While waiting for the third and final season of “The Newsroom” to begin — which happened last night — many of us were surprised in April to hear that the creator of the show, Aaron Sorkin, had apologized for it.
At a Tribeca Film Festival panel in New York, Sorkin “told interviewer Jon Favreau (the Obama speechwriter, not the guy from ‘Swingers’), ‘I think you and I got off on the wrong foot with “The Newsroom” and I apologize and I’d like to start over,’” Wired reported, along with a number of other media outlets.
One of the conceits of the series is that Sorkin has it deliberately set in the recent past. That way he can take real news events that have already happened and show how the folks at his fictional network, Atlantis Cable News (ACN), cover them.
Wired reported that Sorkin added: “I think that there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. I did not set the show in the recent past in order to show [journalism] pros how it should have been done. That was and remains the furthest thing from my mind. I set the show in the recent past because I didn’t want to make up fake news. It was going to be weird if the world that these people were living in did not in any way resemble the world that you were living in. … Also, I wanted the option of having a terrific dynamic that you can get when the audience knows more than the characters do. … So, I wasn’t trying to and I’m not capable of teaching a professional journalist a lesson. That wasn’t my intent and it’s never my intent to teach you a lesson or try to persuade you or anything.”
It’s an odd apology given that the name of the first episode of season three is “Boston” and the show is about ACN’s coverage of the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 13, 2013. And Sorkin can protest as much as he wants about not teaching — or preaching — to journalists and the rest of us what journalistic lessons he feels we need to take away from the coverage of that tragedy — because he does just that.
When I originally reviewed “The Newsroom” as it first came on HBO in 2012, my biggest problem with the show was this conceit that we’d always be seeing, in some detail, ACN covering major news events from our recent past.
After having seen the first four or five episodes of season one, I wasn’t going to continue to watch the show regularly. Maybe I’d catch up and binge watch it one day, or maybe not.
But then an odd thing happened. I’d go over to people’s houses and they’d be fans of “The Newsroom” and want to turn on the latest episode. Case in point is my older brother. His two favorite shows on TV are “The Good Wife” and “The Newsroom.”
Soon I was pretty much hooked myself. Watching ACN cover real news events that had already happened continued to irk me, though less so. I became much more interested in the soap opera of the characters and their various romantic relationships (and otherwise), and in the corporate shenanigans of ACN and its parent company, Atlantis World Media, led by Leona Lansing. She quickly became my favorite character on the show. I absolutely love the way Jane Fonda plays this powerful character.
While these soap opera fundamentals are, in subject matter, not that different in their treachery, backstabbing and double-dealing elements than the ones so many of us loved years ago in shows such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty” and “Falcon Crest,” “The Newsroom” goes them one better.
What I finally came to realize is that because “The Newsroom” has Sorkin, the rhythm of his rapid-fire, staccato dialogue, carried off to perfection by a cast largely accustomed to stage work, makes all the difference between a tired, pedestrian show and one that’s compellingly a cut above.
In interviews over the years, Sorkin has explained how important dialogue is to him. Here’s a piece from Interview magazine from June, 2012. Sorkin was interviewed by “Newsroom” star Jeff Daniels:
Jeff Daniels: You’re well-known for the pace at which your characters speak. But that isn’t new — it goes back to Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder and others. Were they an influence?
Aaron Sorkin: Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Kaufman and Hart — there was a musicality to the dialogue that all those guys wrote. My parents took me to see plays when I was very little, and very oftentimes to ones that I was too young to understand, like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which I saw when I was 9. But because I couldn’t understand the story, what I really focused on was the language. It sounded like music to me, and I wanted to imitate that sound. As a result, I love dialogue, but I’m very weak with story. I consider plot a necessary intrusion on what I really want to do, which is write snappy dialogue. But when I’m writing, the way the words sound is as important to me as what they mean.
In a similar vein, five years earlier, in 2007, Sorkin had spoken to The New York Times: “Mr. Sorkin acknowledged that dialogue was both his main interest and strength. ‘Dialogue’s what I’m crazy about,’ he said. ‘I’m not a natural storyteller.’
“The predilection was ingrained in him as a boy, he said, at the family dinner table, where his parents — his father was a patent lawyer, his mother a fourth-grade teacher — encouraged rapid-fire discourse; they also took him regularly to Broadway.
“ ‘I’m not sure what my parents were thinking, what was wrong with them, but I saw “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” when I was, like, 9,’ he said.”
[Personally, I think Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” with its searing dialogue, is one of the best pieces of theater I have ever seen or read. But it’s certainly not appropriate for most 9-year-olds, as Sorkin notes. And while Sorkin has repeatedly told the story of his parents taking him to see the play at that age, my guess is that his memory is playing tricks on him. Sorkin was raised in Scarsdale, New York, which is about an hour north of Manhattan by car or about 30-45 minutes by train to Grand Central. He has said that his parents regularly took him to see plays on Broadway. That makes sense.
Now, according to Sorkin’s age, as published in various New York Times articles, he was born in 1961. The original production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” opened on Broadway in 1962, when Sorkin was 1 year old, and closed when he was 2. I doubt that his parents took him to that run of the show, or that he would remember any of the show’s dialogue if they did.
