Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Sorkin

Go set a playwright

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If you follow theatrical gossip as avidly as I do, you’re probably aware of the unexpected drama that briefly surrounded the new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin. In March, Lee’s estate sued producer Scott Rudin, claiming that the production was in breach of contract for straying drastically from the book. According to the original agreement, the new version wasn’t supposed to “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters,” which Sorkin’s interpretation unquestionably did. (Rudin says just as much on the record: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.”) But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. As a lawyer consulted by the New York Times explains:

Does “spirit” have a definite and precise meaning, or could there be a difference of opinion as to what is “the spirit” of the novel? I do not think that a dictionary definition of “spirit” will resolve that question. Similarly, the contract states that the characters should not be altered. In its pre-action letter, Harper Lee’s estate repeatedly states that the characters “would never have” and “would not have” done numerous things; unless as a matter of historical fact the characters would not have done something…who is to say what a creature of fiction “would never have” or “would not have” done?

Now that the suit has been settled and the play is finally on Broadway, this might all seem beside the point, but there’s one aspect of the story that I think deserves further exploration. Earlier this week, Sorkin spoke to Greg Evans of Deadline about his writing process, noting that he took the initial call from Rudin for good reasons: “The last three times Scott called me and said ‘I have something very exciting to talk to you about,’ I ended up writing Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, so I was paying attention.” His first pass was a faithful version of the original story, which took him about six months to write: “I had just taken the greatest hits of the book, the most important themes, the most necessary themes. I stood them up and dramatized them. I turned them into dialogue.” When he was finished, he had a fateful meeting with Rudin:

He had two notes. The first was, “We’ve got to get to the trial sooner.” That’s a structural note. The second was the note that changed everything. He said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He’s got to become Atticus,” and of course, he was right. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and change as a result, and a protagonist has to have a flaw. And I wondered how Harper Lee had gotten away with having Atticus be Atticus for the whole book, and it’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book. Scout is. But in the play, Atticus was going to be the protagonist, and I threw out that first draft. I started all over again, but this time the goal wasn’t to be as much like the book as possible. The goal wasn’t to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and then gently transfer it to a stage. I was going to write a new play.

This is fascinating stuff, but it’s worth emphasizing that while Rudin’s first piece of feedback was “a structural note,” the second one was as well. The notions that “a protagonist has to change” and “a protagonist has to have a flaw” are narrative conventions that have evolved over time, and for good reason. Like the idea of building the action around a clear sequence of objectives, they’re basically artificial constructs that have little to do with the accurate representation of life. Some people never change for years, and while we’re all flawed in one way or another, our faults aren’t always reflected in dramatic terms in the situations in which we find ourselves. These rules are useful primarily for structuring the audience’s experience, which comes down to the ability to process and remember information delivered over time. (As Kurt Vonnegut, who otherwise might not seem to have much in common with Harper Lee, once said to The Paris Review: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”) Yet they aren’t essential, either, as the written and filmed versions of To Kill a Mockingbird make clear. The original novel, in particular, has a rock-solid plot and supporting characters who can change and surprise us in ways that Atticus can’t. Unfortunately, it’s hard for plot alone to carry a play, which is largely a form about character, and Atticus is obviously the star part. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from using the backbone that Lee provides—the play does indeed get to the jury trial, which is still the most reliable dramatic convention ever devised, more quickly than the book does—but he also grasped the need to turn the main character into someone who could give shape to the audience’s experience of watching the play. It was this consideration, and not the politics, that turned out to be crucial.

There are two morals to this story. One is how someone like Sorkin, who can fall into traps of his own as a writer, benefits from feedback from even stronger personalities. The other is how a note on structure, which Sorkin takes seriously, forced him to engage more deeply with the play’s real material. As all writers know, it’s harder than it looks to sequence a story as a series of objectives or to depict a change in the protagonist, but simply by thinking about such fundamental units of narrative, a writer will come up with new insights, not just about the hero, but about everyone else. As Sorkin says of his lead character in an interview with Vulture:

He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.

