Skip to main content

Quoting himself, badly: Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom

A long time ago, I was told not to use a famous quote to open a play – because I was setting myself up for comparison and dooming myself to failure. Quote Shakespeare or Proust or Freud, but do it somewhere in the middle, where it rolls off the tongues of your characters and not as the first impression the audience has of your work.





Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom doesn’t open with a quote as such, but it does – just as his Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip did 6 years ago – open with a Network-like “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” scene, setting up comparisons between Sorkin and Paddy Chayefsky, as well as between the two narratives.

For me, though, the problem here is not this direct comparison but the shorthand way that Sorkin is telling and re-telling stories. Two later episodes (“Amen” and “The Greater Fool”) climax with Sorkin repurpsoing other people’s endings to finish his stories – as if acknowledging the lifts from Rudy and Oliver Twist is enough to absolve him of cheap narrative resolutions. And narrative theft.

For a guy who not only steals from the greats, he also steals from himself. A lot. 


Is stealing from himself better than stealing from other people? Not much. When he steals from himself, I already know I’ve seen those stories done before and done better. When he uses the same jokes, the same punchlines, the same character histories, the same narrative structures, devices and resolutions, it’s a bit tiresome.

When his laziness transfers from resuing dialogue and retelling stories to the way he draws The Newsroom’s female characters, it’s pretty distasteful. Every one of the main female characters in his HBO show can be described this way: professional women who are supposedly brilliant at their jobs but cannot wrap their (air-)heads around simple technology and are regularly downright ditzy, most often in front of or because of men.
If that character description was isolated to one of his female characters, that would be fine. If that character description applied to one of his male characters, I’d feel like he was treating characters more equally. There are two pratfalls in the pilot episode – one each from Jim and Maggie, but the difference is, Jim is never revealed to be incompetent in his job or around simple technology. And while he’s not great at relationships, he doesn’t seem to be an emotional basketcase like every woman on the show.

The one exception might have been Jane Fonda’s character of Leona Lansing. She is competent at her job and is never shown to be emotionally compromised or incompetent around the use of emails or the internet or simple tasks related to her job. My only disappointment is her emotional reaction in the season one finale to the actions of her son, Reese. If Sorkin’s women were more rounded, I might have enjoyed watching a hard-nosed, take-no-shit CEO being reduced to tears by her child’s terrible actions in the name of business. So I’m not saying this turn was the wrong choice, so much as it seems to confirm a Sorkin bias – women are good at their jobs until personal relationships become involved. Then they are a mess.

Sorkin got a lot of crap for his portrayal of women in the film, The Social Network, about the creation of Facebook. I defended him at the time for a couple of reasons. One, sometimes a writer is drawn to characters like the ones in this film who actively treat women badly or to write in a millieu where female characters are marginalised. It’s hardly surprising that this film and that story had little time for women in the narrative.

The second reason I defended Sorkin at the time – and the reason The Newsroom’s poorly drawn female characters stand out to me – is The West Wing. For me, that is the high watermark of his career – especially on television. His feature film high watermark for me is A Few Good Men, with the note that I am one of the few who finds The Social Network to be overrated – especially in the canon of David Fincher movies.

I rewatched the pilot of The West Wing this week. It’s a very strong opening episode with a tight script, whose clockwork like structure introduces the cast with precision and a good mix of politics and laughs. The opening scenes are quiet in comparison to the opening rants of Studio 60 and The Newsroom and, in a show about politics, doesn’t feel too heavy handed in its messages. Unlike his current show, I rarely felt like The West Wing was talking at me and never that it was ranting. Unless maybe Toby was speaking, but he’s just one of those people. And even then, I never felt patronised.

Of course, as Sorkin’s mouthpiece in his new show, Will McAvoy is a bully and patronising and his rants form the raison d'être of most episodes. Sorkin has a point he wants made and McAvoy makes it. Even as Sorkin’s liberal bias is scattered through all his shows, his news show feels much more designed to tell us things – about its premise and its characters opinions – than any of his previous work.

But while the introduction of CJ Cregg on The West Wing involved trying to pick up a guy, with the scene ending in a pratfall, the cast of female characters in the show doesn’t feel like Sorkin’s used a cookie-cutter. And that opening scene only depicts one part of CJ – her inability to balance career and a personal life. In the scenes depicting CJ at her job, she is the paragon of professionalism.

The doe-eyed Donna and the poorly-conceived Mandy feel like complex, complicated and entirely different characters from each other - compared with MacKenzie, Maggie and Sloan on The Newsroom. And that’s only taking into account the major female characters in the pilot of Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes of the White House series. Even Lisa Edelstein’s call girl character is allowed more dignity and smarts than MacKenzie or Maggie ever are.

This is the reason his new show frustrates me – because I know he can do better. I’ve seen him write complex, complicated and compelling ongoing narrative drama filled with a cast of fascinating characters – many of whom are great at their jobs and terrible at their personal lives. But at least that trope never seemed to condemn anyone to a single-dimension or a repetitive storyline.

