Saturday, August 11, 2012

Old News Is Good News? or Rewriting and the Sorkin Psychosis

Remember the moment when you first discovered that Santa Claus wasn’t real; the Easter Bunny was a fake; and the Tooth Fairy was a low rent bribe? The devastation, the confusion, the hurt? Things you knew with all your heart to be real were suddenly taken away from you. The magic GONE.

Well, I don’t… but then I have terrible memory. But I’m starting to experience the sensation I’m sure accompanies such traumatic revelations.

Readers of this blog and those who know me well would be aware my writing hero is Aaron Sorkin *genuflects* and that, to this day, Oscar wins and nominations included, I still consider the first four seasons of The WestWing his masterpiece.

Something, however, happened on the way to the deification. Two things actually.

The first is that a director gave me the complete box set of Sports Night, Sorkin’s inaugural television series. The second is The Newsroom, his latest.

Now, I know Sorkin recycles material and has certain phrases he is quite fond of and uses liberally (pun intended). Indeed, this recent YouTube clip highlights the tendency to great effect. 

Sure, one of the knocks on Sorkin’s writing is that all his characters sound the same with super quick, intellectual patter that mere mortals would never utter. I have absolutely no problem with this – if you can write dialogue as music such as Sorkin does then what do I care?

Where the sheen is starting to wear off is this – the exact same scenarios being played over and over in different shows. It’s interesting watching the genesis of this in Sports Night through to the perfection of it in The West Wing and now the outright cannibalisation in The Newsroom.

I should pause to say here that I thought Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had a brilliant pilot and a not so brilliant one and only season. But that’s a separate discussion.

Sports Night certainly is the prototype for many of the story strands and character flourishes that appear in The West Wing. The common denominator of all his series, a group of passionate professionals in a behind the scenes look at a workplace, is established as are the romantic entanglements that are a hallmark of his television work. He certainly “brought the funny” and it’s a show I’m really enjoying even though I can clearly see devices he will use later such as Jeremy writing a letter to his sister commenting on events as they wait for an event to play out - in Sports Night, an improbably long tennis match; in The West Wing, the Stackhouse filibuster.

The West Wing overlayed a certain gravitas given the nature of that workplace and had a stellar cast and production budget. So it’s kind of fun to see some of its origins in the earlier show though odd to realise this “perfect thing” had not arrived fully formed as I had imagined.

What troubles me is that The Newsroom seems to totally disregard the fact that many of these scenarios and devices have been used before. The cumulative effect is what makes me have doubts. Does Sorkin think people with more than a passing familiarity with his writing won’t notice? Is he just being lazy? Is that all the story he has to tell, rewriting scenes to fit the current workplace of choice?

Sure, The Newsroom has its critics due to its depiction of the female characters, the preachy tone, and use of real life news, some of which is discussed here by Australian critics. But it’s the recycling of material that frustrates me.

Take Episode 6 where I was stunned as I called out the equivalent scenes from The West Wing: Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) can’t sleep so goes to a therapist (Night Five); he receives a death threat via email and is assigned a bodyguard (Enemies Foreign and Domestic); the therapist asks if Will’s father used to hit him (The Two Bartlets) and on it went. Suddenly Will is a combination of Jed Bartlet and CJ Cregg. I could have written those scenes as the moment they started I recognised them exactly for what they were – a rehash of previous material.

It feels like Sorkin is simply rewriting existing work as the structure of the above scenes and even some of the dialogue is exactly the same. I was almost surprised after Will asked the bodyguard, “So how does this work?” that he didn’t reply, “I don’t have to see you naked or anything.” Where it was cute to see the genesis in Sports Night, it is now troubling to realise how overt the self-referencing is in his latest show. Truly, Santa Claus doesn’t exist anymore.

But why?

In that episode there were also two cracking scenes, both involving extended, passionate rants, firstly by Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston); then in an on air interview where Will is slapped down hard. First rate, Sorkin at his best. Why surround this with rehashed dialogue and storylines? Why make me think Will is now some kind of facsimile of Bartlet with the whole backstory of his childhood?

I remarked before Episode 7 that if anyone calls Will “Uncle Fluffy” I’m out of there. It didn’t happen but there were echoes again (Will high on medicinal marijuana had all the hallmarks of Bartlet high on back medication) though not as overt as the previous week.

I understand Sorkin is the ‘sole writer’ on the show which involves a prodigious work rate especially given this is closer to an hour each week on HBO not a 42 minute commercial outing. But enough with the self-referencing, the rehashing and the recycling ("three things that all mean the same thing") – you’re better than that, Mister Sorkin… much, much better!


  1. I have had similar thoughts to yours, Richard. I think the "sole writer" credit is part of the problem. Obviously we've both noticed the four staff writers also credited.

    I wondered while watching last week's episode if it was one of them who originally wrote the Guitar Hero stuff. How much of the specific "younger news staff" material originates with them?

    I think it's time Sorkin stopped being responsible for every line of dialogue and just guided his series. Why not write three scorching episodes per season with a brief to not repeat himself?

    His greatest hits formula is very annoying for people who admire his work. We must comprise a fair proportion of his audience.

  2. Yes, that's exactly what it feels like - a compilation tape! Your idea of writing fewer episodes and overseeing a proper writing staff has merit, Phil. But can Sorkin ever relinquish that much creative control? Or would he be better to say goodbye to television and focus on features where there are other players to control and guide his creativity?