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.
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.)
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.