Oct 2, 2019
So long to The Newsroom. Good job making us glad to see you go.
The Newsroom ends tonight and, as a service to any remaining fans, the show was nice enough to put a bullet in the head of any goodwill it had left last week so there’d be no tears over the finale.
Aaron Sorkin proved with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that he’d given up on originality and become a hack. And not just any hack, but a weird meta-hack, churning out piss-poor Aaron Sorkin-esque material that was completely derivative of his own previous works but without any charm or freshness.
Perhaps the premise of Studio 60, which looked so amazingly promising on paper, should have been recognized as a red flag. Sports Night and The West Wing are two of television’s most acclaimed and influential shows, and with Studio 60 we had Sorkin returning to the backstage dramedy of a live television show like Sports Night but this time an SNL-style skit comedy show that specializes in political satire to pull in the best elements of The West Wing. Freakin’ genius, right? The absolute perfect vehicle for Sorkin!
Except it was a mess. A tone-deaf attempt to replicate the Sorkin formula by Sorkin himself. He was ripping himself off and failing miserably.
Where the characters on the previous two shows were clumsy, faltering, and utterly charming as Sorkin shoved his self-righteousness into their mouths, the Studio 60 people were insufferable assholes. They were so much smarter and right-er than every other person outside the main cast that they could treat them like utter shit with complete indemnity. It was a complete misunderstanding of what was enjoyable about an Aaron Sorkin show.
It’s reminiscent of a scene in West Wing where Sam met a less-than-talented NASA speechwriter who had committed no sin other than being less awesome than Sam. Their exchange ends with this bit of dialogue:
Look, I don’t want to step on your toes. You don’t want to step on mine. We’re both writers.
Yes, I suppose, if we broaden the definition to those who can spell.
(as Sam walks away)
BURN!!! Except… what the fuck, Sam? Why are you being such a dick? Fortunately, Sam had three seasons of likeability in the bank so the audience wasn’t going to turn on him over one bit of miscalculated dialogue. Imagine if this been Sam’s first scene… and every scene thereafter… and you quickly understand why Studio 60 flopped.
Sorkin’s tendency to copy his own ideas, only less successfully, was already on display with The West Wing. Josh’s guilt over the death of his brother and his nickname of “Hit-and-Run Josh” were directly stolen from Dan on Sports Night. And Sam’s bitterness over his father’s decades of secret infidelity was stolen from Jeremy. And Pres. Bartlet’s speech about proportional response was cribbed almost directly from The American President.
The Newsroom was Sorkin’s third attempt at a show about a live show. Yeah, this time it was clearly a red flag. More insufferably righteous (and always right) men and their plucky, idealistic, and equally self-righteous female subordinates. There was a definite train wreck quality to the whole thing, except that viewers found themselves fully capable of turning away. It limped through three seasons with the axe perpetually overhead. Tonight, it’s done. And no one will begging to see it added to Netflix.
Self-plagiarism is typically a sign of lack of confidence in yourself to ever produce new material as good as your previous successes, but under-confidence has never seemed to be Sorkin’s problem. Instead, these days, Sorkin seems to be showing the same contempt for his audience Sam was exhibiting to the lesser speechwriter. “I am so much more fucking awesome than you that I can treat you like shit and get away with it.”
That egotism was on full parade with last week’s penultimate episode of The Newsroom. Here’s how The A.V. Club described it: “the only viewers who may have been pleased with [the episode] were likely the editors of Rolling Stone, who can at least say that they weren’t the only ones accused of bungling a campus rape story this weekend.” Sorkin dramatized his own idealized vision of how rape victims should be treated by the media and outraged pretty much everyone.
But Sorkin thinks everyone in the world but him is wrong. “It was the first episode of The Newsroom I thought was really good,” Sorkin said, tone-deaf to his own tone-deafness.
Not only was the entire plotline a miscalculation on Sorkin’s part, but Sorkin booted a female writer who warned him he was making a bad call.
Alena Smith, a staff writer who joined the show for the third season, had strong objections to the Princeton story and made those objections known to me and to the room. I heard Alena’s objections and there was some healthy back and forth. After a while I needed to move on (there’s a clock ticking) but Alena wasn’t ready to do that yet. I gave her more time but then I really needed to move on. Alena still wouldn’t let me do that so I excused her from the room.
The next day I wrote a new draft of the Princeton scenes–the draft you saw performed last night. Alena gave the new pages her enthusiastic support. So I was surprised to be told this morning that Alena had tweeted out her unhappiness with the story. But I was even more surprised that she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writers room which is confidentiality. It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private and intimate details of their lives in the hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched. That’s what happens in writers rooms and while ours was the first one Alena ever worked in, the importance of privacy was made clear to everyone on our first day of work and was reinforced constantly. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.
Egotism, followed by playing the victim. Nicely done.
Allow me to quote Sam Seaborn again: “Good. ‘Cause hubris always wins in the end. The Greeks taught us that.”
For an excellent roundup of reviews and commentary on the campus rape plot on The Newsroom, head over to Vulture.