Aaron Sorkin hasn’t had a show on television in five years. Now, his latest project, The Newsroom, is premiering on HBO. It’s Sorkin’s corrective to cable news.
Journalists love writing about Sorkin. He is arguably the best-known screenwriter in America. He has a distinct style. He is talented, opinionated and loquacious. There is a lot to agree or disagree with in his comments and work.
He also chooses his projects carefully: he only has ten writing credits on IMDb. It appears his eleventh will be adapting Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. (Sorry Ashton, you picked the wrong script.)
I’ve actually written something about Aaron Sorkin, as well. But, like his last work on TV, mine is also from 2007.
This was before Brief Wit, before I began writing on an ongoing basis.
I wrote this piece five years ago and couldn’t get it published.
I think it’s relevant to share now…
It’s Not TV. It’s Aaron Sorkin.
What’s gone right, wrong and why Aaron Sorkin should ditch network television
As he reverts back to film and stage, high profile screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s TV life is at a crossroads. His last show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was canned and is not about to be resurrected in a backlash by a horde of fans that were nuts about it. This fall season will be the first in ten years that a series he created hasn’t been on the schedule.
Sorkin’s track record with TV series is mixed. His three shows have all premiered to glowing reviews, being hailed as sharp, smart, and sarcastic, but inevitably the ratings have fallen off or were never really strong to begin with, so the network pressure began to mount up. Sports Night, his first try, was given two seasons to find an audience, Studio 60 barely got away with one, even when it was clear the numbers weren’t going up. As for The West Wing, his shining achievement about a fictional White House administration, even its fate was tenuous season-to-season due to declining returns.
So, why can’t this guy get a show renewed more often than not?
Is it because the content is too smart and opinionated? Is it his propensity for high-mindedness on TV sets? Is it his unwavering consistency to politicize his shows? Well, for starters …yes.
Sorkin is TV’s lone “utopian solipsist” as New York Magazine’s Emily Nussbaum characterized him. His own lofty ideas of the way the world should work occupy every scene he writes. What other writer so blatantly infuses politics into his shows, overtly debating policy and propping up liberal ideals episode to episode, throwing the Republicans a token bone every now and again so he can say he did?
The general network TV audience likes to be challenged and impressed, but only to a point. Viewers en masse don’t want to turn on an entertainment program and be preached to about democratic values. And when has there ever been an explicitly conservative entertainment show on TV, in the way Sorkin’s have been liberal? The networks don’t put on shows that are overtly partisan unless they hide their politics behind gunfights and explosions, à la 24.
His juxtaposition of wedge issue back-and-forth banter interlaced with pop cult name-dropping and characters repeating the same quirky phrase of dialogue with a fresh coat of snark each time gets cumbersome. The intellectual concentration it requires to catch this tightly packed dialogue is substantial. It’s no secret that people on TV shows are supposed to speak smarter than the rest of us, but he has taken his characters’ collective wit to Mensa standards.
All these qualities have served him well in one way, though. They’ve attracted a small, but engaged, loyal, liberal, and most importantly affluent audience, which is why advertisers were willing to pay to reach this demographic even if the ratings weren’t high.
But the reasons the liberal elite loves him are the reasons the general populace has not tuned in. It’s the same reason the networks can only bear the DNC and RNC conventions every four years. The ratings keep falling. This hyper-appeal to a niche audience is at once a crutch and a curse.
Moreover, if Sorkin is trying to learn from experience, he isn’t doing a great job. He hasn’t exactly brought something brand new to the screen with each series. He started out with Sports Night, looking behind-the-scenes of a late night TV show, and ended up at the same place with Studio 60. One was sports and one was comedy, but if you’ve seen SNL and SportsCenter in the last few years, it’s getting hard to say which one tries and fails to makes you laugh more. In between there, he went behind-the-scenes of a Presidential administration, which for all intents and purposes is run like a TV show with its scripted and staged moments.
Sorkin’s writing has become formulaic, something that the current crop of successful shows (procedural crime dramas notwithstanding) like Lost and Prison Break have steered away from. If you like his formula, then you don’t mind so much, but if you don’t, then you change the channel.
