Why it’s all bad news for the West Wing wonder Aaron Sorkin

By Jennifer Lipman, July 13, 2012
Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin

'Crammed with incessant gibber-jabber" said the Washington Post. The San Francisco Chronicle described it as "a mess, but one you can't really look away from". And the AV Club blog worried about the prevalence of "self-righteous blather". Suffice to say, the reaction to Aaron Sorkin's latest series, The Newsroom, was not unequivocally flattering to the writer. By the second episode, the show had lost 20 per cent of its US audience.

Sorkin's first television venture since Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip premiered on British TV this week, with fans anticipating a return to form. Nearly a decade after Sorkin left behind his hit series about White House politics, The West Wing, he still inspires adulation. But it has been a rocky road from Oval Office to newsroom.

Studio 60, too obviously an attack on the Christian right and George W Bush, was a critical and ratings flop and quickly axed. But Sorkin bounced back. The Social Network, his 2010 biopic of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, won him an Oscar. The film, with its memorable lines - "You know what's cool? A billion dollars" - was an epic tale of hubris and greed. How close to the truth it was remains up for debate, but there is no denying Sorkin's version is the one etched on people's memories.

His Zuckerberg was a brilliant outsider fighting the system. The character recurs throughout his work, from the womanising lead figure in the movie Charlie Wilson's War to baseball manager Billy Beane in last year's Academy Award-nominated Moneyball.

In Sorkin's fictional world, great men are invariably troubled. They are also dreamers who want to point out the world's ills.

"I'm not trying to teach you anything," Sorkin has said. Really? He does not just write conversation, he writes soliloquies. In the opening of The Newsroom, anchorman Jeff Daniels launches into a blistering rant. Yet what came across as inspirational in the 1990s can feel today like the writer is lecturing from his Hollywood perch.

"Characters never stop speechifying," wrote the Washington Post's critic. "It's a puppet show with Sorkin as the only hand." In the film The American President and The West Wing, he expertly caught the public mood, offering audiences a Clinton-style president, only without the scandals. After Obama, the suggestion that rousing oratory can be a route to progress rings a little false.

It also comes across as naïve, given the economy and the threat to journalism posed by the internet, to suggest - as producer MacKenzie McHale does in The Newsroom - that it is possible to "do a good show for 100 people [rather] than a bad show for a million". "It's hard to close your eyes and pretend that we can go back to once upon a time," said New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson.

Still, this should not doom The Newsroom. Sorkinophiles adore his work because of the way he unashamedly celebrates the elite. His protagonists are always superior. "I like the sound of intelligence," Sorkin has said, and his audience tends to agree. But even if they were smarter and wittier, the thing about The West Wing gang was that you still wanted them as friends.

From the outset the Newsroomers seem like imitations of West Wing favourites, from the C J-like executive to the ditsy Donna-esque blonde. The Newsroom is textbook Sorkin, let down by the fact that this formula has been done before, and better, by Sorkin.

Will audiences stay with The Newsroom, or will they reach for their West Wing box-sets to revel in his glory days, and hope that in his forthcoming projects - including a Steve Jobs biopic - Sorkin will do Sorkin properly? Not that it matters. HBO has already commissioned a second series.

"The Newsroom" is on Sky Atlantic on Tuesdays at 10pm

Last updated: 2:50pm, August 28 2014