Making a drama out of a crisis
After ‘The West Wing’ it’s hard to believe Aaron Sorkin when he says that his new series, ‘The Newsroom’, is just a romcom. It has enough of his trademark liberal idealism to keep his right-wing detractors busy, writes MICK HEANEY
IN THE SPRING of 2010,after spending a month working on an idea for a new drama series, Aaron Sorkin was ready to throw in the towel. The American screenwriter was determined that the fictional journalists in his new show, set in a cable-news network, would deal with real events, the better to re-create the spirit of crusading intelligence that imbued The West Wing, his best-known series. But having spent months researching his subject on the floor of the news channel MSNBC, an unhappy Sorkin had been unable to crack the dilemma: how can you use real news if you don’t know what it is going to be when the show is on the air?
“I didn’t think I was going to solve this problem. I was honestly an hour away, if not minutes away, from making the decision not to do this show,” says Sorkin. “And while I was thinking all this I just happened to be staring blankly at a television monitor in the newsroom [with a feed of] an underwater camera showing oil spilling out of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon. [It was] day 55 of the oil spill, and they had a spill cam. And I looked at it and went, hang on, why does the show have to take place today? I understand when we say period piece we usually mean 100 years ago, but why can’t you do a period piece that’s two years ago?”
Sorkin’s eureka moment paved the way for The Newsroom, his first television series in five years. By setting his new drama in the recent past he not only figured out a solution to his problem but also got “some really fun storytelling tools to work with”. This approach captures the appeal of Sorkin’s best script work, from The West Wing to The Social Network: his ability to combine high-minded subject matter with the bottom line of entertaining as wide an audience as possible.
Sure enough, the infamous BP spill features in the first episode of The Newsroom, which starts on Sky Atlantic next month. But while the show is peppered with jeremiads about the decline of television news, it is also marked by zippy exchanges and charismatic characters, most notably its two main protagonists, a grumpily disillusioned anchorman named Will McEvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, and a zealously driven Anglo-American producer, Mackenzie MacHale, played by Emily Mortimer. As Sorkin tells it, The Newsroom is, at bottom, a “romantic workplace comedy”.
“We shoot our show at stage 7 of Sunset Gower studios, and there’s a plaque outside that stage reminding you that’s where The Monkees was shot,” he says. “My intentions and my goals are exactly the same as theirs were: I want you to have fun watching this show, that’s all. I’m not an activist, I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind, I’m not trying to persuade you, teach you, preach to you, anything like that.”
TO ANYONE FAMILIARwith the socially aware themes that drove The West Wing this may sound a tad jarring, if not disingenuous. But just as his shows straddle the smart and the accessible, so in conversation Sorkin veers between studied self-deprecation and highly opinionated fluency.
Sitting in a West Hollywood hotel suite, he exudes the easy confidence of a writer whose career has been studded with glittering successes, from his first play and subsequent debut film script, A Few Good Men, to his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network. He even sports a glowing tan to match. “When our mothers told us to wear sunscreen they may have been right,” he says. “Also, when you spend a year completely indoors writing and then you step out into the southern California sun, this happens in two days.”