I Watched Everything Aaron Sorkin Ever Wrote

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
June 22 2012 7:30 AM

You Can’t Handle the Truth About Aaron Sorkin

I watched everything ever written by America’s finest creator of middlebrow entertainment—a Gilbert and Sullivan for our era.

(Continued from Page 2)

The characters on The West Wing are distinct because Janney, Spencer, Sheen, Lowe, Richard Schiff, et al., made them distinct. The perfect cast is also what saves Sports Night, Sorkin’s previous show, which otherwise never would have overcome the low stakes of its premise. (It’s about a SportsCenter-like program at a struggling network.) It helps that the each episode of that series is only 22 minutes long—not a ton of time for Sorkin to get all self-important, as he is wont to do. Sports Night ran for just two seasons, one of which overlapped with the first season of The West Wing; Sorkin, amazingly, was writing both shows at once. (Cocaine’s a hell of a drug. Sorkin reportedly quit using it in 2001.) He did recycle some of his favorite bits for both shows—a few of which he’d already put in a 1997 commencement speech, which he recently gave again. But the man’s never been afraid to go back to his best stuff. In The Newsroom pilot, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) says there was a time when Americans “reached for the stars.” He is, presumably, referring to the second term of the Bartlet administration.

NUP_106611_0126
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Mitch Haddad/NB.

Sorkin has gone back to the Sports Night well twice, first with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and now with The Newsroom. He hasn’t gotten it right yet. Studio 60 was a ludicrous effort to turn a Saturday Night Live­-style sketch comedy show into America’s last best hope for a questioning, engaged citizenry. Its sketches were fatally unfunny, and by the end of its single season, one of the comedians was for some reason negotiating with terrorists in Afghanistan. (Something to do with a brother in the military, but really, don’t ask.) Four episodes in, The Newsroom might be worse. After a promising pilot—always with the promising pilot—the show goes downhill quickly, becoming more and more smug as McAvoy and his team start covering actual news stories from the recent past exactly as those of us living a couple years later wish they’d been covered.

Happily, even if The Newsroom never gets better, Sorkin will apparently keep writing movies about real-life figures, probably with the same commitment to good story and disregard for historical accuracy that has served his best recent biopics. He’s now working on a movie about Steve Jobs. When it comes out, someone will point out all the things it gets wrong about Jobs, just as they pointed out his errors regarding Mark Zuckerberg and Billy Beane. Faithfulness to history isn’t really Sorkin’s thing. (If you think The Social Network got things wrong—and it did—you should check out his play The Farnsworth Invention, which has inspired an entire website devoted to its inaccuracies.)

Advertisement

Of course, whether these movies are any good will have as much or more to do with their directors as with Sorkin. Film is mostly a director’s medium. The Social Network has some obvious Sorkin dialogue, and is structured like one of his morality tales—but Fincher works against the grain of the script, milking the tension between Sorkin’s moralizing take on Zuckerberg and his own more ambiguous, even admiring slant. Bennett Miller’s Moneyball has just enough of Sorkin’s storytelling drive to sustain what is ultimately a very un-Sorkin-like character study of a guy who sort of resembles Billy Beane. The biopic that preceded those, on the other hand, Charlie Wilson’s War, was totally bungled by Mike Nichols (and by the horrible casting of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts).

If you want to watch Sorkin be Sorkin, TV will always be the place to do it. So one hopes that after a season or two of The Newsroom, he will finally get this backstage TV obsession out of his system and write a show about lawyers. No one can make a deposition dramatic like Aaron Sorkin. Recall that all of The Social Network, in reality, is one long deposition; even in his one thriller, Malice, a deposition provides the most riveting scene. Lawyers, not TV producers, are the perfect Sorkin subjects, since they argue for a living and often have to repeat things. The stakes in a courtroom are often high—and can be grasped instantly. (When making a TV show about lawyers, one needn’t pretend that a TV show will save America.) Such a series wouldn’t reinvent television, or anything else, but it would almost certainly divert us for an hour each week with the entertaining sound of intelligence.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Behold

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 7:13 PM Deadly Advice When it comes to Ebola, ignore American public opinion: It’s ignorant and misinformed about the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.