Sorkin Shrugged

by micahbloomberg

Like a barrel number stamped on a bottle of small-batch whiskey, episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, are written by him and him alone. As creator and producer Sorkin wears other hats in the production but discerning viewers wait for the “written by” credit to assure authenticity. Financers are well-aware: the Sorkin brand is an upscale property that delivers cultural cachet and drives dollars.

Recently though, these brand expectations have become a hindrance. A casual viewer knows to expect whip-smart banter and pretty speeches. Harder users wait for Sorkin to take down political figures that have been irritating them, with more class and verve than they could manage. Diehards want to get back into the office, back to the feeling of like-minded camaraderie, true friendship, that watching a season and a half in two days gives them. But even given that, the bar seems higher for Sorkin’s shows than others, and his failure to clear it creates a special, vicious disappointment in critics and viewers.

What is this painful, embarrassing disappointment about? Where does it come from?

All of Sorkin’s shows center around a gifted Leader and his loyal Team. The world outside the Team is corrupt. Inside, hard work and born-genius butt heads. Idiosyncrasies stemming from too many hours in front of a computer (or, even better, leaning over a yellow legal pad, pencil in one hand, forehead pressed to the palm of the other) are forgiven, even celebrated, i.e. “I think better with my bat!” or “Are you working at a New Year’s Eve party?” Debate is spirited. Relevant statistics, the result of late night research sessions (male Team Members discovered asleep over their papers, females called back from cocktail parties still wearing their going-out dresses), back up heart-felt advocacy. A knack with these statistics, along with correct grammar, a sense of humor and mastery of Ivy League trivia (show tunes, scripture, vague yet evocative aphorisms) show a young Team Member’s worthiness. Intramural debates are resolved by Team Leader, who has mastered all the statistics, grammar and trivia, but also knows the right way to apply them. For newcomers, scholarship and diligence may get you in the door but loyalty and devotion to Team Leader are what keep you in the room.

Commitment to the Team consumes the Team Members’ lives. In the few moments when they aren’t doing their research, or rushing to the office from whatever function they’ve been called back from, they nurse intense work crushes on other Team Members. Banter used to make a point with statistics can quickly switch voltage and become flirtatious. Desire, typically unconsummated for propriety’s sake, adds texture to the rigid hierarchy. A typical exchange from Sorkin’s earlier series, Sports Night, has a male Team-Member complimenting his work-crush as “smoky” while they stand over a control board, the chaos of work swirling around them. Two unfulfilled office romances power Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The crushes receive tonal umph from generally out-of-date love songs, their sappiness embraced the way a Team Member might belt a line from Gilbert and Sullivan or rip into a passage of Shakespeare. Results can be unreliable. On S60, Matthew Perry listens misty-eyed as Sting performs “Fields of Gold” on a renaissance harp, which is mortifying to watch, but an episode of TNR called “Fix You” ends with a montage set to the Coldplay song which has a chaste smile between star-crossed work-crushes Jim and Maggie that made me cry.

It’s hard for people outside the Team to understand all this. They can defy the Team’s mission, as First Lady Abby Bartlet sometimes does on TWW, but that’s a losing game. Better is respectful curiosity, like on TNR when the Team is called back to the office from their New Year’s Eve Party (the women still wearing their elegant dresses), and two girlfriends, brought along in the commotion, are told to “just sit tight and remember [they’re] not gonna hear please and thank you a lot.” Later on, they listen carefully to patient explanations about the challenges the Team must face.

There’s a distinctly male arrogance to these exchanges. Within the Team, women rarely outrank the men. But that balance of power pales when compared to an outsider’s status versus a Team Member’s. Love interests outside the Team reinforce the tribal conviction that corruption rules beyond the office doors. In TWW’s pilot, Sam Seaborn declines to wake and bake with a female outsider he’s slept with, he needs to get to the office. After dinner, TNR Team Leader, Will McAvoy, is fishing a joint from his outsider date’s purse when he finds a gun. Will’s not scared of the gun (he dismantles it quicker than Tom Cruise in Collateral), and the joint itself isn’t the problem. It’s the outsider’s relationship with them. As a non-Team-Member, she doesn’t know what these objects mean and she doesn’t listen to Will when he tries to teach her.

In fact, social drinking and light drug use, hold-overs from good times at great colleges, are fondly depicted. The gang loves to get together for a drink at the end of the day. Glasses of red wine and fingers of whiskey are swirled and stared into during minor-key speeches among Team Members. These evening confessionals get emotional when America comes up or when devotion to the Team Leader is invoked.

