One cannot recap an Aaron Sorkin show without also recapping Aaron Sorkin. His work is so personal, so self-involved, so totally Sorkin that to analyze it is to analyze the preoccupations of the man who wrote it. That is not a knock — if anything, it’s a testament to his particular brilliance. If art involves the cultivation of a relationship between creator and audience, then Sorkin is one of our most intimate artists. His success stems from the oblique feeling that while watching his work, we, the audience, get to observe the obsessions of his mind. The argument against Sorkin has been that he doesn’t know when to get out of his own way.
This meta-ness (detractors would say metastasis) is such an integral part of Sorkin’s work that, on an off night (or an off series), everything appears to be little more than smoke and mirrors. All of the characters in The Newsroom — just like The Social Network’s Zuckerberg, The West Wing’s Sam, and Studio 60’s Matt Albie — are extensions of their creator, a man who is obsessed with the act of creation. (Just see his recent play about the origins of TV, The Farnsworth Invention.) They are splinters of his psyche, roaming about our screens, searching for work that has worth as Sorkin, a musical-theater-major-cum-screenwriter, tries to do the same.
Earlier this month, he told Vulture, “This is not a ventriloquist act. The characters are not empty vessels with which to deliver something from me.” But, aren’t they? Jeff Daniels recently offered an anecdote of what it was like to act under Sorkin to the New York Times: “He goes, ‘The speech.’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘As important as it is to you, it’s twice as important to me.’”
And so let us discuss this show’s opening speech. Or, rather, the sermon. Will (Casey from Sports Night + Aaron Sorkin’s id + Keith Olbermann - Olbermann’s liberalism + Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments) is on a panel at Northwestern, squeezed between two party-line hacks. The audio blurs in the background, either signifying that Will, squinting in pain, is having a coronary, or just that the endless partisan blather amounts only to white noise. Ronald Reagan is name-dropped. The moderator — a rare one who actually forces those onstage to answer questions — wants Will to answer the sacrificial sorority sister’s question: “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” Will looks out in the audience.
And what’s that he sees? Is it … no, it couldn’t be. It’s the Ghost From Chyron Past! Or is it just an apparition? Will flashes back and forth between women as a bright light — or is it a halo? — appears behind the Ghost. Will starts slipping away into the light, but the Ghost holds up a cue card of her own. (“It’s not. But it can be.”) Will, who, for the rest of the episode, will be described as someone who doesn’t follow orders, takes the Ghost’s cue.
“We aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior,” Will says to the audience in the climax of his speech. But which audience is he saying it to? Is it the kids at Northwestern, or is it us, sitting at home, eager for a savior — a Sorkin! — to help us feel superior, help us feel smart. “I like the sound of intelligence,” Sorkin said while making the publicity rounds for The Newsroom. And here is Will, defending it.
Will’s not the only one. In fact, there’s a whole newsroom full of people who believe in intelligence because they’re intelligent. MacKenzie (Dana from Sports Night + an accent + patriotism bordering on jingoism + war correspondent bona fides), the apparition he saw at Northwestern, who just happens to be Will’s old lover. She’s taking over as executive producer from Don (Toby from The West Wing + Benedict Arnold), a guy so condescending he doesn’t believe in his own girlfriend’s intelligence (there’s that word again). That girlfriend, Maggie Jordan (Natalie from Sports Night + Pam from The Office + Zooey Deschanel), is quickly promoted to associate producer when MacKenzie takes a liking to her. She’s thrust into an obvious love triangle with Don and Jim (Jeremy from Sports Night - glasses + Blackberry + skinny tie), who, with that foppish hair, is clearly the one for her. There’s also Neal (Charlie from The West Wing + Slumdog Millionaire - India + LexisNexis + LOLCats), whom everybody ignores. All of these miserably talented people are overseen by Charlie (Isaac from Sports Night + bow tie + scotch + the word fuck), a patriarch who growls as often as he speaks.
Basically, Sorkin has reproduced Sports Night, but changed just enough around to make us feel like we’re watching a new show. (Unconvinced? Please refer to the episode of Sports Night where Casey, like Will, is exposed for not knowing his staffers’ names.) Party game — who’s more of a self-plagiarist, Jonah Lehrer or Aaron Sorkin?
Together, these people form a fiercely capable, fiercely moralizing squad that feels ripped from an Ayn Rand novel. Will admits he thinks “the majority of Americans are preternaturally stupid,” and it’s his burden that he has to live among them. Even MacKenzie, the humanist to Will’s objectivist, thinks that there’s “nothing more important in democracy than a well-informed electorate,” the implication being that it’s she and Will and the rest of the intellects who have to teach the peons. It’s up to the smart ones — the Sorkins — to rescue the country. There’s a line in Broadcast News — an obvious reference and superior journalism drama — in which a network bigwig says to Holly Hunter’s producer Jane, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” To which Jane responds, “No. It’s awful.” One gets the impression that these characters would respond, “Yes. It’s glorious.”
And what better time to prove that than when there’s a breaking news story? News of the BP oil spill — that April 20, 2010 dateline slowly unfurling onscreen was oddly chill-inducing — comes over the wire. Soon Jim is on his Deus-ex-Machina phone, working in tandem with Neal’s Lexis Nexis from the future, and they have a month’s worth of news gathered in an hour. They run into Will’s office, interrupt Will and MacKenzie’s Don Quixote recitation, and the pilot kicks into a higher gear. Greg Mottola, the episode’s director, pans the camera across people doing their work, conversations fade in and out, the episode begins its strongest stretch: when it actually shows, rather than talks about, people being good at their job. It’s all rather thrilling.
The episode’s ending, less so. MacKenzie and Will have a moment in the elevator bay — a well-trod setting for Sorkin romance — and it’s revealed that Mackenzie was, indeed, the woman at Northwestern. But MacKenzie can’t tell Will before he starts his way back down to 42nd Street. She walks back into the newsroom as a triumphant score plays behind her. Perhaps she is thinking about that Man of La Mancha quote she cited.
Hear me now / Oh thou bleak and unbearable world, / Thou art base and debauched as can be; / And a knight with his banners all bravely unfurled / Now hurls down his gauntlet to thee!
Which principled crusader does it best describe? (A) Don Quixote, (B) Will McAvoy, (C) Aaron Sorkin, or (D) All of the above?
Stray observations that were cut from the rundown:
- Mackenzie says she wants to make “elite Northeastern pricks sexy again.” Sorkin, born in Manhattan, raised in Scarsdale, hopes she succeeds.
- Nice touch on that picture of Will and Barack Obama in Will’s office. It pointed to a central hypocrisy of big-star journalists: They skewer the very people in power that they’re desperate to sidle up to.
- Likewise on Maggie’s reverence of MacKenzie on the principle that MacKenzie had been a war correspondent. In the hierarchy of a newsroom, anyone who’s gone to war immediately rises to the top.
- Somebody please make a GIF of Jeff Daniels screaming “YouTube! YOUTUBE!” while in the anchor chair, arms outstretched. That deserves to go viral more than his speech at Northwestern.
- The Sorkin name-drops I caught: Bill Carter, Frank Capra, Miguel Tejada, James O’Keefe, Merchant of Venice, Cervantes, Kathy Lee and Hoda, Gloria Allred. What’d I miss?