Judging The Crimes of Aaron Sorkin and ‘The Newsroom’

HBO’s “The Newsroom”

So everyone on the internet (or at least the pop culture hubs I visit) will tell you that The Newsroom was a letdown. They will tell you that it is an exercise in the self-derivation of Aaron Sorkin and that in this particular exercise, Sorkin regurgitated his worst qualities rather than his best ones. I mean, Grantland editor Sean Fennessey
lost 3,700 followers after he tweeted something semi-approving during the show’s premiere last Sunday. That’s how excited people are to hate this show.

Why? Because it’s Aaron Sorkin.

Sarah Nicole Prickett of The Globe and Mail wrote an article that simultaneously labeled him “the Jonathan Franzen of screenwriting” (catchy) and exposed him as an arrogant and sexist jerk. Welcome to Aaron Sorkin. He is both a genius and an asshole.

Sound familiar? If so, it’s because the leading characters in Sorkin’s universe often also earn that title—the genius asshole. I’m not old enough to really remember the episodes of West Wing that I watched with my mom, but I have seen A Few Good Men and The Social Network and Moneyball (OK, so in Moneyball, it was divided into Jonah Hill as the genius and Brad Pitt as the asshole, but the concept is still there).

People are quick to point out that Will McAvoy’s (Jeff Daniels) opening monologue about how great America used to be in exactly in line with Sorkin’s previous writing. Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg eviscerated the Winkelvii’s lawyer in the same manner as Will McAvoy destroyed Sorority Barbie. Colonel Jessup gave a speech that went down in movie-quoting history. Sorkin does big speeches that don’t happen in real life, and maybe that’s why all the kids in the audience of the debate pull out their phones to record. Wouldn’t you?

But it’s more than that. Look at the way Will employs sarcasm to disarm MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer). Listen to the quippy pace of people’s insults. Watch this incredible supercut:

So we’ve entered a world of repeat.

Accusation Number One, Self-Derivation: Of that, Sorkin is Guilty.

We can all just agree to that. Sorkin does what he does well and doesn’t seem to have a problem reusing those things. The question remains whether or not he reused them well this time.

And here’s my answer: Sort of.

The ultimate triumph of The Social Network (which is, in my opinion, maybe the best movie in the last five years) is that it does not spare Zuckerberg. Sure, at the end of the day, Sorkin is presenting him as a master creator. Will McAvoy would maybe even call him a “great man” who “aspired to intelligence.” Those qualities are highly rated in Sorkin’s works. But it also wasn’t afraid to make Mark look like an insecure punk kid. We could judge him. Will McAvoy judges us. Sorkin has written McAvoy above our criticism. He isn’t a man struggling with creation or identity. He’s a prick who thinks he’s above everyone else, and what’s worse, Sorkin agrees with him.

There’s time to improve that. It’s only been one episode; there’s still room for Will to became a breathable character. Instead of exalting him, Sorkin can still choose to lower him into the masses and let them get a good look at him. He could. He might not.

Accusation Number Two, Imperfect Character Development: Guilty.

There is also a lot of bluster about how the women of this show are betrayed by its writing. I would flat out disagree. Maggie (Allison Pill) and MacKenzie might be bullied by the men in the newsroom, but they’re not weak people. Maggie is the ultimate grow-into-herself character, and MacKenzie is holding her own. Are the men bullying them? Absolutely. Is that 100 percent accurate to real life? Yes. Sure, women have a place in the workplace now, but let’s not all pretend that they’re treated so much better than Sorkin portrays them. Go back and take a second look at The Social Network and see how it compares. Those women are objects. They are flat characterization of neurotic, crazy bitches or they are physical reminders of sex. These women are people. Let Sorkin off the hook on this one.

Accusation Number Three, Sexism (within the show, I can’t promise anything about the man): Innocent.

So we have a show that repeats a lot of Sorkin themes, not to the best of its abilities. Keep in mind that it’s the pilot, and the next few episodes aren’t going to right these wrongs. The first season of a series always has some growing pains. It, like all good characters, has to figure out what it was going to be. Look at (a completely different, and totally unrelated, show) New Girl. The second half of the first season was infinitely better than the first. The Newsroom, I hope, will get where it needs to be.

As Mac would say: We can do better.

But wait a second–look at that pilot again. I’m talking as if it was bad. Was it bad? Do you think so? No. It was brilliant. It was Sorkin. It had flaws, but didn’t it inspire you? Didn’t you root for the characters? Didn’t you care? Aren’t you tuning back in on Sunday? Yes. Because it’s good. And there’s a chance it could be great.

Accusation Number Four, Bad Show: Innocent.

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