In other words, Sorkin’s new perspective on Atticus also required him to rethink the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, which may turn out to be the most beneficial change of all. (This didn’t sit well with the Harper Lee estate, which protested in its complaint that black characters who “knew their place” wouldn’t behave this way at the time.) As Sorkin says of their lack of agency in the original novel: “It’s noticeable, it’s wrong, and it’s also a wasted opportunity.” That’s exactly right—and I like the last reason the best. In theater, as in any other form of narrative, the technical considerations of storytelling are more important than doing the right thing. But to any experienced writer, it’s also clear that they’re usually one and the same.

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2018 at 8:39 am

Sorkin turns on the radio

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Aaron Sorkin

[The West Wing episode “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail”] is an example of the half dozen or so times I’ve worked backwards. You need to write next week’s script and you don’t have any ideas because if you did, they’d have been in last week’s script. You go out driving in your car and turn on music because that’s sometimes worked for you in the past. You hear the Don Henley song which you’ve heard a hundred times before, but this time it puts you in a certain mood, and you want to write something that has that mood. More specifically, you want to write something that earns that lyric as a title. You actually have a title before you have a story, but at least you have a title, and that’s something. And something, when you’re writing, is always better than nothing.

Aaron Sorkin, in an email to the podcast The West Wing Weekly

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2017 at 7:30 am

“The mirror shattered into spiderwebs…”

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"The mirror shattered into spiderwebs..."

Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 43. You can read the previous installments here.

“I am truly at my happiest not when I am writing an aria for an actor or making a grand political or social point,” Aaron Sorkin said a while back to Vanity Fair. “I am at my happiest when I’ve figured out a fun way for somebody to slip on a banana peel.” I know what he means. In fact, nothing makes me happier than when an otherwise sophisticated piece of entertainment cheerfully decides to go for the oldest, corniest, most obvious pratfall—which is a sign of an even greater sophistication. My favorite example is the most famous joke in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy nonchalantly draws his gun and shoots the swordsman. It’s the one gag in the movie that most people remember best, and if you’re a real fan, you probably know that the scene was improvised on the set to solve an embarrassing problem: they’d originally scheduled a big fight scene, but Harrison Ford was too sick to shoot it, so he proposed the more elegant, and funnier, solution. But the most profound realization of all is that the moment works precisely because the film around it depends so much on craft and clockwork timing to achieve its most memorable effects. If every joke in the movie were pitched on that level, not only wouldn’t we remember that scene, but we probably wouldn’t be talking about Raiders at all, just as most of us don’t look back fondly on 1941. It’s the intelligence, wit, and technical proficiency of the rest of the movie that allows that one cornball moment to triumphantly emerge.

You often see the same pattern when you look at the movies in which similar moments occur. For instance, there’s a scene in Annie Hall—recently voted the funniest screenplay of all time—in which the audience needs to be told that Alvy and Annie are heading for Los Angeles. To incorporate that information, which had been lost when a previous scene was cut, Woody Allen quickly wrote and shot the bit in which he sneezes into a pile of cocaine. It included all the necessary exposition in the dialogue, but as editor Ralph Rosenblum writes in his memoir When The Shooting Stops:    

Although this scene was written and shot just for this information, audiences were always much more focused on the cocaine, and when Woody sneezes into what we’ve just learned is a two-thousand-dollar cache, blowing white powder all over the living room—an old-fashioned, lowest-common-denominator, slip-on-the-banana-peel joke—the film gets its single largest laugh. (“A complete unplanned accident,” says Woody.) The laughter was so great at each of our test screenings that I kept having to add more and more feet of dead film to keep the laughter from pushing the next scene right off the screen…Even so, the transitional information was lost on many viewers: when they stop laughing and spot Alvy and Annie in a car with Rob, who’s discussing how life has changed for him since he emigrated to Beverly Hills, they are momentarily uncertain about how or why the couple got there.

"As they ran, neither woman spoke..."

