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Why Aaron Sorkin has struggled to create great TV since the West Wing

Will (Jeff Daniels, left) and Charlie (Sam Waterston) take in some bad news in the third season premiere of The Newsroom.
Will (Jeff Daniels, left) and Charlie (Sam Waterston) take in some bad news in the third season premiere of The Newsroom.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When watching the third and final season premiere of cable news-set workplace drama The Newsroom on HBO tonight, try and keep track of how rarely a character speaks in anything other than exposition. But don't turn it into a drinking game. You'll be out like a light 10 minutes in.

This series, created by Aaron Sorkin, has been one of the biggest disappointments in recent TV memory. It has had many failings, but perhaps none is so emblematic of the show's problems as this one. Characters on The Newsroom primarily communicate in information, rather than in dialogue. They tell each other about things they don't know (and, perhaps, the audience learns or is reminded of those things as well). The never-ending onslaught of that information rarely lets up for the duration of the hour-long episode. Newsroom episodes break the oldest rule of screenwriting: they tell; they never show.

That's not really a way to create a story. Information doesn't get at the underlying emotions or conflicts. (Grantland's Andy Greenwald has been on Sorkin's case about lack of conflict for a year now.) In fact, it obscures them. And yet this has always been a trick that Sorkin has relied upon too much. As a writer, he sometimes seems pathologically averse to conflict between his characters, choosing instead to have them all be basically good people on the same side of a virtuous struggle.

That can work from time to time. But Sorkin has a tendency to turn even his transparent villains into eventual good guys, to buffet his heroes not with problems of their own creation but with unjust systems.

Sorkin is, in other words, a hugely acclaimed writer — who deserves so much of that acclaim, too! — who has never been particularly fond of many of the most basic tenets of good writing. Does he need to be? Not necessarily. But if you're looking for exhibit A in why The Newsroom could improve its exterior and never quite perk up its central self, this would be it.

Information as currency

The Newsroom, which looks so great on paper, has been dinged over its three seasons for any number of sins — its almost pathological need to lecture its female characters, its apparently unironic embrace of white male hegemony, its utter lack of understanding of the news business — but the central sin has always been that the show isn't really about anything so much as it's about shaking out the last few items in an overused bag of tricks.

This brings us back to exposition and the use of information as currency that runs through all of Sorkin's projects. It's always a pleasure to listen to Sorkin's characters explain something to each other. There's nobody else in the business who has the pleasant rat-a-tat of officious-sounding dialogue down so beautifully, and there's a robust musicality to the rhythm of his words that almost always works.

But the longer The Newsroom goes on, the more this seems hollow. The first three episodes of season three finally find some sort of direction for the show as a whole — involving some Edward Snowden-like adventures — but it's notable that this direction only emerges seemingly reluctantly, and it's mostly just an excuse for the show's characters to prove how noble and intractable they are.

For instance, in the second episode, Will (Jeff Daniels) and Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) argue over whether or not to put one of their reporters at risk of going to prison in service of a potentially explosive story. It's a good scene because both characters have understandable points-of-view and something to argue about. But it's too quickly smoothed over, because there can be no tension, ever, in one of Sorkin's heavenly workplaces.

This is typical. People on Sorkin's shows don't really seem to get passionate about anything other than information, about the opportunity to educate and elucidate each other. (When they do, they often come off as condescending, so perhaps it's better they only ever talk to each other about raw facts and figures.) But that also means that just when you're expecting the screaming match to erupt, it's instead subsumed in another barrage of exposition as flirting, exposition as conversation, exposition as conflict.

Hating conflict

Of course, this isn't new. When you go looking for compelling, exciting character-vs.-character conflict in Sorkin's stories, you don't find a ton of great examples. There are the courtroom scenes in A Few Good Men and much of The Social Network (for which he won an Oscar), and ... that's about it. He much prefers to write about virtuous men (almost always men) against whom the world is aligned — men who struggle to make the rightness of their positions known, against all odds.

There's nothing wrong with that, either! Look at the script he co-wrote for Moneyball, which makes something as seemingly unimportant as the creation of a baseball roster seem like the most exciting, energizing thing in the world. He can also get away with it if he jacks the stakes all the way up, as he so often did on The West Wing (though seasons three and four of that show — the last two for which he served as showrunner — were seriously hit-and-miss).

The biggest problems emerge when Sorkin ultimately falls too in love with his characters and becomes convinced of their inherent virtue so thoroughly that he can't conceive of them ever being wrong. He loves idealistic, quixotic quests, and there's something beautiful about that. He's fundamentally a romantic writer who wants to twist our notions of reality and make us look at them until we see what the world could be.

But that also doesn't leave a lot of room for conflicts of any variety other than the characters taking on the massive, corrupt system. That's easy enough to get away with in a movie, where the story only lasts two hours. It's much harder to do on TV, where the story goes on and on and on, and the characters start to seem less like people and more like punching bags.

Indeed, one of the things that The West Wing got accidentally right was that by making the characters part of the system, Sorkin was forced to deal with what happened when the system failed them — and took away slightly more of their idealism with every failure. Sports Night also worked because it was about extreme underdogs, and the show could never be about the characters ultimately succeeding, so the quixotic nature of the story was baked in.

But Sorkin doesn't really do underdogs anymore. The characters on The Newsroom don't have top ratings, but they're still massive media elites people care about. It's hard to care about their quests when they center on making a slightly calmer version of Keith Olbermann's old MSNBC show.

The series has finally lurched to a place where it's more or less agreeable in the first half of season three, but that's, again, a disappointment. With Sorkin and this collection of talent, this was supposed to be a whole lot more than that. Instead, it's a curious misfire in the history of both the man and of HBO. It's the kind of show where every single antagonist is eventually revealed to be an impossibly virtuous person in disguise and where the greatest villain is the system, man. And too much of Sorkin's TV work of late could fit that general description as well.

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