Aaron Sorkin achieved full-fledged TV auteur status with The West Wing, which started out as an ensemble piece focused on the nuts and bolts of running the White House, but soon evolved to place Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet and his opinions at the center of the action. Bartlet was conceived as a shadowy figure on the margins of the action, which helps to explain why it never bothered anyone, when the show was in the planning stages, that this hyperverbal liberal elitist with genius SAT scores and a personal style that was never as warm and inviting as the show seemed to think it was seemed a mighty unlikely candidate to have been elected president. (When pressed on the matter, the show coughed up the explanation that he was only able to pull it off because he had Otter from Animal House as his running mate.)
When The West Wing premièred in the fall of 1999, the Clinton administration still had some 16 months to go. A month before the 2000 presidential election, NBC aired “The Midterms,” an episode in which President Bartlet caught a Dr. Laura-style conservative-radio host taking up space—sitting on her butt, in one of his chairs!—in his goddamn White House and decided to show her and the viewing audience who was boss. “I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination,” he says, with a little half-smile much like the one that Billy Jack used to wear before kicking some fascist’s ass through his ass. Not knowing enough to keep her mouth shut, she replies, “I don’t say that homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President, the Bible does.” That’s his cue to deliver a monologue that thoroughly trumps her knowledge of the Bible (“Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?”) before reducing her to a smoking pile of charred remains with, “While you may be mistaking this as your monthly meeting of the ignorant tight-ass club, in this building, when the president stands, nobody sits.”
This sort of thing happened all the time by the end of The West Wing’s first season, and it happened more and more after George W. Bush entered the Oval Office. Then those who’d voted for Bill Clinton but found they preferred their fantasy Democratic President to the real thing found they had no one but Jed Bartlet to cling to. Bartlet reacted to the 9/11 attacks, which happened in his world as well as ours; he balanced his religious faith with his awe of science and space exploration; he saved Social Security, stood tall in the face of terrorism and threats from foreign powers, and told George W. Bush to his weasely face that his snickering attitude toward education and intellectual attainments was a dangerous insult to everything that might lift others less fortunate than the two of them out of poverty, illness, and a dead-end life. (Though he technically didn’t say it to Bush himself but to James Brolin, everyone watching knew what was going on.) The show referred to, incorporated, and commented on actual news events while also creating real drama. This wasn’t a first, but it’s still no mean trick to pull off. It became commonplace to hear The West Wing spoken of as a liberal fantasy set in an alternate universe where Bill Clinton was still president and knew how to keep his pants zipped. That might be a grandiose way of putting it, but it’s accurate enough, in the same way that Kojak was set in an alternate universe in which a police lieutenant could parade around as the most expensively dressed man in Manhattan without ending his career in front of a grand jury.
What sets Sorkin’s current HBO series The Newsroom apart from just about every other show on the air is that it tries as hard as it can to not be set in an alternate universe. The central characters aren’t from these parts: They’re an idealized bunch of broadcast journalists who go after the truth the way Don Quixote went after that windmill, because they’re smart and capable enough to do the job, and somebody has to. (In The New Yorker, Louis Menand recently quoted a line Sam Waterston delivers in the pilot—“Anchors having an opinion isn’t a new phenomenon. Murrow had one, and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one, and that was the end of Vietnam”—at the end of an article that pointed out that both Murrow’s importance in bringing down Senator McCarthy, and Cronkite’s part in turning public opinion against the Vietnam War, have been wildly exaggerated. Murrow himself was always sheepish about this, and a newsman as old and as smart as Waterston’s character should probably be aware of that.) But they’ve been dropped into our world, a world where the news is about the BP oil spill, the Tea Party and its influence on the 2000 midterms, Citizens United and the Koch brothers, the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and the Arab Spring. All these incidents and figures go by their own names; nobody is played by James Brolin. The only concession to the illusory nature of TV drama is that it’s our world on time delay, so the newsroom is always reeling and rocking in response to something that we all heard about a little more than a year ago.
That’s a problem. At first, the première episode of The Newsroom has the familiar Sorkin crackle. First there are the opening credits, which are familiarly Sorkinesque—the montage as monument—and feel a little funny when seen on HBO (kind of like seeing Asia Argento in an English-language film made on an A-list Hollywood budget). Then we meet Jeff Daniels as the obscenely overpaid news anchor Will McAvoy, who doesn’t understand that he hates himself and takes it out on everybody else, because he’s let himself and his show become too comfortable. Everybody compares him to Jay Leno, but Waterston and Emily Mortimer, who plays the producer he can’t forgive (and who can’t forgive herself) for wrecking their love affair, know that Rachel Maddow is in there, trying to get out. The first half of the première details Will’s meltdown in response to a softball question during a public appearance, the defection of his staff, and the beginnings of his reinvention when Mortimer and her team are forced upon him: good, chewy stuff, full of rat-a-tat dialogue and Sorkiny goodness.
