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

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, th

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. Saoirse Ronan as Hanna 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 t

REVIEW: The Gospel According to Paul by Jonathan Biggins

Early on in Jonathan Biggins’ one-man ode to Australia’s best-dressed, collector-of-antique-clocks Prime Minister, the character of Paul Keating says that there has never been a great Australian PM. None on the scale of Churchill or Washington or Jefferson. And I wondered if the premise of the show was to submit Keating for consideration. Paul John Keating was the 24 th Prime Minister of Australia, elected to office in 1993, after ousting his predecessor, Bob Hawke, in 1991. He was a career politician from the age of 25, after managing a rock band called The Ramrods in the late 1960s. He was only Prime Minister for one full term and a bit, nothing like Hawke (in The Lodge for nearly 9 years) nor his successor, John Howard, who held the country hostage for nearly 11 . Keating was a member of the Labor Right; socially progressive but fiscally conservative. He’s famous for saying “the recession we had to have” during the economic slowdown of 1990, responding to the High Court’s Nativ

Carrie Fisher: No More Postcards

Two Princess Leias, a medal and some broken jewellry Did I ever tell you about the time Carrie Fisher kissed me on the cheek? Stick around, I’ll tell it again soon. Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia; no getting past that. Except, of course, she did. And then she stepped right back into being her last year. She was the right person to play Leia because she was the right age at the time and she is part of Hollywood royalty. She was also the right person to have been Leia in retrospect, too. Can you imagine anyone else describing Jabba the Hutt as a “giant saliva testicle”? Anyone else who would bring an audience member up on stage to mount a Leia “sex doll” and whip it away before they get close enough to fulfil their childhood fantasy? Actors, even those of Star Wars­­­ -level fame, go in and out of the spotlight. Oh, you could spot Fisher on screen in the 1980s and 90s, but much of her hard work went on behind the scenes, as a script writer and script doctor. Hook , Sist

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: THE AVENGERS assemble on the big screen

I like superheroes. I grew up with reruns of the 1960s Batman TV series. The Superman films were released when I was really young. The Amazing Spider-Man , Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were nighttime TV shows. And one of the defining motion picture releases of my teenage years was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. I was never a big comic book reader as a kid – I’ve probably read more comic books, uh, graphic novels in the last ten years than any time before that. But superheroes were always very cool. And Burton’s Batman took my favourite superhero very seriously. Well, until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins appeared – taking it ultra-seriously and much darker than I’d ever hoped for. As a non-comic reader, I find it hard to align myself as a DC ( Batman , Superman , Wonder Woman ) or Marvel Universe ( Spider-Man , X-Men , The Avengers and its consitutent parts) person. They appeal to different parts of my brain. In effect, DC’s superheroes are often lone warrior

Walking out... I couldn't do it, could you?

Every so often, I think about walking out of a play, but I can't. I've never done it and I don't think I ever could. I've never walked out of a film, either. It's not in my nature. In the end, I'd rather suffer through the entire thing so I can criticise the entire play, rather than leave halfway and never know if it got any better or any worse. This has come to mind now, not because I wanted to walk out of Terence Malick's big budget experimental film The Tree of Life , but because apparently walk outs are becoming a phenomenon with that particular movie. And in a packed theatre at Cinema Nova last night, the walk outs were notable by their absense when the lights came up at the end. It certainly won't be to everyone's taste. It's very much an impressionistic film that explores grand ideas through mood and beauty, rather than telling a coherent narrative. But, even those moments in the film that were the most challenging on a "need for

Colder by Lachlan Philpott - Red Stitch

Colder Photo: Teresa Noble I’m there. I’m sitting there in the dark. Sitting there in the dark watching a play by Lachlan Philpott at Red Stitch. A child has gone missing at Disneyland but nothing evokes Disneyland for me, not even the actors wearing mouse ears. Especially not the actors wearing mouse ears and affecting exaggerated American accents. I want to feel what the mother is feeling, while officious behind-the-scenes Disney workers assure her everything is going to be fine. I want a sense of her being frantic and frustrated. But I don’t get this sense because the language of the play is putting me at a distance. The expository monologues don’t paint a picture or flesh out a world beyond the very basic (“padded concrete, padded seats”) and the facile (“padded people”). This choral arrangement of voices is not singing. Eight-year-old David remains missing all day and we learn that his single mother has felt separate from him ever since. We ar

REVIEW: let bleeding girls lie by Olivia Satchell

  Three. Three women. Three women sit silently, set an equal distance apart, each with a cannula inserted into their hands. Three women sit silently, set an equal distance apart, each with a cannula inserted into their hands, donating plasma at a blood bank in Melbourne. They are there when the audience walks into the theatre. They sit, reading a book or their phone, fidgeting as we find our seats and chatter amongst ourselves before the lights go down. The play has already started, of course. The thing about giving plasma is that the wait is part of the experience. You cannot go anywhere. You’re hooked in. They sit in a room surrounded by televisions, all tuned to the same network. Like donating blood at Harvey Norman. But they’ve come prepared to wait. Lou is writing in her journal. Grace is reading Go Set a Watchmen for her book club. Juice is scrolling endlessly on her phone. Small talk starts. It’s pleasant and awkward in equal measure. You never know if other peopl

REVIEW: Cactus by Madelaine Nunn

It’s 120 days (not counting weekends) until Abbie leaves high school, but she’s got a lot to tackle and endure in those final months. Luckily, she has her best friend, PB, by her side. Abbie’s period surprises her one day at school and she has to improvise, because she doesn’t have any tampons with her. PB hands her a roll of toilet paper under the stall and it feels like the pair of them are always there for each other in similar ways. PB seems to be more outgoing, forward thinking, forward trying, but that might be because Abbie is held back by the torture of endometriosis. High school and puberty are hard enough without feeling like there’s a cactus scraping at your insides. So, on top of the usual school dramas like exams and boys and emotions and sex and clothes and the school formal and self-defence classes, Abbie is facing the likelihood she’ll never have children. Something she has always dreamed and assumed would happen for her. Madeleine Nunn’s script is insightful, and

“Fate Will Twist The Both of You”: Twenty Year School Reunion and the party next door...

Twelve months ago, I premiered a short play of mine at The Owl & the Pussycat in Richmond. Titled You Will Be Kissed By Princess Leia , the play was about how you can’t always live up to the dreams you had when you were fifteen years old. It’s definitely the most autobiographical of all my plays, dealing with one character at age 15 and at age 35, interrogating himself about where he’s been and where he’s going. It’s about finding your feet as a kid and finding your comfort zone as an adult. Paul Knox and Tom Carmody, You Will Be Kissed By Princess Leia September, 2011 There was some fun to be had in the fifteen-year-old not understanding references his thirty-five-year old self makes. And some drama in the conflict between how the character had been as a teenager and how he’d wished he’d been. And the show was done in the round in the Owl & the Pussycat’s then-gallery space, as if the crowd was surrounding two kids fighting in the schoolyard. After the show, if