And while the two moments are very different, it’s revealing that in both cases, an improvised moment of slapstick was introduced to crack an unanticipated narrative problem. It’s no surprise that when writers have to think their way out of dilemma, they often turn to the hoariest, most proven building blocks of story, as if they’d briefly written a scene using the reptile brain—while keeping all the other levels of the brain alive and activated. This is why scenes like this are so delightful: they aren’t gratuitous, but represent an effective way of getting a finely tuned narrative to where it needs to be. And I’d also argue that this runs in both directions, particularly in genre fiction. Those big, obvious moments exist to enable the more refined touches, but also the other way around: a large part of any writer’s diligence and craft is devoted to arranging the smaller pieces so that those huge elements can take shape. As Shane Black pointed out years ago, a lot of movies seem to think that audiences want nothing but those high points, but in practice, it quickly grows exhausting. (Far too many comedies these days seem to consist of nothing but the equivalent of Alvy sneezing into the cocaine, over and over and over again.) And Sorkin’s fondness for the banana-peel gag arises, I suspect, from his realization that when such a moment works, it’s because the less visible aspects of the story around it are working as well.

My novels contain a few of these banana peels, although not as many as I’d like. (One that I still enjoy is the moment in City of Exiles when Wolfe trips over the oversized chess pieces during the chase scene at the London Chess Classic.) And while it’s not quite the same thing, there’s something similar at work in Chapter 43 of Eternal Empire, which features nothing less than a knock-down, drag-out fight between two women, one a runaway bride, the other still wearing her bridesmaid’s dress. If I’ve done my job properly, the scene should work both on its own terms and as an homage to something you’d see on a soapy network or basic cable show like Revenge. And I kind of love the result. I like it, in part, because I know exactly how much thought was required to line up the pieces of the plot to get to this particular payoff: it’s the kind of set piece that you spend ninety percent of the novel trying to reach, only to hope that it all works in the end. The resulting fight lasts for about a page—I’m not trying to write Kill Bill here—but I still think it’s one of the half dozen or so most satisfying moments in the entire trilogy, and it works mostly because it isn’t afraid to go for a big, borderline ridiculous gesture. (If Eternal Empire is my favorite of the three books, and on most days it is, it’s because it contains as many of those scenes as the previous two installments combined, and only because of the groundwork that comes with two volumes’ worth of accumulated backstory.) And although there’s no banana peel, both Wolfe and Asthana are falling now, and they won’t land until the book is over…

The Aaron Sorkin trick

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The Social Network

When we talk about great dialogue in movies and television, one of the first names that always comes up is that of Aaron Sorkin. And it isn’t without reason. Sorkin isn’t a perfect writer, and I’ve noted before that it’s his sheer technical facility—all that crackling talk and offhand eloquence—that allows deeper flaws to persist in a series like The Newsroom. But when a show like House of Cards tries and fails to replicate that music, it reminds us how difficult Sorkin’s brand of persuasive chatter really is. It’s a dialect of distinctly narrow scope: Sorkin has rarely been comfortable writing for characters who weren’t smart, articulate, and white. But like the singer Judy London, who moved so beautifully within the range that nature afforded, he’s done wonderful things in that one particular register. As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the reasons that the optimism of The West Wing resonates so deeply is that Sorkin was always at his best when writing for characters who represent how we’d like to see ourselves. And even when he tackles less admirable personalities, like the fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network, we’re inclined to forgive their flaws just because it’s so much fun to hear them speak.

What makes Sorkin especially interesting to other writers is the fine line he walks between earnestness and trickery. As he once said to Terry Gross: “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other.” It’s a knack, once you’ve developed it, that can go very far, and Sorkin is particularly good at drawing attention to his own contrivances even as he uses them to generate emotion. The famous YouTube supercut of Sorkinisms—the phrases, lines, and even entire monologues that he repurposes from one project to the next—testifies both to his instinctive ability and to the artificiality of so much “great” dialogue itself. If a line can be transferred intact from one character, scene, or story to another, it implies that it had less to do with the needs of the situation than with the tingle it inspires in the listener. Sorkin produces such lines as easily as a magician adapts a piece of sleight of hand when asked to improvise in unfamiliar surroundings. Half of drama, from Shakespeare to Mamet, consists of such good tricks, and even if the more crucial half revolves around applying them to worthy material, you can still learn a lot from the moments in which the machinery comes into view.

