In the entire Pop Culture landscape, there is probably no more polarizing figure than Aaron Sorkin… and I’m just talking about inside my head. One of the few pure screenwriters to have a style distinctive enough to create his own ouevre, Sorkin is great at writing dialogue, writing inspiring speeches, writing about political issues; he can be inspiring and infuriating, intelligent and insipid; plus, he’s egomaniacally insane.
Sorkin’s career has thus far had three eras. First came his trilogy of filmed plays (A Few Good Men, Malice, The American President), which culminate in a memorable monologue, are endlessly rewatchable, and are the movie equivalent of delicious, empty calories.
Then came the trilogy of television shows that turned Sorkin into a star: the incomplete Sports Night, the great West Wing (Seasons 1-4), and the abortion that was Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. All these shows featured a speech-heavy style, self-important characters, and moments of touching transcendence. It’s no coincidence that Sorkin’s most successful original movie and television show were both set in the White House, one of the few places on Earth that can match the grandiosity he gives to his characters (plus, he somehow was able to conjure up Barack Obama a decade before his election).
After the disaster of Studio 60, Sorkin embarked on a trilogy of non-fiction screenplays (Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Moneyball). These allowed him to bring his talents for structure and dialogue to a preexisting framework that kept him away from his worst excesses (plus, he was able to conjure up the most adorable screen pixie since Shirley Temple got her period).
Now, in a grand showbiz tradition, Sorkin has used his recent success to return to the form that almost destroyed him with HBO’s The Newsroom. So, has he changed at all?
Given that he seems to be running the Aaron Sorkin Televison Playbook step-by-step, the answer is probably no. Let’s take a look.
The True, Yet Overblown, Yet Ennobling, Yet Destructive Opening Speech
Sorkin usually does well at pilots… even Studio 60’s only hinted at the carnage to come. And they often open with an important character getting in trouble for telling the truth in a belligerent way. The West Wing began with Josh (off-screen) making a crack to a evangelical and almost losing his job. Studio 60 began with the Lorne Michaels doppelganger going on an on-air rant about how commerce had destroyed his vaunted sketch comedy show and losing his job. The Newsroom begins with anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) unleashing a tirade on a college student who asks at a forum, “Can you tell me why America is the greatest country in the world?”, and worrying about losing his job. I mean, I like Network too, but we get it already.
The Rhetorical Strawmen That Only Exist In Sorkin’s Head
See: a 20-year-old college student asking the question, “Can you tell me why America is the greatest country in the world?” with a straight face (at the P.C.H.A alma mater of Northwestern, no less).
The Mythical Sorkin Republican (or Christian)
Look, I’m no fan of the modern Republican Party… if only they could be like Aaron Sorkin’s unicorns. Like Ainsley Hayes on The West Wing and Harriet Hayes on Studio 60 (maybe they were cousins?), Will McAvoy is a registered Republican. Does he resemble a Republican in any way? Of course not. But labeling him as such allows Sorkin to set up “arguments” that are “fair and balanced”.
A Very Paternalistic Sense Of Liberalism
Sorkin is often dismissed as a liberal mouthpiece, and it’s certainly fair to say that his political point of view is far to the left. But, at the same time, he yearns for the days before multi-culturalism when information was more tightly controlled by an elite. Never is this more apparent than in the opening credits for The Newsroom, which should be subtitled, “Can’t we go back to listening to old white men?”
Sorkin’s liberalism also runs headlong into his fetishizing of the past. In his opening monologue, McAvoy harkens back to when America used to be great, when we used to “write great laws.. create great things… not beat our chests… not scare so easily.” It would be a waste of space, even on Sorkin’s hated Internet, to catalogue the ways in which none of those statements is true (OK, fine… slavery… nuclear weapons… Bob Hope specials… McCarthyism).
A Token Minority Character Without Any Distinct Characteristics Besides His Skin Color
This isn’t to accuse of Sorkin of racism… he admits to writing all of his characters the same way, letting the acting differentiate them. But it does seem that any minorities in his casts are just a way to avoid controversy. The Indian blogger Neal (Dev Patel) is just the most recent model of Charlie from The West Wing and Simon from Studio 60. I just hope to god that Sorkin doesn’t try to write about minority culture again (or, at least, he refrains from criticizing Martin Luther King, Jr. for bad writing).
The Oft-Repeated Brilliance Of The Main Characters
Dan and Casey had an unparalleled chemistry that elevated sports highlights. Toby and Sam wrote Presidential addresses of Olympian brilliance. Matt Albie was a sketch comedy writer who was able to satirize and encapsulate American culture in just a few minutes (with such gems as Juliette Lewis hosting Meet The Press and Nicholas Cage hosting a talk show, no less). Jeff Daniels has a brilliance and charisma that makes him the only hope for the comeback of real news. How do I know this? Because the supporting characters repeat it over and over and over again.
The Slavishly Adoring Female Assistant
Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) follows in the footsteps of Natalie from Sports Night, Donna and Margaret from The West Wing, and whoever that boring chick on Studio 60 was as the disconcertingly loyal female assistant. I personally would love to see a reality show about Sorkin’s real-life assistants… I picture a blood loyalty oath, matching outfits, shaved heads, and daily feedings of grapes while Sorkin lays shirtless on a couch.
Exes “Forced” To Work Together
At the beginning of The West Wing, Josh’s blunder forced him to hire image consultant Mandy, his ex-girlfriend (a character so horrible that she was jettisoned after the first season). At the beginning of Studio 60, Wes’ firing caused the return of Matt to ex-girlfriend Harriet’s show (a character so horrible she should have been jettisoned after the first episode). At the beginning of The Newsroom, Will’s speech causes his boss to hire his ex-girlfriend MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) as the new executive producer.
Female Execs Who Care (Loudly And Explicitly) About Quality Over Ratings, And Yet Have Risen To The Pinnacle Of Commercial Television
Dana on Sports Night, Jordan on Studio 60, MacKenzie on The Newsroom.
Gruff, But Kind And Wise, Svengali Overlords
Isaac on Sports Night, Leo on The West Wing, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) on The Newsroom. (Given that Robert Guillaume had a stroke and John Spencer died of a heart attack while playing their roles, it might be time for Waterston to take out some extra insurance.)
The Whole Staff Quitting Out Of Genius Jealousy
The speechwriting staff when Will replaces Sam on The West Wing; the sketchwriting staff when they get the chance to make a pilot at Fox on Studio 60; the newswriting staff after Will’s meltdown on The Newsroom.
Broadway Shows As The Paragon Of “Highbrow” Culture
An episode of Sorkin without a reference to a musical (most often Gilbert and Sullivan) is like a day without sunshine. In The Newsroom pilot, several characters reference The Man From La Mancha. Broadway musicals are a way for Sorkin to pretend to being highbrow (when as Slate rightly points out, they’re actually the epitome of middlebrow entertainment).
Kudos to DrFunky17 for killing it with this YouTube montage (god, how Sorkin would loathe everything about that sentence).
As the clip shows, any obsessive Sorkin watcher will notice the same phrases popping up again and again. We will be cataloguing them each week. From the Pilot:
“We reached for the stars” from Will’s rant – echoes President Bartlett’s speech after the college terrorist attacks.
“Speaking truth to stupid” from MacKenzie’s rant – echoes “Speaking truth to power”, which was used throughout The West Wing.
Life-Changing Felt-Tip Messages Will’s rant is spurred by MacKenzie flashing a hand-written message to him from the audience. Bartlett’s run for President is spurred by Leo posting a hand-written “Bartlett For America” cocktail napkin.