Furthermore, a key reason why West Wing enjoyed some success, and conversely why Studio 60 failed, is because the White House is the one place where Americans long for high ideals, patriotism, dignity, and transcendent purpose. It was not plausible as an SNL knock-off: Tracy Morgan, Amy Poehler, and Jimmy Fallon were not having these talks. Plus, Sorkin’s sketches weren’t funny.
And, the reliance on the same handful of actors to play all of his characters has not helped freshen things up. Josh Lyman goes to Hollywood? Cue Bradley Whitford. Need a stereotype-fitting conservative but want him to be articulate? Cue John Goodman. Need Josh Malina to play Josh Malina? Re-watch The American President and cue Josh Malina. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Yet it’s not that Sorkin doesn’t have the talent in him. The first four years of West Wing are prolific, some of the best television programming in the last 20 years. This is the show that goes up against the family and wins, beating The Sopranos in the Emmys for top drama those first four years in a row. And lest we forget, this is when Sopranos solidified its legendary status, so much so that the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley wryly remarked recently while reviewing a new program, “It would be blasphemy to invoke The Sopranos, since no show is that good, not even The Sopranos.” Well, I guess West Wing was.
After that (and a few run-ins with the hallucinogenic mushroom police), Sorkin left West Wing, every episode of which he had written until that point, and the ratings remained in the basement, or at least on the creaky stairway leading down to it, for three more years.
The fall after that show ended, Studio 60 came on, got the biggest and best buzz of any pilot last year, and was put on the bench midseason. Its cancellation was a foregone conclusion, but out of respect to his talent and following, NBC quietly played out the remaining episodes in June. The broadcast networks will think twice now before greenlighting a pilot of his, even if it seems brilliant.
So, what’s a critically acclaimed screenwriter with chronic ratings issues to do? Go to the television equivalent of private equity, where ratings don’t matter… much: the elixir to all that ails Sorkin is HBO.
The two are a great match. HBO is high-minded, contemplative, and far-sighted. Most of its shows get a fair shake, even the ones that fall off their original peaks (see Arli$$) or were never good to start (Mind of the Married Man and Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback, which by the way, did not come back). Its subscriber base is the audience Sorkin has always been playing to: the affluent liberal elite. Perhaps most importantly, it is not afraid to be provocative or political. The HBO audience knows what it is getting; it expects unconventional programming with a slant. Subscribers make a conscious choice for this, unlike in network television.
HBO is in the midst of launching a slew of new series, but thus far they are not exactly inheriting The Sopranos mantle. Without a true hourlong hit on their hands, HBO needs to reconsider ways to draw in a big Sunday audience.
In Sorkin, HBO would get a talented, well-known writer whose work is tailored to their viewership. With all those massive Sopranos salaries gone, they can afford to take a chance on him and what will at the least be an intriguing concept, if not an award-worthy show. HBO’s model is much more conducive to giving shows an opportunity to find an audience. With widespread on-demand programming, repeats throughout the week, and the lack of urgency and reliance on advertisers, they can allow shows a chance in a way network television is increasingly unable to. Plus, people feel drawn to watch HBO to make the most of their money.
Look at the bright side for Sorkin. Freedom with the format might even spark him creatively. He can try whatever he wants without the specter and stigma of cautious network brass censoring his ideas. HBO embraces debating an issue over the course of a show or even a season; it shows depth. And it would be a nice exercise to see Aaron Sorkin explore the limits of language and violence in his own way. I mean, can you imagine encountering one of those wordy exchanges, rife with expletives and deviant sexual slang?
Besides, everything just seems better on HBO. And even if it’s not that good, you can just say it’s misunderstood because it’s complex or philosophical.
If you don’t want to change yourself, change the game. Hopefully Sorkin will give it some thought and get the development process rolling.
Since I wrote this, Aaron Sorkin’s had great success in the cinema with Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, for which he won an Oscar, and Moneyball. And despite what some of the above might suggest, I’m a huge fan: The West Wing is hands-down my favorite show of all time. I’m looking forward to seeing what Sorkin does on HBO.