The Social Network

There’s a specific Sorkin trick that fascinates me, and I recently devoted the better part of a day to unpacking exactly how it works. For convenience, I’ll stick with examples from The Social Network, in which it recurs repeatedly. In the opening scene between Mark and Erica, Mark mentions that he got a perfect score on the SAT. Erica asks: “Does that mean you actually got nothing wrong?” Mark ignores the question, and for the next eight lines, they talk about the different ways he could distinguish himself at Harvard. Then, in the middle of an unrelated exchange, Mark interrupts: “Yes, it means I got nothing wrong on the test.” Later, Erica asks him which final club would be the easiest to get into, and Mark says testily: “Why would you ask me that?” They shift to a different subject for a while, and then Mark circles back, as if he’d been mulling it over: “I think you asked me that because you think the final club that’s easiest to get into is the one where I’ll have the best chance.” An even showier example occurs in a later scene, in which Divya briefs the Winklevoss twins on Mark’s work with Facebook: “He’s expanding to Yale, Columbia, and Stanford.” The conversation continues for two full screenplay pages before Cameron says: “Why Stanford?” Divya replies: “Why do you think?” And the scene ends there.

Each instance leaves us with the impression of characters who are talking past each other, or following their own trains of thought, only for the conversation to double back around on itself once the inner monologue catches up with what’s being said. If most dialogue is basically linear, Sorkin introduces a second dimension, so that the exchange becomes less a straight line than a surface in which statements are stuck like pins. It’s a nice effect in itself, and it’s no surprise that Sorkin returns to it so frequently. What I really like about it, though, is that it’s a technical trick that results in a simulation of a character’s inner life. Sorkin takes one side of the conversation and shifts it a little bit forward or backward, while keeping the other half where it is, so it feels like one character is responding to a statement from three lines earlier. He probably does it instinctively, but it could also be done mechanically: I’ll sometimes write out a conversation and see how it reads if I move a statement and its response further apart. At its best, it generates a second, unspoken dialogue in parallel to the one we hear with our ears—we’re being asked, in essence, to listen to one of the characters thinking. Creating the illusion of real thought, rather than a rote recitation of lines in a script, is one of the greatest challenges any writer faces, and Sorkin, consciously or otherwise, has hit on a reproducible way of making it happen. It doesn’t work every time. But it works often enough that it belongs in every writer’s bag of tricks.

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2015 at 9:00 am

On not knowing what you’re doing

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Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs

A few days ago, I stumbled across the little item that The Onion ran shortly after the death of Steve Jobs: “Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies.” It’s especially amusing to read it now, at a time when the cult of adulation that surrounded Jobs seems to be in partial retreat. These days, it’s impossible to find an article about, say, the upcoming biopic written by Aaron Sorkin without a commenter bringing up all the usual counterarguments: Jobs was fundamentally a repackager and popularizer of other people’s ideas, he was a bully and a bad boss, he hated to share credit, he benefited enormously from luck and good timing, and he pushed a vision of simplicity and elegance that only reduces the user’s freedom of choice. There’s a lot of truth to these points. Yet the fact remains that Jobs did know what he was doing, or at least that he carefully cultivated the illusion that he did, and he left a void in the public imagination that none of his successors have managed to fill. He was fundamentally right about a lot of things for a very long time, and the legacy he left continues to shape our lives, in ways both big and small, one minute after another.

And that Onion headline has been rattling around in my head for most of the week, because I often get the sense I don’t really know what I’m doing, as a writer, as a dad, or as a human being. I do my best to stick to the channel, as Stanislavski would say: I follow the rules I know, maintain good habits, make my lists, and seek out helpful advice wherever I can find it. I have what I think is a realistic sense of my own strengths and weaknesses; I’m a pretty good writer and a pretty good father. But there’s no denying that writing a novel and raising a child are tasks of irreducible complexity, particularly when you’re trying to do both at the same time. Writing, like parenting, imposes a state of constant creative uncertainty: just because you had one good idea or wrote a few decent pages yesterday is no guarantee that you’ll be able to do the same today. If I weren’t fundamentally okay with that, I wouldn’t be here. But there always comes a time when I find myself repeating that line from Calvin and Hobbes I never tire of quoting: “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”

John Fowles

My only consolation is that I’m not alone. Recently, I’ve been rereading The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that made a huge impression on me when I first encountered it over twenty years ago. In places, it feels uncomfortably like the first work of a young man writing for other young men, but it still comes off as spectacularly assured, which is why it’s all the more striking to read what Fowles has to say about it in his preface:

My strongest memory is of constantly having to abandon drafts because of an inability to describe what I wanted…The Magus remains essentially where a tyro taught himself to write novels—beneath its narrative, a notebook of an exploration, often erring and misconceived, into an unknown land. Even in its final published form it was a far more haphazard and naïvely instinctive work than the more intellectual reader can easily imagine; the hardest blows I had to bear from critics were those that condemned the book as a coldly calculated exercise in fantasy, a cerebral game. But then one of the (incurable) faults of the book was the attempt to conceal the real state of endless flux in which it was written.

