Aaron Sorkin is nothing if not a great writer of television series. At least that was the reputation he earned from his writing for the wildly successful “West Wing,” for which he was the principal writer for the show’s first four years (2000-2004). But he may have outdone his reputation with the three-year run of “The Newsroom,” the much discussed, if only marginally successful, drama about the struggles of a cable news network.
The HBO series aired its last episode earlier this month after raising no small amount of controversy over an episode that dealt with the subject of rape and a few others that concerned press freedom when national security is at stake. These issues were explored with all the intensity of a sanctimonious sermon, which is pretty much how Sorkin chose to present every issue the show touched on each week. The show was, if nothing else, a primer on how Sorkin would like television journalism to conduct itself.
And if that had been all it was, the series might have been a lot less interesting and certainly a lot less infuriating than it was. For, in fact, what Sorkin added to his presumed personal views on the sorry state of television news coverage, was a soap opera of wildly varying levels of intrigue that featured nothing but highly intelligent and exceedingly witty characters all of whom sounded like pretty much the same person.
Thus, whether it was Jeff Daniels’ news anchor, or his executive producer (played by Emily Mortimer), or the techie (Dev Patel) who ran the network’s online Twitter feed, or the network director (Sam Waterston), or any of the other characters in the ensemble, they all spoke with the same clever, punch-line heavy, fast-paced sense of Mensa-like intelligence. It assuredly made for some very funny dialogue, but who, in fact really talks like that all the time?
And what they were talking about didn’t seem to matter. Whether it was the most important news of the day or the most trivial personal issue between two would-be lovers (the show was loaded with those storylines), the dialogue was always highly intelligent and exceedingly witty. “To a fault” would be the appropriate phrase. In fact, “to a point of tedium” might be even more accurate. In short, while Sorkin himself is obviously very intelligent, and no doubt very witty, it is hard to imagine that he engages in the kind of dialogue with everyone he speaks with like all of his characters did on “Newsroom.”
So there’s that criticism of the show. And then there are the storylines themselves, which, despite Sorkin’s obvious desire to make a statement in the series, often concerned matters of budding romance or romance denied that would just as easily have worked on the old daytime soaps that Mr. Sorkin would presumably regard as beneath his dignity. Thus we had the characters played by Mr. Daniels and Ms. Mortimer dancing around their obvious love for each other for fully two seasons before they finally re-consummated their relationship. And we had the characters played by Allison Pill and John Gallagher, Jr. wanting to form a relationship from the first episode of the first season to the last episode of the last, when they finally did. And the budding romance between the characters played by Thomas Sadoski and Olivia Munn that had them hiding their dates with each other from the company’s HR guy was so ridiculous that it ended with the HR guy telling them that he’d just been having fun with them. Really? That resolution of a minor plot line might have been the show’s low point.
Unless that low point was the episode in this last season of the show when the Daniels’ character gets sent to jail for contempt (for failing to reveal a source on the national security plotline). There he is engaged by his cellmate in conversations that once again are exceedingly intelligent and witty, even though the cellmate is portrayed as a poorly educated guy who also happens to be a wife-beater. But even he, apparently, graduated from the Sorkin school of sharp intellectual discourse, for he came close to holding his own with the news anchor in their otherwise inconsequential debates.
In the end, “Newsroom” was worthwhile on many levels, not least of which was the sense of civility that Sorkin attempted to provide as an underlying theme. His characters are nothing if not civil, even when they are railing against each other on points of principle (or on less significant matters). The show suggested the way the news could be covered in a way that might make Edward R. Murrow proud, but it also showed how even the most brilliant and committed journalists lead lives not at all unlike the rest of us. They just don’t talk like the rest of us.