HBO has released a trailer for the new drama series The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin's behind-the-scenes show about cable news. Sorkin has an uneven history in television, having created two well-regarded shows, one a hit (The West Wing) and one not (Sports Night), as well as one that had a great pilot and was genuinely terrible after that (Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip). He's also written lots of movies: The American President, Malice (which is underappreciated and kind of great, by the way), A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Moneyball. But it's his history in TV that echoes most strongly through this preview, unsurprisingly enough.
The new trailer is, if nothing else, unrelentingly ... Sorkin-y, if we can invent that term. It sounds like The West Wing plus Sports Night times Studio 60, plus swearing, because it's HBO! How can you tell this is from the mind of Aaron Sorkin?
1. The central figure is a man whose art is always being stepped on by other people's commercial considerations. This note was struck on both Sports Night and Studio 60 in the areas of media. It's the fundamental conflict that interests Aaron Sorkin about entertainment and media. He handled it deftly on Sports Night and less so on Studio 60, partly because on Sports Night, the show-within-the-show seemed to be created by talented and capable people.
2. "Sorority girl." Sigh. Gender dynamics are a serious problem in nearly all of Sorkin's writing, and here, we open with a condescending lecture from a wise man to a stupid woman who says something ("Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?") that represents a real phenomenon he's trying to get at, but which is an utter straw man in that it's not typically expressed in that sort of "hit me, I'm a pinata" kind of way.
3. "Yosemite?" Heh. This is the other thing: Aaron Sorkin writes some of the most obnoxious and insufferable people you will ever see on television and writes them all as if they are obviously heroes, but he also can throw off a memorable line as well as anyone currently in the business of writing dialogue. That's funny and sharp, and it has a strongly West Wing feel, like those booming lectures the President used to deliver with the little stingers at the end.
4. "Will McAvoy." "MacKenzie McHale." I cannot explain it clearly, but "Will McAvoy" is an incredibly Sorkin-y name. If you've watched much of his stuff, you know I'm right. (Not as Sorkin-y as if his name were Danny, admittedly.) And Emily Mortimer's character, the strong producer type, has the cute as a button name "MacKenzie McHale." Somewhat gender-neutral names for potentially intimidating women, especially those found at work, are a specialty — C.J., Jordan, and Harriet who went by "Harry" being three of the ones we've seen in the past.
5. Fact dump. "We're seventh in literacy," blah blah blah. They actually made fun of this on 30 Rock after that backstage-at-SNL show and Studio 60 premiered in the same fall.
6. "I'm a registered Republican." Back in the West Wing days, Sorkin introduced a beautiful blonde Republican woman who was supposed to be likable and intelligent. And back in the Studio 60 days, there was a beautiful blonde conservative woman and a reality-show producer into whose mouth he put some sympathetic stuff, despite the fact that the impression the show left overall is that he pretty clearly hates reality shows only slightly less than he hates the internet. (If you don't believe me, by the way, Google "Aaron Sorkin hates the internet.") Whatever direction he thinks he's tipping or will be perceived to be tipping (here, it's toward liberal politics), he often seems to consciously try to write against it; that's why it makes so much sense that the lead is a registered Republican.
7. "Did you ever notice men only do stupid things for one reason?" Even in a short trailer, you learn that while the men on the show work with and perhaps admire the women on the show, they also look at them with the same "gosh, what are you gonna do?" gaze at which Sorkin men always look at women in the workplace: often adoring, but profoundly befuddled because women are both sexy and totally nuts, am I right? (See: Gender dynamics are a serious problem in nearly all of Sorkin's writing...)
8. "He's trying to do good! And he's risking a lot to do it!" In case you miss how heroic lead characters on Sorkin shows are, other people tend to talk about it a lot. Really: A lot.
9. "I was fighting the good fight." "How's it going so far?" "Progress is slow, but I'm in it for the long haul." If you have any nostalgia for the Sorkin stuff you have loved, as I do, this is the kind of exchange that makes you feel the kind of pang that says, "On the one hand, I have absolutely seen this conversation before. On the other hand, I have often loved this conversation." It's already been noted that Sam Waterston seems to be playing the role Robert Guillaume played on Sports Night, and while I'd rather just have watched Robert Guillaume do it for more than two seasons, Sam Waterston is okay, too.
10. The fundamental conflict between a man's idealism and his utterly obnoxious and insufferable personality. What Sorkin shows always struggle with, in the end, is how much they can bear to humanize their heroes by making them lose or be wrong sometimes. The problematic pattern comes when the hero is sort of wrong, but everyone else winds up admitting that the world would be a better place if it ran the way he thinks it should. One of the best things they did on Sports Night was to center it on anchors who were young enough that they really were wrong a lot, and it was comfortable having them be wrong a lot: wrong at work, wrong in their personal lives, not noble at all. They were far more deeply flawed than Studio 60 ever managed, which was one of its problems.
What makes Sorkin a vexing writer is that there are significant and recurring problems with the way he sets up conflicts and characters, particularly women and anyone else whose head he can't easily crawl into. And the heads he can crawl into, he often can't see clearly from the outside, so they're idealized. At the same time, he writes some stunning stories, and when he can tamp down the affectations (Moneyball was a nice reminder that he can write without being too wordplayful for his own good), he writes stirring, funny, often very big-hearted television.
There are worse things than being unavoidably, unrelentingly yourself: at least people know what to expect.