Fowles is being consciously self-deprecating, but he hits on a crucial point, which is that most novels are designed to make a story that emerged from countless wrong turns and shots in the dark seem inevitable. In fact, it’s a little like being a parent, or a politician, or the CEO of a major corporation: you need to project an air of authority even if you don’t have the slightest idea if you’re doing the right thing. (And just as you can’t fully appreciate your own parents until you’ve had a kid of your own, you can’t understand the network of uncertainties underlying even the most accomplished novel until you’ve written a few for yourself.) I’d like to believe that the uncertainties, doubts, and fears that persist throughout are a necessary corrective, a way of keeping us humble in the face of challenges that can’t be reduced to a few clear rules. The real danger isn’t being unsure about what comes next; it’s turning into a hedgehog in a world of foxes, convinced that we know the one inarguable truth that applies to every situation. In fiction, that kind of dogmatic certainty leads to formula or propaganda, and we’ve all seen its effects in business, politics, and parenting. It’s better, perhaps, to admit that we’re all faking it until we make it, and that we should be satisfied if we’re right ever so slightly more often than we’re wrong.

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2014 at 8:59 am

The white piece of paper

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Rob Lowe on The West Wing

“Why is this so hard?”
“‘Cause it’s a white piece of paper.”
“How high are the stakes?”
“How high can you count?”
“So what do you do?”
“Whatever it takes to get started. And we read new memos, and we try new themes, and we hear new slogans, and we test new lines, and after a few weeks of that…we’ve still got a white piece of paper.”

The West Wing, “100,000 Airplanes”

The first three seasons of The West Wing have a lot of virtues—along with some equally obvious flaws—but what I like about it the most is that it’s fundamentally a show about writing. When you’re an author entering an unfamiliar world or profession, even one that you’ve meticulously researched and explored, you naturally look for a hook that allows you to relate it to your own experience. A show called The West Wing could have focused on any element of the executive branch, but it’s no accident that Aaron Sorkin ended up centering so much of it on a speechwriter, a communications director, and a press secretary, all of whom spend most of their time dealing with words.

I’ve been hard on Sorkin in the past, mostly due to my disappointment in the first season of The Newsroom, but there’s no denying that he’s as adept as anyone alive at filling that blank piece of paper. Sometimes, his facility can be a problem in itself: he has a way of falling back on old tricks, bombast, straw men, and a lovingly crafted simulation of the way intelligent people talk. Yet even the worst of his vices go hand in hand with tremendous strengths, and we only need to compare Sorkin to other writers who have tried and failed to write smart characters—as in every line of dialogue in Dan Brown’s novels—to remember how talented he really is. It’s impossible to watch an extended run of The West Wing, as my wife and I have been doing over the last few weeks, and not emerge wanting to sound smarter and more capable. And when I feel the need to punch up the dialogue in my own work, I’ll often go back to reread a few old West Wing transcripts in hopes of picking up some of that magic.

Rob Lowe on The West Wing

Of course, The West Wing works because it takes place in a world that can sustain a heightened conversational register. Everyone is blindingly smart, as well as on the right side of history, and you can sometimes sense Sorkin straining when called upon to write characters of different backgrounds or opinions. If the show has one glaring weakness, it’s that enormous chunks of dialogue could easily be transposed from one player to another without much in the way of revision: everyone shares the same values, and if the characters stay distinct in our minds, it’s thanks more to performance and delivery than writing. Compare it to a show like The Wire, which adeptly handles so many different voices, and The West Wing can start to seem limited. In some ways, it’s an expression of the different ways in which Sorkin and David Simon—a veteran reporter for the Baltimore Sun—came to television: instead of will and craft rising to create a simulation of experience, it’s experience straining to bend craft to accommodate all the things it needs to say.

