told before, (who's story Sam Donovan ends up telling JJ), while simultaneously creating something new.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    this:
    a show full of earnest people doing difficult things out of devotion to ideals they perceive as higher than their own
    doesn't make much sense (I'd say people earnestly attempting to be idealistic at the big stuff while failing on a smaller, intimate scale, and lacking the self-knowledge to see that both moral systems feed into each other)

    But other than that, a pretty astute piece. Formulaic=formulaic=boring.

    I want to like this show. I like some of the performances - Sorkin's speeches must be great fun for the actors - but the show is boring me.

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