Alcohol and drugs are more than props, though. Sorkin is, pretty famously, a recovering alcoholic and the AA path to recovery informs the Show’s point of view. Drinking and drug use are never condemned outright but, when the Team gets together after work, the camera takes on the watchful, knowing attitude of a reformed addict at a party that’s about to turn wild. Each Team Member’s drink, and the way he drinks it, is meant to speak volumes about his character. Starting position is whiskey for men and red wine for women, inversions and variations on which follow. On TWW, Donna gets called back from dinner in her elegant dress, mourning the interruption of her whiskey sour, but dives back into work. The whiskey confirms her de-sexed role in the office and the fact that she’s left dinner sober enough to do more research shows that she isn’t an addict. On TNR, Mackenzie MacHale likes red wine but leaves half-drunk glasses at the bar when she’s called back to the office; glaring non-addict behavior.

Other characters don’t manage as well and, for them, a reckoning is necessary. On TWW, Leo McGarey’s relapse is studied from all angles, with focus put on the way his abuse interferes with his work. Similarly, on S60, co-Team Leader Matt Albie begins the series as an addict just beginning his recovery. For people in this position, hard work for the Team is their only hope.  The Show goes out of its way to make clear that it understands the solace of drinking, the intimacy it fosters. People aren’t blamed for needing a crutch to get through the day. But in its reverence of hard work and Team membership, the Show proposes a way of life where the lure of alcohol can be faced and, explicitly and implicitly, the Twelve Step process is used as a model to that end.  

TNR hasn’t directly mentioned recovery yet, but I don’t think it’s very far off. The hold up may be that, in this case, Team Leader is the one who will have to face up. Will McAvoy drinks hard liquor alone and doesn’t acknowledge when his using interferes with work, a major red flag. Seeing these warning signs, Mackenzie, Will’s second-in-command and love interest, can only bite her tongue. Will’s status denies her the right to confront him.

The only person who can speak with impunity to Team Leader is his Therapist and, like AA, the process of talk therapy is spiritually important to the Show. The Therapist is more generously endowed with Sorkin’s verbal genius than Team Leader. He isn’t master of all the statistics and what they mean but he has a wise, patient response to every one of Team Leader’s jokes, which start to seem smartalek-y in the Therapist’s presence. This is parity no Team Member would dream of. The Therapist can also identify secret psychological wounds in Team Leader that are invisible to Team Members. This acuity is associated with Judaism, which is why Tobey Ziegler, a Team Member/Therapist hybrid, whose father was a “Brooklyn shrink,” is able to confront President Bartlet with his intuitive knowledge that Jeb’s father hit him and was a drunk. On TNR, Will suffered identical childhood trauma and is aided in a similar way by his therapist Jack Habib, whose last name broadens the Therapists’ tribe to include Islam, which Sorkin sees as a Rushdie-esque twin to Judaism, a mythology he acknowledges by naming young Jack Habib’s father, Will’s original therapist, Abe (for Abraham).

These may just be the charming idiosyncrasies that make the world of the show such a great place to visit. Other shows have visionaries struggling to manage a team, Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights comes to mind. But I think that Sorkin is after bigger game and we need to look past television to find a writer with similar goals.  

Sorkin’s closest pop-culture relative is Ayn Rand who might have made an outstanding television writer if she were alive today. Politics aside, her approach to character and power-dynamics are nearly identical to Sorkin’s. Her books are about infallible Team Leaders and the Teams that love them operating in a corrupt world. Team Leader is the source of all good things and evil is easy to recognize in her snide, one-dimensional antagonists (they’d quickly hit it off with Sorkin’s gun-nuts, religious zealots and low-level Republican party hacks). Like on Sorkin’s shows, it’s Team Leader’s righteous correctness, the thrill of watching him defeat corruption, laziness, bad rail management and bad architecture that is appealing. Politics again aside, there’s little difference between Howard Roark’s sweet take-down of the Parthenon and Jeb Bartlet schooling a Christian conservative on what the bible actually says. But Sorkin’s affinity to Rand is more than stylistic. What makes him such a valuable commodity, and what his shows can uniquely claim to share with Rand’s writing, is the promise of a better way of life.

