Aaron Sorkin is good at a lot of things. He’s good at giving characters names that roll of the tongue with over-alliteration (see: CJ Cregg, Mackenzie MacHale). He’s good at dialogue. He’s good at having characters fight. He’s good at politics. He’s good at writing movies. Occasionally, he’s good at making television.
One of the many things that doomed Sorkin’s 2006 attempt on the small screen, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was the feeling that he was simply trying to remake The West Wing in a different setting. The idea he was trying to force down our throats was that the backstage drama at a Saturday Night Live knock-off could be quite as consequential as the backstage drama in the White House. And quite simply, it wasn’t. The political ramifications of a sketch about the President are just simply small compared to a scene in which the President ordered a tactical assault on a foreign power. And the drama of poor unfortunate celebrities didn’t quite pull the heartstrings the way that the drama of overworked and underpaid geniuses attempting to help the country did. And so feeling like Studio 60 was a cheap knockoff of television gold, audiences fled, and it was soon cancelled.
I actually liked Studio 60 a little more than many other people, and stuck through it to its unnecessary end. Despite all of it’s flaws, there’s no denying that it was charming, and entertaining to watch when it wasn’t lost in a quagmire of its own self-righteousness. And so I was quite excited to discover that after Oscar-winning success at screenwriting, Sorkin was moving back to television in a new HBO show about cable news. I thought, this at least is an appropriate arena for the political and social meanderings Sorkin likes to take. That was step one in improving upon his Studio 60 failure. Step two was quickly established as well when I saw that the cast of characters all logically worked together on a single show, as opposed to randomness of the Chairmen of the Board of a media conglomerate constantly dealing with the cast of a sketch comedy show. I maintained cautious optimism for the show.
And so “We Just Decided To” aired and it felt less like an attempt to put The West Wing into cable news and more like an attempt to redo Studio 60 and fix it this time. The parallels to the pilot of that show are multifold. The episode opens with a BIG CONTROVERSIAL EVENT in the form wizened media icon unloading publicly about the faults of something. This BIG EVENT causes some sort of staffing shift at the SHOW involving bringing in SEASONED VETERANS who are too good for the job but have nowhere else to go. An IDEALISTIC EXECUTIVE brings them to the SHOW in a maverick-esque move against the profit-grubbing executives he/she is forced to work with. The SEASONED VETERANS cause CONFLICTS with the EXISTING STAFF both personal and professional. Two WILL THEY/WON’T THEY COUPLES are identified. Eventually, everyone agrees they can make the SHOW the best it can be, free of COMMERCIALIZED PROBLEMS it had before. The FIRST SHOW with the NEWLY UNITED STAFF is aired. It is a fantasy version of real-life shows in that medium. All rejoice and look towards a BETTER FUTURE TOGETHER. Roll credits.
Which show am I talking about? If you’ve seen Studio 60 you’ll know that’s the basic plot of the first two episodes. And it also the basic plot of the first (extra-long) episode of The Newsroom. It’s not necessarily a bad plot. I’ve just seen it before. And it didn’t lead to good longevity in 2006. And though I liked Studio 60, a rehashed version of it with slightly better characters and a better setting is not what I was looking for when I turned The Newsroom on. Sorkin seems like that student who wrote a bad paper, but keeps trying to revise it to get an A. It’s not the paper that’s the problem, it’s the subject. If you want to make it better, you have to start from scratch.
There is much to be said about the other problems with the show, including Sorkin’s inability to write strong women and the cynicism that is masked as idealism, and it’s been said very eloquently by other reviewers. See Linda Holmes’ excellent review from NPR. My main problem with the show is that it’s problems are all things we’ve seen before from Sorkin. Political grandstanding and idealistic speeches are simply not made in normal discourse. And surprisingly, in his most political undertaking, The West Wing, Sorkin seemingly did not feel the need to have his characters espouse forced patriotic platitudes in nearly every scene. Rather, the dialogue was natural and normal (if a little fast), and the plots, though larger than life, felt natural as well, and were original every time.
Now with only one episode in, it is unfair to fully judge the series as a profanity-riddled Studio 60 remake, as we have to let the show find its sea legs. I’m hopeful it will start to pull in a different direction, because despite his faults, I do have a great tonnage of faith in Aaron Sorkin. He wrote things like this. So perhaps he just has to figure out how The Newsroom really works. After all, the first season of The West Wing did have Mandy in it.