The show was first revived and next played in New York City right around Sorkin’s 15th birthday in 1976. It’s much more likely that this is the production his parents took him to, and, at that age, the show would have had much more of an impact on him. It’s possible, I guess, that there was some local production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in 1970 in the Scarsdale/White Plains area that Sorkin’s parents could have taken him to, but I couldn’t find any evidence of such a production. I also doubt that Sorkin might have confused seeing the movie version rather than the play of “Virginia Woolf” when he was 9. That’s because the movie version came out in the summer of 1966, when Sorkin would have only been 5 years old.]
Like Sorkin, I too love fast-paced dialogue, and the more playful, roguish or mischievous the better. Unlike Sorkin, who came to his love of dialogue by seeing a lot of plays, my fondness for rapid and witty repartee came from watching a lot of old black and white movies on TV growing up. And I love that Jeff Daniels mentioned the example of Preston Sturges when he was interviewing Sorkin. Sturges was a screenwriter and then writer-director in the 1930s and 1940s.
Here’s a short clip I found on YouTube from one of my favorite scenes in a Sturges movie. It’s from “Sullivan’s Travels” and in it Joel McCrea, playing movie director John Sullivan, is trying to convince two studio executives that his next movie, instead of being a comedy, should be a serious drama. The pace at which the actors speak is extraordinary, and the banter is top-notch:
Much of Sorkin’s dialogue features Ph.D-level chitchat and asides, but here’s a more down-to-earth example of Sorkin having his characters joust. It’s from the third episode this season (spoiler alert). It’s between Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), an executive producer on “The Newsroom,” and two staffers who work for him, a man, Gary Cooper (Chris Chalk) and a woman, Alex Thacker (A. Leslie Kies). Also in the scene is Wyatt Geary (Keith Powell), who is from Human Resources. As played, the scene gets faster and faster. It lasts just two and a half minutes.
Don is sitting in his office, at his desk, eating a salad from a plastic bowl. He’s dressed business casual. It’s a small office. Opposite Don sits Wyatt Geary, in a dark suit.
Don: They should be here any second. You’re the first person I’ve ever met named Wyatt.
Wyatt: It’s a family name.
Don: How’d you like to have Earp as a last name? That would be tough on the playground. Maybe that’s how he got so tough.
Wyatt: Am I making you nervous?
Wyatt: Sometimes people get nervous around HR.
Don: Um. I don’t get nervous. You know who gets nervous? Criminals.
(Knock on door)
(A woman and a man enter Don’s office. They are dressed business casual)
Gary Cooper, Alex Thacker, this is Wyatt Geary, and he’s the new VP for human resources for AWM.
Wyatt: Please have a seat.
Don: There are no chairs left. Alex, HR received a complaint from you —
Alex: That’s right.
Don: — and it was kicked down from Charlie to Mac to me. So, why don’t you tell us what happened?
Wyatt: It’s in the report that I wrote that’s in front of you.
Don: Yes. I want them to tell me in their own words.
Gary: Don, it’s really nothing.
Don: I have no doubt.
Wyatt: It’s not nothing.
Don: OK —
Alex: You asked for twenty seconds of copy for Elliott on Justin Bieber’s visit to Anne Frank’s house.
Don: Why in the world would I do that?
Gary: Bieber signed the guest book on the way out and wrote, ‘Hopefully she would have been a belieber.’ And then you and Elliott got drunk and you told him you’d give him $100 if he could read the story off the prompter without laughing.
Don: Once again, this is the new HR rep from our parent company.
Alex: The copy should have been assigned to me. But Gary assigned it to Stacy.
Don (to Wyatt): Once I give it to Gary, Gary gets to make that call.
Alex: Based on merit, not based on who he prefers to sleep with at any particular moment.
Gary: I’m not sleeping and I have never slept with Stacy.
Alex: That may or may not be, but probably is a lie. What we know for sure is that Gary flirted with me, hit on me, took me out five times, slept with me twice and then dumped me in a pile with the rest of the staffers he’s used for his pleasure —
Don: I can’t emphasize this enough: This is the new HR rep.
Alex: — and I’m fine with all of that.
Don: So we’re cool.
Alex: What I am not fine with is being passed over for an assignment at work because I exercise poor judgment in my personal life.
Gary: I gave it to her because she’s better at this kind of thing —
Alex: What kind of thing?
Gary: The intersection of pop culture and the Holocaust. That might sound crazy —
Don: It did.
Gary: Look, I’ve gone out with several of the women in this building —
Don: Maybe you don’t know what HR does —
Alex: You’re saying Stacy is a better writer than I am?
Gary: She’s a different writer than you.
Alex: Different. Like I’m tired of this one so I’ll try a different one.
Don: I told Gary to give it to Stacy. All right? He’s covering for me. I told him to give it to her because she IS a better writer than you are.
Alex (shocked): Well, what am I supposed to do?
Don: Write better. (Pause) That’s it.
Gary: Thank you.
(Gary and Alex leave Don’s office.)
It’s fast, it’s smart, it’s bright and it’s funny.
There’s no doubt that I’m partly enamored of “The Newsroom” because I work in journalism. But it’s Sorkin’s handling of dialogue that really brings me back week in and week out.
Now there are five more episodes left for “The Newsroom.” That’s not enough, but we’ll have to make do. Then Sorkin likely will be on to more feature film writing. I’ve read that a version of his play “A Few Good Men” might be on NBC. And perhaps he’ll write a new play for the stage.
But my guess is that before long the sirens of series TV will once more seduce him and he’ll write wisely and wittily and lyrically again for Farnsworth’s invention.