Rand turned the principals behind her novels into a controversial but more or less bone-fide philosophical school, complete with classes taught across the country and a yearly convention where real-world applications were discussed. Many conservatives of Rand’s time ridiculed her work but the years have been kind to her. Tea Party conservatives like to hold up “Who is John Galt?” signs at rallies and their way of arguing is derived from her with-us-or-against-us tone. Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan recommends her novels to his staff and, even though Candidate Ryan has repudiated Rand, who was a pro-choice atheist, he’s described his worldview as a fight between individualism and collectivism, Randian key words. Ron Paul’s advocacy for a modified gold standard and his claim that direct income tax is illegal are Randian ideas. Though she later wrote philosophical books and essays, Rand’s ideas are clearly laid out in her novels, which her followers see as manifestos. If a person were curious about her philosophies, Rand would always direct him to her novels first.

Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are novels but they are also more than that because the principals in them are used as a model for political change. They have come to life in the action they inspired.  At what other time in American politics has a work of popular fiction been used as a defining ideological text?¹ One can debate the practical value of her ideas but it’s impossible to deny her readers’ devotion.

The enormous success of TWW was tied to liberal frustration during the Bush era. Often called a liberal “fantasy,” the show was said to offer relief from a political culture hostile to conspicuous intellect. President Bartlet’s oratorical skill was seen as a protest against President Bush’s cagey indifference to academic language. Viewers ashamed of the way Bush spoke and maddened by an ideology he seemed to insinuate rather than describe found weekly vindication. TWW’s tone of voice made its progressive ideas seem inarguably just and authentically patriotic.

In a similar way, Rand’s novels pull you into the current of her thinking. Like Sorkin she has an absurdly confident, relentless, sort of hypnotic voice. In the end, her books didn’t inspire me to devotion but reading them made me realize that TWW had done that exactly. Sorkin’s voice, virtuosic and inimitable, inspires, in the right listener, belief in a way of life. Sorkin offers audiences a blue print: A rigidly consistent hierarchy organized beneath a gifted leader; romantic love that’s based on respect for a partner’s work ethic and grounded in a common outlook; value placed on East-coast, liberal-humanist education and Western European cultural traditions; a religious structure that assumes scholarship in Big-Three- Monotheism but replaces the clergy with therapists and applies concepts of asceticism through it’s popular American exponent: Alcoholics Anonymous. These values, adhered to in every show Sorkin writes, aren’t incidental. They’re the planks of his philosophy.

In September 2008, The New York Times published a dialogue between Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Jeb Bartlet. At the end, Bartlet reveals that Obama is dreaming, that he, Bartlet, is fictional. Sorkin treated the article as a joke and humbly dismissed his show as an object of fantasy. But out in the world, the impact of TWW was harder to laugh off. The next month, Keith Olbermann, describing Obama’s acceptance speech, praised it with comparisons to TWW. Barack Obama, an academic prodigy whose poetic, impassioned speeches dealt complexly with race, religion and responsibility was more than reminiscent of TWW’s promise. For liberals embarrassed to exhaustion by eight years of George Bush, the values articulated on TWW were coming to life.Looking back, I can see that my enthusiasm for candidate Barack Obama and my enthusiasm for TWW were connected. I doubt I was alone.

TNR, Sorkin’s election-year return to television, was highly anticipated but the immediate response of viewers and critics was stunningly negative. As the show’s figurehead and main selling point, Sorkin was criticized personally as arrogant, sappy and irrelevant. Some reviews, like Jason Poniewozik’s in Time magazine, took the opportunity to point out that they never liked TWW that much to begin with. TNR may or may not be “as good” as TWW but it’s hard to claim that, if TNR failed in its first season, it did so because it wasn’t similar enough to TWW. The heightened, widespread ridicule that greeted TNR convinces me that people did more than “like” or “relate” to TWW. A passionate rejection of TNR is necessary because admitting that TWW was silly or naïve, that it was a fantasy, is, for some, like admitting that Obama was not the president they dreamed he would be, that something they believed in deeply wasn’t true.

It’s interesting that TNR’s ratings started to climb at the end of the season. The show was renewed. As I’m writing this now, Barack Obama has just lost his first debate badly, but his public approval numbers have been climbing and his chances of reelection aren’t terrible. I may believe that he’s been a good president who’s been hindered by difficult circumstances but there are many who would disagree and they have their facts. To vote for Obama, I need to know if I still have faith. Do I still believe in the feeling I had in 2008  or am I holding on to a dangerous fantasy? If Barack Obama is reelected, will the second season of The Newsroom be so good that I’ll wish, once again, that Sorkin’s team were real and I was on it?

¹Scientology may be another example. The church is facing problems very similar to those of Rand’s objectivists.