TV shows are usually written by committee, and what finally goes on the air is the result of negotiations among the writers, the director(s), the producers, and the stars. That’s why Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show The Newsroom is so unusual, and so noteworthy. In addition to the successes of A Few Good Men, The American President, and The Social Network on the big screen, Sorkin also created and wrote most of The West Wing, one of the most-praised hour-long shows in the history of American television.
So we had high—probably unreasonably high—expectations for The Newsroom. The first episodes seemed a little diffuse, if only because he was writing such a long show. Writing a script for a show lasting an hour and 15 minutes is like writing two scripts for The West Wing—and doing it every week.
And of course those of us who are Sorkin fans and who have seen every episode of The West Wing several times spotted the similarities between The West Wing and The Newsroom right away. In both shows we have a gifted, charismatic, but flawed leader with an office of his own, where crucial scenes take place. And then we also have a large open area where staffers work and talk and do the “walk and talk” that has become Sorkin’s trademark.
Even Sorkin couldn’t quite make the first few shows come together. He was juggling so many balls, had so many themes and so many characters that the episodes were hard to follow. Then, too, in the early episodes I had the sense that the performers were feeling their way into their characters, and that’s a process that can’t be rushed.
But Sorkin didn’t get to where he is without exceptional gifts. He found The Newsroom, and the performers found their characters, in episode five, "Bullies." In the first four episodes Jeff Daniels as anchor Will McAvoy was tough on Republicans, although he said that he himself was a Republican. But Sorkin has much too keen a sense of dramatic effect to let Will simply become a propaganda mouthpiece. In "Bullies" there are two crises, and as it usually happens in Sorkin’s world, they have both personal and professional significance. First, Will tells Sloan, a junior anchor, not to lie on the air, and she precipitates a crisis by taking that literally. And then Will himself goes too far in an interview with a gay black man who works for Rick Santorum.
At this crucial moment Sorkin draws on and recycles a key sequence from The West Wing. I’m referring to the sequence, spread out over several shows, in which President Jed Bartlet suffers from insomnia, and under great protest agrees to see a psychiatrist. Finally, reluctantly, Bartlet acknowledges that he has unresolved issues with his demanding father, who hit him. Sorkin shows us the same situation with Will McAvoy, who makes several slips of the tongue on the air because he hasn’t slept for days. But Sorkin ups the ante with Will, who finally, under gentle but relentless questioning from a skilled psychiatrist, admits that he had an abusive, alcoholic father, and that in the fifth grade he was finally big enough to fight his father and protect his mother and sisters.
With this sordid family history as a back story, Will now appears to us a whole character, as a man whose personal history and public persona combine to create a depth and resonance that had been lacking in him. We now understand that he stands up to bullies as he stood up to his father. So when he calls Rick Santorum a bully, he’s not just scoring cheap debating points; he’s making a statement that comes from his life experience.
Although Sorkin is a word guy, a writer, he is a dramatic writer. And he has a quasi-Shakespearean sense of the dramatic moment when words get in the way, when less is more. (It’s not a coincidence that in The West Wing President Bartlet has three daughters, just as King Lear does.) In “Bullies,” Sorkin creates a dramatically successful moment by doing something I’ve never seen before on a network TV show—he takes on the biggest bully of them all, Rush Limbaugh. But Will doesn’t take him on, a junior staffer does. And the staffer doesn’t call Limbaugh names, because that would be playing Limbaugh’s own game, and no one can beat him at it. Rather, the staffer gets more and more upset as he watches Limbaugh on his computer screen until finally he punches the screen, smashing it to smithereens and breaking a couple of fingers in the process.
This brief incident shows why HBO is right for The Newsroom, and why The Newsroom is right for HBO. Sorkin is so gifted, and writes so fast, that he can turn out the long scripts that an HBO format requires. And HBO in turn gives him the freedom to take on Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh, as no network show could or would do.
So Sorkin has found The Newsroom by doing what the great dramatists have always done. He takes topical themes and gives them depth by showing the human element in them. Poet Ezra Pound once said that art is “news that stays news.” That’s the kind of news that The Newsroom reports on.