I’m not sure that Sorkin’s male characters in The Newsroom fair that much better – though none of them are the same as each other, they are Sorkin types that he’s written and worked with before. We haven’t gotten to know many sides of Jim or Don or Charlie – and what we do know of Will doesn’t stop me thinking he’s a bully and an arse.

There were small hints at great drama in the first season of The Newsroom but they were few and far between. None of the episodes were entirely successful – many are hamstrung by poorly written relationship dramas or saddled with Sorkin paying homage to other better written stories by other people and himself.

And even for a man who wrote a television series about hard-working politicians who are noble in their pursuit of serving the people, the very premise of The Newsroom is a little too idealistic – fixing the mainstream media – for me not to marvel each week at how much disbelief I have to suspend.

Comments

jazifer said…
Not watched it - for precisely the reasons you outlined here.

What I would say re: the women in TSN is that while I have zero objection to the portrayal of misogyny when it exists, and certainly have no problem with the depiction of a world where women are not central, is that I believe he still misrepresented the attitudes and behaviour of the women on screen. It was a world I didn't recognise, and that's not because it was unfamiliar to me.

Popular posts from this blog

My Favourite Theatre of 2019

This year I saw some amazing theatre in Melbourne, as always, and I was lucky enough to visit London for the first time, where I saw some wonderful West End theatre and some really inventive off-West End and independent theatre.
The thing about the theatre in London is that is really seems to be working toward the ideal of diverse casting, even if behind-the-scenes (writers, directors) are still male-dominated. And it’s not just in reinventions of shows like Death of a Salesman, which was a mostly black cast; a lot of shows I saw there were female-focused with racially diverse casts.
That said, I did see a show that was ostensibly about race, which was all white.
I saw some shows again this year, which were as great as when I originally saw them, but they have been on previous year-end lists, so sorry to Hamilton, Muriel’s Wedding and Cock – you’re not on my list again this year.
The lists are in alphabetical order and links in titles to review where available.
TOP TEN 

All About Eve –…

You are far away: Agent Cooper and his troubling return to Twin Peaks

“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return, the last of many unanswered questions left as the 18-part feature film concluded a week ago.
It’s far from the first time we’ve seen someone who looks like Dale Cooper lost for answers over recent months. But it might be the first time we have definitive proof that he’s in over his head.
Mr C, Dale Cooper’s doppelganger, who was first seen in the original series’ finale back in 1991, returned to the town of Twin Peaks with a goal in mind. Mr C was flexible, though. He had to be; he’d set so many things in motion over twenty-five years, if he’d remained fixated, he would never have come as far as he did.
Dougie, Dale Cooper’s tulpa – created by and from Mr C, wandered aimlessly through life, but slowly made every life he touched better. Plans change and Dougie changed with them. Slowly but surely, Dougie pieced together Cooper’s past life and became richer for it.
Agent Cooper, the third part of this T…

REVIEW: Disinhibition by Christopher Bryant

Flick, known on Instagram as Flick.Eats, and George, known on Tumblr as Boyance, are social media influencers. Flick.Eats posts FODMAP recipes and Boyance is living his best gay life online, but both are lies – constructions of the kind of personalities that get likes and shares and re-blogs. When Microsoft releases a new artificial intelligence bot onto Twitter – Tay, whose followers are #TaysTeam – the world of fake online personas gets trickier to navigate.
Who are Flick and George, really? Do they even know anymore?
Disinhibition plunges the audience right into the internet, the opening scene a perfect recreation of a Twitter interaction: someone posts a photo of their cute dog, lots of other users retweet it and someone @s the original poster, telling them their dog is prettier than they are. All social niceties are gone; people will say anything to each other online.
Presented by Monash University Student Theatre (MUST) and directed with a sure hand and clear intent by Artistic …

Careful the things you say... Joe Wright’s HANNA & the combination of genres

Once upon a time... I tried to write a film script that melded noir and Grimm’s fairytales, where the femme fatale, clad in a slinky red dress, was also (in a way) Little Red Riding Hood. Where the lover of a hit man discovered his true identity from something hidden under his mattress. Evil (step)mothers, adopted children, hunters, princesses and family fortunes. Noir and fairytales have a lot in common and yet... I had real trouble finding the right tone for the piece. And, in the end, my script read too much like I was trying to get the concept to work, rather than telling a compelling story.

Joe Wright’s film HANNA, screenplay by Seth Lockhead and David Farr, finds the perfect balance between a high tension thriller and a fairytale coming-of-age story. And travels further into the story of this mysterious girl than the trailer suggests.
Going in, I was worried this might be too close to Leon or La Femme Nikita – the original films of which I throughly enjoyed, but would this new fil…

REVIEW: Control by Keziah Warner – Red Stitch

The crew of a space ship, dressed in bold primary colours, rock from left to right in front of us, as they try to keep control of their craft. The group is racially diverse but it’s the white guy, a larrakin Aussie from Melbourne, who boldly steps forward to save the day. “It’s something I have to do.”