And what fascinates me the most about The West Wing, when viewed from a distance of so many years, is how fully its politics are an expression of a shrewd narrative strategy. Many of us catch ourselves wishing that our real policymakers were as articulate and principled as the ones here, but it’s a fantasy created less by a coherent vision of politics than by a writing style. The show’s idealism, which everyone agrees was its most striking characteristic, isn’t a political or philosophical stance, but a set of tactics that allowed Sorkin to maneuver so gracefully within a narrow range. (You can say much the same thing about the cynicism of House of Cards: it’s easier to write a television show when everyone breathes the same air, whether it’s tainted or pure.) The West Wing came to mean so much to so many people because it happened to be written by a man whose talents were best exercised within a show that gave us our best versions of ourselves. It’s as happy a marriage between talent and subject as television has ever provided. But it all emerged from those small daily choices and compromises demanded by a white piece of paper.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2014 at 10:09 am

The treacherous craft of Aaron Sorkin

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When I consider Aaron Sorkin and the weirdly watchable train wreck that is The Newsroom, I’m reminded of something that Norman Mailer once said about craft: “I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.” Craft, in other words, becomes a kind of intellectual sleight of hand, a way of disguising bad thinking or more fundamental narrative problems, when a writer of lesser facility might have been forced to deal more honestly with the true implications of his material. Mailer cites Robert Penn Warren as an example:

Robert Penn Warren might have written a major novel if he hadn’t just that little extra bit of craft to get him out of all the trouble in All the King’s Men…And his plot degenerated into a slam-bang mix of exits and entrances, confrontations, tragedies, quick wits and woe. But he was really forcing an escape from the problem.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a lot like the The Newsroom, which so often confuses manic action and the rapid-fire exchange of factoids with drama and witty repartee. It’s a frustrating, often outright terrible show, and yet I find myself watching it with increasing fascination, because it achieves the level of badness that can only be attained with the aid of remarkable craft. Sorkin is a man of enormous talent, but in his best work, he’s been aided and restrained by other strong creative voices. The Newsroom gives us Sorkin uncut, without the guiding hand he needs to hold him back from his worst impulses, and the result tells us a lot not just about Sorkin, but about the nature and limitations of a certain kind of drama. Because watching this show forces us to confront what David Thomson, speaking about David Mamet, has called “the time-killing aridness in brilliant situations, crackling talk, and magnificent acting.”

That sort of “crackling talk” is a skill that can be learned over time, and Sorkin, who has written hundreds of hours of television, theater, and film, has had more practice doing it than just about anyone else. As a recent supercut made clear, he also tends to return repeatedly to the same verbal tics and phrases (“Well, that was predictable”). Yet this only reflects how good he really is. Sorkin is a machine for creating great dialogue, and like all insanely productive creative professionals, he likes to fall back on the same tricks, which he generates almost unconsciously. If he’d slaved over a line to make it work, he wouldn’t have used it again, but the fact that these lines reappear so often implies that they came easily. As Nicholson Baker says in U and I of John Updike’s reuse of certain images in his novels: “He liked it enough to consent to it when it appeared in a street scene the first time, and yet he didn’t like it well enough for his memory to warn him off a second placement.” And that’s the mark of a writer of almost supernatural felicity.

Yet it also conceals deeper problems of substance, as well as a disturbing lack of real ideas. As Sorkin recently said to Terry Gross: “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other.” And what The Newsroom demonstrates is that Sorkin’s blessed ability with dialogue has left him underdeveloped along other parameters, a shortcoming that seems especially visible now. If you write wonderful words for actors to say, this can conceal any number of other limitations, sometimes for years, but eventually the mask starts to slip. Sorkin is a verbal genius, with the Oscar and Emmys to show for it, but without good collaborators, his gift tends to ripen and rot. What Sorkin needs, clearly, is a strong creative force to push against, which David Fincher provided with The Social Network and Thomas Schlamme and John Wells did on The West Wing—although his recent purge of many members of his writing staff makes it doubtful if this will happen soon. But I hope it does. Because otherwise, the show will continue to waste its great potential, and a legion of viewers can only say: “Well, that was predictable.”

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