Brow Beat

Did Aaron Sorkin Forget How to Write a TV Show?

The most surprising thing about The Newsroom is just how inept it’s been.

Karen Ballard for HBO

The Newsroom ended its ignominious run Sunday night, capping off a highly truncated third season (just six episodes) with a finale that, if not quite as issue-by-issue misguided as last week’s “Oh Shenandoah,” puts into stark relief the strangest quality of The Newsroom: its sheer ineptitude.

Inept may not be the first term one thinks of when it comes to The Newsroom. Like the swaggering egghead convinced of his own intelligence even as he spouts hackneyed talking points, the first impression The Newsroom oozes is cockiness, self-satisfaction, and all related synonyms. Sorkin has said that he likes the “sound of intelligence,” and The Newsroom, with its double-time banter about current affairs, does wash over one like intellectual muzak. But as irritating and wrong-headed as The Newsroom can be, it’s not the quality of the dialogue that has fallen off since the days when Sorkin was simultaneously writing Sports Night and The West Wing. The Newsroom, too, has smart people repeating themselves while talking very fast with a seemingly comprehensive grasp of all subjects and making the occasional reference to musical theater.

But Sorkin now seems completely unable to structure a television show. Can someone forget how to build a story? Can someone forget this while building sharp, taut stories for the movies? (In leaked emails from the Sony hack—which one suspects would have turned up in Season 4 of The Newsroom if The Newsroom were going to have a Season 4—Sorkin’s Jobs screenplay is described as beautifully and subtly structured.) The answer in Sorkin’s case seems to be a resounding yes. And that is part of what has made The Newsroom such an interesting spectacle, even though it is not a very good drama. Sorkin, much more so than Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) or Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), has been the compelling human story driving The Newsroom. Can a person just … lose it?

The Newsroom was supposed to be Sorkin’s redemption for his disastrous Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. That show, set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live–clone, treated sketch comedy like its primary goal was to elevate the national discourse, with all the humorlessness that suggests. Sorkin kept trying to imbue the stakes of the U.S. presidency into a late-night comedy show, which is why various members of the staff were eventually rescuing a cast-member’s soldier brother from his kidnapping in Afghanistan. If Sorkin couldn’t bring Studio 60 to the White House, he would bring the White House to Studio 60.

The Newsroom, set behind the scenes of a cable news show, seemed like an ideal antidote: It had a setting where it makes sense for characters to spend all day talking about breaking news and how best to communicate it to the public. But this didn’t work either. Over the course of The Newsroom’s run, much has been made of Sorkin’s grandiosity and his mishandling of specific issues, as in last week’s campus rape storyline. (Hitting these two flaws with one stone, Sorkin recently compared his show’s campus rape storyline to To Kill a Mockingbird.) But even when The Newsroom has been less outrageous on the issues, it has remained a structural mess.

Harping on the show’s structure, as opposed to its tone, may seem like a distinction without a difference. Is deciding to rewrite history by revisiting recent news stories but doing them “right,” as the show did in its first season, a sign of hubris and egomania, or a terrible dramatic construct? Or is it a terrible dramatic structure because it reeks of hubris and egomania?

These questions really only apply to Season 1. Sorkin made serious moves to redress the built-in smuggery of the show’s first go-round—and yet the series has remained bad. Season 2 was about how the entire staff had completely fallen for a false story. Yes, none of the full-time cast-members got fired, and, by the end of the season, their complete journalistic failure had somehow turned them into righteous models of staying the course—but they did at the very least make a serious mistake. At the start of this shortened third season, Sorkin had his characters crack jokes about their tendency to speechify. He even lightly lampooned the infamous “Fix You” episode, about the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, which treated the reporting of inaccurate information in a frenzy to be first as the most serious journalistic crime there is. This season, while waiting to double-confirm information about the Boston Bomber, News Night comes off as stodgy and overly patient (not to mention late).

Yet even though The Newsroom no longer pretends to omniscience, the structure still stinks. Rehashing past events, even when not done smugly, deflates dramatic tension. The only thing we don’t know is how the News Night team will cover a story, putting the pressure on a bunch of journalists to be more interesting than real news events. And even when the show added fictional news events to its repertoire—this season’s major storyline was about a fictional whistle-blower—it remained fundamentally backward looking. The series looks back at news stories that have already happened, to relationships that had already started, and to shows Sorkin has already made.

Will and Mac, allegedly the central love story of The Newsroom, dated and broke up before the series began. In the finale, we get flashbacks to when Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) convinced them both to come work at News Night, a truly needless bit of background. We already more or less know how they came to work at News Night. In the penultimate episode we got a long conversation between Will and his cellmate (Will was in jail), who turns out to be a man conjured in Will’s imagination, a younger version of his father. In the finale, Will finds out he is going to be a father himself—but his cellblock conversations don’t become more lively or moving in that light: They are another example of the show looking to the past instead of giving screen time to, say, Don and Sloane, the best couple on the show, who never got anything more than frustratingly minimal screen time. (Though perhaps the minimalness of that screen time is why they are the best thing about The Newsroom.)

Sorkin is great at writing cross examinations, arguments between two people. A Few Good Men is a shining example, but so is The Social Network, whose most quotable scenes are depositions. But as with so much that Sorkin is good at, it has become a crutch, a tick. The Newsroom relies on two-handers to its detriment; it’s basically the only way that Sorkin stages a scene. (A recent scene on a train that featured Alison Pill’s Maggie and two men stood out partly because it was a genuine three-hander.) Multiple people don’t have conversations on Newsroom, though sometimes a group will listen to someone’s closing argument. Last week’s campus-rape sequence was awful for many reasons, but it didn’t help that the only way Sorkin could conceive of those scenes was as a debate, and therefore had to cram a myriad of arguments into just two points of view. It’s even more telling that no one at News Night could conceive of a way to tell the victim’s story that wasn’t also a debate. Don asked the victim not to face off against her accuser on television, but didn’t offer some other televised alternative. He, like his creator, apparently couldn’t imagine a different format.

Throughout The Newsroom’s run, Sorkin has given interviews saying he’s only just begun figuring out how to write the show. While writing Season 3, for instance, he said he was “just now starting to learn how to write it,” and he described last week’s campus rape episode as the “first episode of The Newsroom I thought was really good,” and “the first time I didn’t find myself banging my head against a wall feeling like ‘I just cannot get the hang of this.’ ” The Newsroom is over now, and he never did.