On Aaron Sorkin, television and repeating oneself

emily-blunt-newsroom.jpgIn a piece being well received at the Los Angeles Review of Books, television critic Phillip Maciak calls Aaron Sorkin "one of the only commercially bankable and socially conscious screenwriters now working; his writing style is fast, fluid, and instantly recognizable, and, since leaving television for feature films after his exodus from 'The West Wing,' he has become possibly the most sought-after screenwriter in Hollywood." And yet.

Here's an excerpt from the piece.

Sorkin’s new HBO dramedy The Newsroom, his third television series about the inner workings of a television series, and another in a long line of meditations on the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of the powerful, at times feels like the last straw. Devoted fans of West Wing and Sports Night, his first TV show, have long known that Sorkin cribs lines. In the same way that Woolfians know that the Mrs. Dalloway in The Voyage Out is a first draft of the Mrs. Dalloway that would later appear fully formed in Virginia Woolf’s great novel, Sorkinites know that The American President’s Andrew Shepherd is merely a first draft of The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett. What president wouldn’t question the virtue of a proportional response? This kind of genetic criticism is applicable to most great artists, and the idea of revisiting and perfecting older material, staking out and then mastering intellectual terrain, is a perfectly normalized mode of artistic production. Nobody gives Martin Scorsese a hard time for making too many movies about organized crime.

But there’s something very different about The Newsroom. Sorkin obviously has a great interest in television and in the way decisions about what we see onscreen are made, and there’s presumably great value to be had in a popular artist whose oeuvre is committed to anatomizing mass media writing another production procedural, just as Scorsese has repeatedly anatomized criminal networks. The Newsroom could have been a revision of the catastrophically smug Studio 60, softening its self-satisfied pomposity, and a sequel of sorts to the madcap juvenilia of Sports Night, complicating the gender dynamics of and breaking the lock-step banter of producer and host. Great writers write thematically connected trilogies, don’t they? Sorkin needed merely to follow the advice of that great editor, Ezra Pound, and make it new. But The Newsroom, more than perhaps any other Sorkin production, feels distinctly old. And it’s not just that the lines are familiar from previous series and films, and it’s not just that we’ve seen this scenario from him before. The Newsroom feels old because, after seven years away from the medium he helped to transform, the great Aaron Sorkin has become an anachronism.

Maciak's TV criticism has appeared online at Salon and The House Next Door, among other places.

More by Kevin Roderick:
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