Aaron Sorkin: The End Of The Meta?

Film & Television


With the final episode of The Newsroom last week, Aaron Sorkin has come full circle. From writing and producing a TV show about a sports show (Sportsnight) to writing and producing a TV show about the news (The Newsroom, about a show called Newsnight), Sorkin’s cavalcade of Meta, or at least the latest iteration of it, is finally over.

Firstly, a confession: Hi, my name is Mahmud and I am a recovering Aaron Sorkin fan. I used to delight in the fast-paced dialogue and idealistic monologues penned by Sorkin. I got hooked on Sorkin-world, where everybody is super-smart and super-hot and everything is as it should be. Where the guy always gets the girl—always. Casey and Dana. Josh and Donna. Harriet and Matt. Jordan and Danny. Will and Mackenzie. Even Jim and Maggie. (If you’re not a Sorkin fan, I realize that I’ve just listed off a bunch of super-white couples to you but suffice it to say—they were always going to end up together). Where the asshole always turns out to be the good guy in disguise. (Hello, Dan Rydell, Josh Lyman, the CEO guy in Studio 60 and basically everyone in The Newsroom). Where your efforts are always rewarded. Where even when life has you on your knees, there’s still time after the commercial break for you to turn things around to a kick-ass soundtrack and cinematic shots of your colleagues and/or friends overcoming a thematically similar issue as the one that you are wrestling with.
Sorkin’s themes and tropes have become clichés in and of themselves. The “walk-and-talk” and the “Sorkin relationship moment” have their own entries on trope codifier TVTropes while he has gone so far as to lampshade these himself in his own shows (the scene where Josh and Sam walk-and-talk aimlessly around the White House in The West Wing only to discover that they are both essentially following each other). While in the Sorkin-verse, it seems that ex-lovers are always hooking up with their old flame’s best friends because apparently that’s a thing. This is not so much idealistic Sorkin-world utopia as some bad shit that’s probably happened in Aaron Sorkin’s life that he needs to deal with! This is not to mention his sheer inability to write female characters—women in Aaron Sorkin’s world completely lack any agency whatsoever and are nothing more than plot devices and/or decoration. While he was able to cover this up with rapid-fire dialogue and sassiness in the 90s (and yes we’ll admit it, this type of writing was more acceptable back then) it has become increasingly old and tired. Clumsiness is not inherently adorable. Nor is the inability to deal with technology or the inability to tell a joke (particularly, ironically with a character who is a professional comedian in Studio 60).

Sports Night

So, let’s start with Sports Night. In my opinion, this is among Sorkin’s best works, firstly because it knew what it was. A comedy, laugh-track and all. And secondly, because it was a comedy of its time. In fact, you could argue that Sports Night was an outlier for the specific workplace-based sitcoms that followed since the end of the 90s. Yes, there was drama. Yes, there were feels. But, ultimately, it was funny. It didn’t take itself too seriously. It was a show about sports. How could it? And yes, Dan and Casey had some stuff to overcome, and yes the network was sold out from under them (another Sorkin trope), but it was always funny.

The West Wing

Then he hit on the West Wing, and we thought: man this guy can write. Drama? Yes. Maybe even too much. The president is shot in an assassination attempt in the season one closer. Where do you go from there? Don’t worry. We next have the president hiding a deliberating sickness and fighting a re-election campaign. Then his daughter is kidnapped by terrorists and he steps down from office! Now what? Now he’s paralyzed in China. Boom. The trials and tribulations of President Jeb Bartlett-a wish fulfillment Democrat president at a time when George W. Bush was in office—are enough to fill any ten presidential terms. But don’t worry, let’s move on to the next election campaign and introduce Jimmy Smits as Matt Santos, the Latino Obama!

The West Wing was good, don’t get me wrong. It was great! Probably one of the best shows on TV at the time, not including The Sopranos and The Wire. There was a lot in it that was admirable, and for the most part the good was more than enough to paper over the bad. But re-watch it and the cracks start to appear. Again: terrible female characters, over-dramatic idealistic monologues about peace, democracy and the American Dream. At the time, I didn’t notice this so much but as the years go on, or perhaps as I’ve acquired a more nuanced understanding of politics, the sheer dumb simplicity of Sorkin’s premise has begun to grate. His not-so-subtle liberal agenda—and I am a liberal!—has begun to annoy me. Not so much the liberal part of it, but Sorkin’s glibness. His tireless advocation of simple answers. Still, the West Wing has its moments: CJ becomes chief-of-staff, Josh and Donna hook up, the Latina Obama makes it to the White House. And Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlett is just magnificent!

Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip

Finally, the West Wing ended, and not with a bang but a whimper. Maybe if it had ended two or three seasons earlier, we would have gotten a more dramatic endgame. Still, taken all in all, the West Wing endures. It manages to hold on to its greatness, albeit by the skin of its teeth. It endures, even as a particular relic of its time. But then came Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Not to mince words: it was dire. The show was based on a major fallacy. It was a show about a sketch comedy show, but the sketch comedy show-within-the-show was simply not funny. And even Bradley Walsh playing a toned-down Josh Lyman and Matthew Perry playing Matthew Perry couldn’t save it. Somehow, watching the same old tired plot-lines unwind was just not as fun as it used to be. Would Matt and Harriet finally manage to get it together? Yes. They definitely would. Would a bunch of other played out scenes and scenarios also get resolved satisfactorily? Also yes. However, in a drive for drama, the show also pushed out the boat and jumped the shark (Yes, I’m allowed to mix metaphors). How about a cast member’s marine brother being kidnapped by the Taliban? Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Wow, well surely this dramatic storyline is enough to anchor this season finale? No, how about we throw in a pregnancy in peril and cut between these two storylines, that will surely get the viewers’ yucking it up!

Notwithstanding all the behind the scenes stuff and Sorkin using the show to lampoon former writing partners and speechify about “the media,” I still watched it. Despite myself. And it wasn’t hate-watching; I cringed and winced and swore each and every time the credits rolled that it would be the last time, but like that one ex-girlfriend you keep slinking back to, Sorkin had me enthralled. Yes, I realize I just compared Aaron Sorkin to an ex-lover and I am fine with it! But Studio 60 ended, in its first season, and I thought I was free. I thought I was done. I made a solemn vow to myself—at midnight, under a full moon, dressed in a white sheet and surrounded by a circle of candles in the middle of a forest—I would not, absolutely not, watch anything Sorkin did again. Pinky swear! Then I heard that his next show was called The Newsroom. As someone who actually works in a newsroom, I thought to myself “Well, I’ve got to check this out!”

The Newsroom

And I did. And it was so Sorkin. It was Sorkin distilled down to his essence. Rapid fire dialogue? Yes. Idealistic monologue? Yes. Office-placed romances that frankly veer wildly into the realms of unprofessionalism. Oh yes. But this time it was worse, because it was something I actually know and am passionate about. Sorkin can bullshit all he likes about the US Congress or the inner working of a writers room, but I know the media and what Sorkin is talking about is some cloud cuckoo land bullshit.

Why can’t my boss make speeches referencing Edward R. Murrow and Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein and the sheer god-damn importance of journalism? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they’re too busy actually, you know, doing their job. What makes it even worse is that Sorkin asks some interesting, and if you work in the media, important questions. The media is going through such a period of change—24-hour audiences, the internet, social media—that there are real issues that need to be addressed. The problem is that Sorkin asks the question, but then gives you a bullshit Sorkin-world answer. How can we report the news accurately and rationally at a time when everything is undercut by a race for ratings? Good question, and to answer that here is a quote from Don Quixote. While away from all that, the show still has the same old tired Sorkin clichés. Terribly written women characters (even when they are acted so well, shout out to Emily Mortimer in particular here) who lack any agency or common-sense. Yes, even if you make all your women characters hyper-intelligent, when they don’t understand how to send a text—that is sexism. Or, at least bad writing.

Season One wasn’t awful. It had its moments—and its un-moments—but, most importantly, it was tightly scripted and featured Sorkin’s trademark dialogue. Season Two? A mess, full of unconvincing narrative time-line games and faux drama about a faux story. And, in the midst of all this, the requisite work-place love triangle. Still, Sorkin managed to secure a third season. Would he go out with a bang? Nope. This time the tone was a complete mess, from super-serious scenes about host Will McAvoy protecting a source to fun-and-games at news director Charlie Skinner’s funeral. And ending on a song? Pa-lease!

So, Sorkin’s shtick may not have changed, but we have. The world has changed around Sorkin and his outdated TV tropes, and what was once original and cutting edge is now tired and old. Worse than that, irrelevant. Still, I’ll probably end up watching whatever he writes next.

This article was originally published here.