Keziah Warner’s Control, a science fiction triptych, begins with a scene of broad comedy, a nod to Star Trek and then jumps back in time to see how this crew ended up in such a dramatic situation. Starting a story in media res can be a pretty tired trope, but here Keziah uses it as a dramaturgical sleight-of-hand; this story is much more complicated than it first appears to be.
A pregnant woman, a puppeteer, a singer and a detective have been hand-picked to be on this space ship, leave Earth and strive to survive in “Fifteen Minutes on Mars” – a Big Brother-type reality show that is manoeuvring this ensemble toward interstellar cabin fever.
Twenty years later, in a library that promises…

My Favourite Theatre of 2018

It’s that time of year again, when I look back over everything I saw on stage and put together a list of my favourite shows. I saw over 100 shows this year, mostly in Melbourne and a small number on one visit to Sydney.

I will link to reviews if I wrote one.
TOP TEN (alphabetical order)
The Almighty Sometimes – Griffin Theatre, Sydney
Kendall Feaver’s extraordinary debut play is about Anna, dealing with mood disorders and medication and the complicated relationship she has with the treatments and her mother. Superb cast and beautifully directed by Lee Lewis
Blackie Blackie Brown – Malthouse Theatre
Nakkiah Lui’s work is always amazing but this production, directed by Declan Green, was another step up for her – the satire sharper and bleaker and more hilarious than ever before.
Blasted – Malthouse Theatre
Sarah Kane’s debut play from 1990s London is a tricky beast tackling difficult subjects but Anne-Louise Sarks nailed it with a superb production.
The Bleeding Tree – Arts Centre Melbourne

REVIEW: SLUT by Patricia Cornelius

A man is dead, we’re told. A good man. A man with a job. Not a drunk. Not homeless. He’s a hero really. Just wanted to help Lolita and now he’s dead.
We’re told this story – this anecdote – by a trio of young women, friends of Lolita, who have known her from a very young age. In fact, there’s some question about who knew her better and who knew her the longest. Because the better they knew Lolita, the better they might understand her. And the more they understand her, the more righteously they can pass judgement.
Lolita was a carefree child. Used to love riding a bike. Ride it fast. Feel the ache in her legs and sweat on her face. All she had to worry about was staying on the bike and enjoying her lovely, lovely life. She stopped riding bikes when she was nine-years-old.
Her friends tell us that everything changed for Lolita when she turned eight and grew breasts. Huge ones. When she was eight years old. A child with breasts. And boys went into a frenzy. As did her grade five teacher…

REVIEW: This Bitter Earth by Chris Edwards – Midsumma

A young man sips a glass of wine, waiting for us to file into the theatre, while Kylie plays. As we settle in, he’s a long way from settled – nervous, anxious, eager to tell us about a dream he’s had. Even though he knows that when most people recount dreams, they are dead boring.
He’s a country boy who has moved to the big city – let’s call it Sydney – for university. He’s sleeping on his uncle’s couch and after being shown the expected touristy sites, he starts to explore the world by himself.
He’s gay and he’s never seen a penis other than his own. He’s drawn to a busker singing “My Heart Will Go On” and shaken up by two dude-bros shouting at gay couple kissing.
“Stop shoving it down our throats,” they shout, unaware of how unintentionally homoerotic they sound. The guy whose story we’ve been following, decides to follow them.
And this is just the start of the first vignette in a series of short moments by Chris Edwards exploring queer sex and relationships in this fantastical ga…

REVIEW: Chicago - The Musical

The real-life inspiration for the musical Chicago comes from nearly a century ago, when reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins reported on two unrelated court cases about women suspected and acquitted of murder. Watkins later wrote a satirical play about the attention both cases got, focusing on the media’s sensational headlines – something Watkins herself fed into.
The play became a silent film in 1927, a 1942 film named Roxie Hart (starring Ginger Rogers), and later the 1975 musical Chicago, for which husband and wife creative duo, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, struggled to get the rights to make throughout the sixties.
The original Broadway production opened to mixed reviews, as it was considered cynical and subversive – the opposite of what audiences wanted from musical theatre. But times change and this black satire about merry murderesses returned to Broadway in 1996 in a slick, pared-back production, directed by Walter Bobbie with choreography by Anne Reinking – “in the style of Bob Fos…

REVIEW: My Dearworthy Darling by Alison Croggon & The Rabble

A woman lies on a rock, writhing. She is in a state of ecstasy; part bliss and part religious fervour. She is listening and waiting for God. A man enters. He berates the woman for losing something of his. The tableau has turned from the epic to the domestic, a space that The Rabble have played with before, particularly in Joan, their deeply affecting exploration of Joan d’Arc and her lack of voice.
My Dearworthy Darling is a collaboration between The Rabble (Emma Valente, Kate Davis) and writer Alison Croggon, poet, novelist, librettist, critic and author of other texts for theatre. And it feels like the perfect fit.
The Rabble’s work is often inspired by well-known texts, though what they produce may simply echo, rhyme with or retaliate against stories we have heard or told ourselves. Frankenstein. Story of O. Orlando. Cain and Abel. All these works were as much about our histories with these texts as about the stories themselves.
Their work is created in collaboration with actors, d…