Then, a member of Mortimer’s team picks up the first glimmerings about the BP oil spill. The members of the newsroom fall to arguing about just how big a story this is, how good the sources are, and what angle to take in reporting it. Because the viewer—who may not have realized before now that the action has been unfolding 22 months ago, as the calendars are set in our world—knows just how big a story it is and what the facts are, it’s all quite easy to read: The characters who argue in favor of it, such as Mortimer’s sidekick Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) are heroic, truth-seeking visionaries, and the main character who insists on caution, Daniels’ former executive producer—Don, played by Thomas Sadoski—is clearly a cowardly skunk who wouldn’t know a real news story if it sat in his lap. He probably thinks that if you turn on a faucet in Iraq, WMDs flow out. He probably would have misreported, “cautiously,” from the site of the Hindenburg explosion. And he’s sleeping with the bubbly, vivacious, but insecure Maggie (Alison Pill), whom Jim is clearly meant to be with. Son of a bitch!
The Newsroom is now halfway through it’s 10-episode first season, and every episode has followed the same path. The viewer is assigned a big, recent news story, and Will and his friends show us how it should have been covered, which also gives us a chance to see what Aaron Sorkin thinks of it. There are little snippets of drama and character comedy slipped into the cracks between speeches and bits of data: Will wants his producer/ex-girlfriend so bad that he has no choice but to sleep with every other woman in Manhattan; Maggie wants Jim so bad that she is driven to fix him up with a beautiful woman of her acquaintance, so she can get mad when, while lying in bed next to her boyfriend, she discovers that Jim is in bed with her friend; another staffer, played by Dev Patel, believes in Bigfoot. None of this feels as if it matters, because so much of the show is taken up with the story of the week, which amounts to watching made-up characters weigh in on old news. It is hard to understand how Sorkin thought this would be interesting to people living in our current, real-world timeline. His views on such matters as the need to raise the debt ceiling and Sarah Palin’s views on the BP disaster are hardly so unusual that they add something glittering and vital to what’s already been said about them, and most of the people who already said similar things managed to get them out there while the subjects were still pertinent.
Is part of the idea behind The Newsroom that one serious, well-reported news show can make a difference? That sounds like the sort of thing Sorkin would believe, at least for the purposes of making a TV show that made the case. But, leaving aside the concerns that are expressed in the show about ratings, Will’s efforts have no effect at all. They can’t, because in our timeline, we know that the actual events he’s reporting on just kept rolling merrily along. That this is a problem for the show, to the point that it undercuts its own message, is clearest in the episode about the Tea Party and the midterms. Will, who is a “moderate Republican,” is outraged to learn that this noble effort created from the ground up by honest Americans concerned about where the nation is heading has been co-opted and hijacked by “radical” conservatives with too much money. So he has some Tea Party simpletons come on his show and demolishes them, just like President Bartlet demolished the Dr. Laura clone. But on The West Wing, after President Bartlet told everyone what the real deal was about some issue, the issue was settled and went away. Here, because our world on a time delay is still our world, the Republicans still triumph in the midterms, electing to Congress Tea Party candidates who are shown to be some dangerously ignorant sons of guns. If Will finds this discouraging, after all his hard work trying to enlighten the electorate, he hides it well.
Maybe the proper reference point for The Newsroom isn’t The West Wing at all. Maybe it’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Like most smart, funny show-business liberals, Sorkin probably both admires and envies those shows. (A lot of show-business conservatives feel the same way, which is why there have been such naked attempts to create conservative imitations of them as Joel Surnow’s The 1/2 Hour News Hour and Glenn Beck’s B.S. Of A. Why all such imitations stink on ice is a question for another day.) Sorkin is using a scripted series to comment as directly (and, often, as sarcastically) on daily events as Jon Stewart. The result is an awkward hybrid form of topical drama that just won’t take. Maybe Sorkin senses that something is wrong, and that’s behind the news about him possibly cleaning out the writers’ room. If he wants to subject The Newsroom to a major revamp for its second season, he might want to consider a show closer to home, or at least to HBO history: Tanner ’88, the great Robert Altman-Garry Trudeau series about a fictional candidate that was scripted and shot against the unfolding backdrop of the actual 1988 presidential campaign, with fictional characters and real political celebrities interacting together and reacting to what had happened in the real world since the last episode. That might be too far from Sorkin’s style for him to even process it as a concept. But if Will McAvoy and his team could catch up to our timeline and report on the news as it’s happening, he might have a show whose heart pumps blood. The people in the newsroom, deprived of their author’s omniscience, might even get a story wrong, make mistakes. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism, that is what drama means.