The master returns

I narrowly missed the chance to witness the start of Aaron Sorkin’s rise to fame.

In June, 1989, I enrolled as a full-time grad student at UVA.  The following February, finding my Ed School studies no great burden, I auditioned for my first play at the UVA Drama Department – a decision which would eventually alter the course of my life.

And right smack dab in between – in September, 1989 – Aaron Sorkin brought his court martial drama,  A Few Good Men, to Charlottesville.  The play spent a little time at UVA’s Drama Department, working out some kinks, before going on to the Kennedy Center and Broadway.  

And I never even saw it.

I heard about it, to be sure.  But I was a new grad student at the Curry School.  The Drama Department was nothing to me.  And who the heck was Aaron Sorkin, anyway?
It would take me a few years to catch up.  In 1993, having punted my dissertation in favor of acting, I snagged my first professional role at Swift Creek Mill Playhouse – as Judge Randolph in that very same play.   

It was a very good production, as Tom Width’s shows tend to be.  Joe Inscoe was brilliant as Colonel Jessep – riveting in his delivery of the famous speech beginning, “You can’t handle the truth!”  

Sadly, our houses suffered a bit.  The film version – featuring Jack Nicholson’s famous delivery of that speech – came out the same year.  Still, spending several months with Sorkin’s brilliant script alerted me to the fact that this guy knew how to create both plot and dialogue.

Thereafter, I kept up with the Sorkin phenomenon.  Next came the 1995 romantic film, The American President, with widowed POTUS Michael Douglas falling in love – as who wouldn’t? – with lobbyist Annette Bening.

In 1998, ABC launched the clever, but short-lived, Sports Night.  

But the world – less the more conservative elements in this country – fell in love with Sorkin’s work in 1999, when NBC premiered The West Wing.

That fall, I had taken a break from acting to earn an income teaching.  My new job was at a high school in Greene County – the only truly unsatisfying teaching job I’ve had.  The kids were okay, but the school wasn’t exactly academic – in stark contrast with Midlothian High School, where I’d first been a teacher.  

After an absence of six years, I had no social life in Charlottesville.  My evenings consisted of cooking dinner and grading papers.

And, being a political junkie, I wasn’t enthusiastic about current events.  Crippled by the Lewinsky scandal and hobbled by a Republican Congress, Bill Clinton had become the lamest of lame ducks.

Into this grey existence, The West Wing came like a fresh and welcome breeze.  President Jed Bartlet – as brilliant as Clinton, but untouched by scandal – led a staff of smart, idealistic progressives through the first of seven seasons of stimulating, clever, thoroughly satisfying television.  

Like all of Sorkin’s work, The West Wing reveled in relationship drama – rich, steadfast friendships and complex, frustrated romances.  Every character was smart and articulate, so the dialogue crackled like the verbal interplay of an old screwball comedy.  

And of course, I largely agreed with the show’s politics.  In the heyday of conservative talk radio, President Bartlet – easily the most articulate President since Lincoln – delivered the case for liberal/progressive ideals in inspiring, eminently quotable terms.

The West Wing ended its run in 2006.  Even with a fairly articulate, moderately liberal President in the White House since 2009, I’ve missed Aaron Sorkin’s stirring language and overall optimism – his repeated insistence that America “reach for the stars.”

So it came as an enormous relief when, last summer, Sorkin returned to the air with his HBO series, The Newsroom.

Since I don’t have television I’d only seen the first episode – until last week, when my Season One DVDs arrived from Amazon.  I watched all ten episodes in less than 24 hours, and I’ve gone through them several times since.

For a Sorkin fan, The Newsroom is everything it should be.  It’s the story of star network anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) who decides – after years of “balanced,” vanilla reportage – to do the news honestly.

Surrounded by mostly youthful news team, headed by his former lover – the enchanting  Emily Mortimer – McAvoy takes on the fundamental dishonesty at the heart of today’s politics.

Particularly, the politics of the extreme right.

Like The West Wing, the show features crackling dialogue, strong friendships, and comically complex love relationships.  But here, Sorkin has toned down the liberal/progressive rhetoric in favor of facts.  

Unlike Jed Bartlet, anchorman McAvoy is neither a politician nor a Democrat.  He’s a former Federal prosecutor turned newsman – a moderate Republican frustrated by his party’s turn away from facts and common sense, toward intolerance and a slavish obedience to its corporate paymasters.

When McAvoy interviews a guest, he doesn’t try to match them rhetorically.  He cross-examines them, demanding that they produce evidence to support their claims.

Beyond its political content, The Newsroom is fascinating television.  It features a cast of gifted young actors, including Dev Patel (star of Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel); Tony winner John Gallagher, Jr. (Spring Awakening); and Olivia Munn, whose exotic beauty is exceeded only by her subtle, intense acting.

For older viewers, there are two familiar faces – quirky, colorful Sam Waterston and intense, still-gorgeous Jane Fonda.

Anyone who has read this far will likely need no further urging to discover The Newsroom – now well into its second season on HBO.  But hard-core conservatives should be warned:  This show is unsparing in its critique of the Tea Party, religious and social conservatives, and billionaire corporate types like the Koch brothers.

That said, for those of us who have survived too long on old West Wing DVDs, The Newsroom is good news.

Sorkin’s back.


Aaron Sorkin

How delightful to read your column about Aaron Sorkin, West Wing and The Newsroom. There is so little worth watching on TV these days and anything by Aaron Sorkin is a breath of fresh air---his dialog is always so crisp and fast, one almost has to watch a show several times to catch the nuances. West Wing was always my favorite show and I've missed it ever since it went off the air. The Newsroom is wonderful, I'm not sure if it can quite live up to West Wing. Good to know there is someone else out there who appreciates outstanding television writing By the way, I look forward to your column each week and have agreed with just about everything you've written. Keep up the good work!

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