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Thursday, September 06, 2012

Has Aaron Sorkin always been unwatchable?

I have always been an Aaron Sorkin fan. Like every law professor, I can recite A Few Good Men from memory; like every Democrat of a certain age, I loved The West Wing; and like not many people (since no one watched the show), I enjoyed Sports Night.

But we stopped watching The Newsroom after about three episodes. And it was not about his political leanings, which I largely share. And I like the idea of a press that actually does ask the tough questions in a sort of prosecutorial manner.

The problem is the stories and characters. The women were all written as totally incompetent personally or professionally or, usually, both (Sorkin has taken a lot of criticism for this). Just about every character seems thoroughly unlikeable as a human being, particularly the men who draw out the incompetence of the women. And the Sorkinesque speechifying, meant to be soaring, often comes across as bullying or humiliating. Sorkin paints a world in which it would be great if we all had the ability to call  someone out and cut them to the quick in an articulate way; but often, that just looks obnoxious. Plus, his characters are basically the same; you can link a character on The Newsroom to one on WW to one on SN.

The thing is, I'm not sure it is only this show. I recently went back to Season 1 of Sports Night and found it just as unwatchable for many of the same reasons. The characters were slightly better and more enjoyable, but the blatant sexism and retrograde sexual politics remained, as did the speechifying that just came across as obnoxious or unbelievable.

Am I wrong? Am I being too harsh? Trust me, I can handle the truth.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 6, 2012 at 03:17 PM in Culture, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


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Christine: Totally agree about Season 2 (although I really like the opening scene in the season premiere). Partly that was because it was too on the nose--the ratings were bad, the network was getting impatient, and the threat of cancellation was looming, so Sorkin played all of that out in the show itself.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 12, 2012 1:57:39 PM

I loved SN and have the DVDs. But, I like the second half (season?) much less than the first, probably because the female characters spin out of control. Casey and Dan and Jeremy are lovable, but Natalie and Dana lose all believability. The Casey "you're wearing my shirt" scene in season 1 is one of my all-time favorite scenes.

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Sep 12, 2012 1:47:25 PM

The West Wing is the only Sorkin show I've seen, but I loved it. I'd agree that, with a modern eye, the gender issues are a bit more obvious: CJ (and later Nancy McNally) is the only woman in the inner circle, and she spends a lot of her time trying to prove that she actually deserved to be there. There was also an early episode (I believe it was called "These Women" or something like that) that seemed to be trying to bridge the gender issue, but it came off more as patronizing than anything else.

Still, it's possible to excuse those flaws as being (a) in a show that started almost 15 years ago, and (b) a probably-accurate portrayal of what the situation was like for women in politics, especially 15 years ago.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 7, 2012 1:14:17 AM

I love The Newsroom. But I do have one significant gripe: the theme music. I'll let Jeff Simon, who loves the show, of The Buffalo News take the microphone:

"My theory all along, frankly, has been that at least twenty-five percent of the bumpy ride The Newsroom has had in the esteem of critics can be laid at the doorstep of Thomas Newman's appallingly reverential theme music. It's so full of pseudo-Aaron Copland modalities and folk pieties that it began the show every week with the very sound of sanctimony, leaving viewers with the feeling that they were attending Sunday evening services at the First Church of Broadcast Journalism, The Right Rev. Sorkin presiding. … Let's speculate that the show might have benefited from a theme by Bob Mould (see The Daily Show) or especially Danny Elfman. Maybe, to get thoroughly outlandish, I can think of at least a dozen New York minimalist composers who'd have given the show the sound of nervous edge under pressure."

I agree.

Posted by: Barry Lyons | Sep 6, 2012 8:11:15 PM

At least the show made Dan Rather happy.

Posted by: dave hoffman | Sep 6, 2012 5:02:21 PM

Haven't seen the show, but the descriptions of Newsroom sound like descriptions of the last season of the Twilight Zone, where the characters sometimes sounded like two versions of Rod Serling talking to each other. E.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrdnThwrXJM

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Sep 6, 2012 4:46:04 PM

I've never been able to watch any television show written by Sorkin, including West Wing, and I'm a Democrat of a certain age. I find them all insufferable.

Posted by: Jay Wexler | Sep 6, 2012 4:16:21 PM

Hating on the Newsroom is so in right now! I don't really dispute the flaws you and others note (especially w/r/t the character of Maggie, who is unrecognizably different from the pilot to ep 2) but I still find it one of the better and more watchable shows on TV right now (and I loved The Social Network too).

Posted by: twizzler | Sep 6, 2012 3:53:23 PM

If you haven't seen this "Sorkinisms" video already, it's pretty amazing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S78RzZr3IwI

I don't think it's been updated for The Newsroom.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 6, 2012 3:52:16 PM

For me The Newsroom found its footing with the episode called "Bullies". I'd have to rewatch the entire season to tell you more specifically why I felt this to be so, but it is interesting to note that a friend of mine, who never disliked the series but was having problems with it, also didn't begin to really love it until that "Bullies" episode. There was just something about the episode where everything came into focus -- and from then on the series became really terrific (and often hilarious).

As for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, it's easily one of my all-time favorite shows. One reason the show didn't fly was because it was simply too literate for most people (name another series where Strindberg comes up for discussion). Also, Matthew Perry's character was an atheist who never missed a chance to bash religion (a hobby of mine as well). So in this god-drenched country of ours you can easily imagine the millions of people who changed the channel when it became obvious that religion would become a consistent target.

Posted by: Barry Lyons | Sep 6, 2012 3:51:13 PM

I think you're right. In retrospect, these massive flaws are present on The West Wing, as well. I think there they were somewhat papered over by the nature of the premise (people naturally expected a show about politics to make political statements) and the fact that the actors were better than the material (the actresses who played C.J. and Donna masked some remarkably weak characterization).

But then along comes Studio 60 and The Newsroom and you realize that Sorkin has been writing the same show since the 90s only with increasingly weak actors and contrived premises.

Also Studio 60 had the handicap of being a show about comedy that wasn't funny.

I think also the television audience, as a whole, is more sophisticated than it was when Sports Night and The West Wing were on the air. We've been exposed to better shows in the last decade. Sorkin is no longer better than most television; he's mediocre.

Posted by: kormal | Sep 6, 2012 3:31:39 PM

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