The Newsroom: Can Aaron Sorkin, and Serious Politics, Survive?

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Sam Waterston and Jeff Daniels in Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom on HBO

Okay, I admit it—I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. I think that The West Wing is the best hour-long drama that’s ever appeared on American TV, and I think that A Few Good Men showed Tom Cruise doing his jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold shtick better than he’s ever done it.

It’s an indication of Sorkin’s stature in popular culture today that he’s the only writer whose trademarks such as witty banter and walk-and-talk are so well-known that Tina Fey could parody them on 30 Rock. She knew that most people would catch the reference. So the appearance of The Newsroom heralds the beginning of a new phase in the career of the most important writer of our time. And, yes, The Newsroom is a lot like The West Wing, but Sorkin is drawing on more than his own work in this new series, which I hope will have a long run. HBO is probably the right place for a Sorkin show.

It’s easy for us to say that Sorkin is so gifted, so smart, that he just sat down one day and started writing these brilliant scripts. Actually, though, if you think about what goes on in the newsroom in The Newsroom, you notice some things that look a little familiar. Young men and young women are shy with each other. They either don’t know how to say what they want to say, or they do know what they want to say, but they’re afraid to say it. Whatever they finally say, it often comes out funny.

Sure it does. And it did in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which is a major source of inspiration for Sorkin. Not so much for the jokes as for the idea that people would enjoy watching charming awkwardness on the screen.

But Woody is what I call a small-worlder. His classic movies of the '70s and '80s deal with problems involving the eternal triangle of the boy, the girl, and the movie. He may make jokes about politics, but politics, and social issues in general don’t affect or move his characters the way they do in Sorkin’s work. His characters are engaged with the world as Woody’s never are.

When his characters do the famous walk and talk, in The Newsroom as they did in the The West Wing, they’re often talking about serious national issues. So where does that come from? Not from Woody—that’s for sure. My answer is that it comes from Robert Altman’s Nashville. Politics and ideas are not abstractions for Altman, as they are not for Sorkin. Their characters dramatize politics and ideas in quirky and believable ways.

In Nashville, and in his other movies as well, Altman made politics and ideas vivid by creating ensembles that would interact in endlessly varied combinations. We see the ensembles of people who care about what’s going on in the world again and again in Sorkin’s work.

When Sorkin did the guest spot on 30 Rock, he said to Tina Fey as Liz Lemon something that may explain the intensity and pace of The Newsroom: “People like us are dinosaurs.” He means here the East Coast credentialed elite (he went to Syracuse), smart people who want to use their expertise to save the world.

So… in an age when politics is dominated by the aggressive populism spawned by the Internet, when getting your 15 minutes of fame may get you elected—or at least get you a lot of speaking gigs—can Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom, and serious politics survive? My answer is “yes.” Fortunately for us, The Newsroom is going to be with us for a while.

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JIm Curtis has a background in Russian studies, and is fascinated with both high culture and popular culture. He just finished a book on Dylan, and covers the book beat for The Morton Report.

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