David Itzkoff recently conducted an interview with Aaron Sorkin about his upcoming new HBO series The Newsroom. I’m super-psyched about the show and hope it’s a return to form for Sorkin, who’s been on a roll after winning a Best Screenwriting Oscar for The Social Network.
Itzkoff does a good job at getting at some of the issues that Sorkin faces in creating a television show, but it struck me from reading the interview that Sorkin is either a skilled deceiver or he’s deluding himself when he makes some of his statements. Here he is discussing The West Wing:
I have no political background, and I have no political agenda. All of my experience has been in theater and writing. But I just thought it would be fun to write about a hypercompetent group of people.
Riiiight, so it’s just a total coincidence that Sorkin’s band of flawed but ridiculously noble political figures was Democratic? To be fair, Sorkin also had solid Republican figures on the show too (e.g. Ainsley Hayes, Glen Walken), but I could never shake the feeling that they were perfunctory characters, put in there to demonstrate how “balanced” Sorkin was. “Alright, so Democrats are the unquestioned heroes in this show, but we also have this super attractive and intelligent blond woman, see?!” I’m not saying that there aren’t any super attractive and intelligent blond female Republicans out there (in fact, I think their existence is well-proven by now), but taken in this context, these characters almost feel condescending through their very existence.
These issues are easily encapsulated in the promo for The Newsroom:
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.
Sorkin seems to have trouble finding a balance between “extremely smart” and “extremely dumb” on his shows, and to use one or the other is to inevitably condescend to one side or the other.
Here’s Sorkin again:
It’s funny that you brought up “Studio 60” because Matthew Perry once said, “I think that if you wrote this under a pseudonym it would still be on the air.” With “Studio 60,” there was a thought that I was writing autobiographically when I wasn’t.
Riiiight, so it’s just a total coincidence that that show’s protagonist, Matt Albie is a flawed but ridiculously noble writer dead set on changing the world through his writing? Nathan Rabin has a great piece on Studio 60 where he delves into this very issue:
In premise and execution, Studio 60 was a work of unbearable, overweening arrogance. It began with making the lead character of Matt Albie both a clear Sorkin surrogate and a writer so ridiculously romanticized even M. Night Shyamalan might say, “Get over yourself, dude. You’re a fucking writer, not Jesus’ younger brother, the one God really likes.”
I could go on but I think you get the point. Aaron, you are one of my heroes and one of the most gifted writers on the planet. OWN IT. Own your own opinions. And maybe understand that sometimes your point of view might leak out into the world through your work. We’ll forgive you for it.