In which I take a look at Aaron Sorkin’s habit of ripping himself off, and how it’s become his defining trait:
In an episode from the fourth season of The West Wing, one of the characters compliments speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) on a sentence she found particularly moving. He brushed off the praise, joking that he probably lifted the line from Camelot, explaining: “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” The explanation itself is a meta-joke from writer and series creator Aaron Sorkin, since the line is a rewording of T.S. Eliot’s “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” It’s meant to be both a cute summation of the way writers always wind up borrowing ideas from each other and a wink to anyone who’s done enough writing or reading to recognize the source of the joke. It works on any level you want it to.
That’s not the whole line, though. The full quote, from Eliot’s essay “Philip Massinger,” reads: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” It’s that last bit that’s had me hung up as I’ve watched the first season of The Newsroom, Sorkin’s latest TV venture and his first since the cancellation of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in 2007. Newsroom is classically Sorkin, a show full of earnest people doing difficult things out of devotion to ideals they perceive as higher than their own, but it’s also his most problematic series to date because it reflects the degree to which he has little (if any) interest in doing something different from what he’s done before. There have been some good moments sprinkled throughout the first season, but most of the episodes are merely proof that Sorkin doesn’t want to do anything else than recycle his old stuff while delivering grandstanding speeches to the cheap seats.
He started lifting from his own work when he was only on his second series, taking dialogue and plot lines from the low-rated Sports Night and putting them into The West Wing, which debuted one year later. He wasn’t just revisiting themes, either. He was taking stories and sentences from one show and directly porting them into the other. My impression at the time was of a man paying homage to his own doomed work — in addition to being rough around the edges, Sports Night was never the popular success The West Wing was — as a kind of nod to the smaller fan base that had found Sorkin through his first series. Yet the intervening years, and Sorkin’s increasingly repetitive means of telling stories, have shown that such lifts aren’t intertextual or even accidental; they’re who he is.
The “Sorkinisms” supercut released earlier this year highlights the similarities between his previous work, but “Newsroom” continued the tradition. Consider:
- At the end of the third episode of Newsroom, characters gather to chat about midterm election results while toasting “God bless America,” a scene taken from the West Wing episode “The Midterms.”
- When Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) references an employee named Mohammad al Mohammad al Mohammad bin Bazir, he’s using the same name deployed in a hypothetical argument on domestic policy in the West Wing episode “20 Hours in America.”
- When Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) says her associate producer “wouldn’t complain if her hair were on fire,” she’s using the same piece of praise given to a producer character on Sports Night.
- When Mac, ethically tormented over some the trashier stories she’s overseeing, worries about doing “a big thing badly,” she’s using the same specialized phrase uttered by the senior producer on Sports Night in a similar situation.
There have been other echoes, too, little touches that seem to suggest that each of these shows takes place in neighboring universes created by the same neurotic god. Will sees a therapist to treat his insomnia, as President Bartlet did in West Wing; Mac briefly dates someone in the U.S. Attorney’s office, just like her counterpart, Dana, did on Sports Night; coworkers play Celebrities at parties; Mac’s ex is a reporter brought in to write about her, much the way Sam Seaborn’s ex did on West Wing; Mac encourages her junior producer to “gather ye rosebuds” and chase his dream girl, using the same poem Donna used to encourage Josh on West Wing in a similar situation; etc., etc. You start to see the patterns pretty clearly after a while. Sorkin isn’t a man given to underthinking things. Such riffs on his own work — such self-plagiarism, if you want to get down to it — aren’t happening accidentally. No writer would be able to reuse their own words without knowing they were doing it. Just ask Jonah Lehrer.
Here’s what I’m realizing, though: This isn’t a departure for Sorkin from what he’s trying to do. This is what he’s trying to do. In fact, it’s probably the purest distillation of his m.o. to date. This isn’t some subconscious slip, or something he’s doing as a wink to the viewer. Sorkin is interested in telling a story only to a certain point: he’s more interested in making a specific argument about the human condition as it relates to his worldview and personal history, after which character and plot are harnessed in service to the goal. Long-term arcs on his series feel more like happy accidents than any planned result. Season- and series-long characters are created more to tell short stories than anything else.
This first appeared in the first season of Sports Night, in which Jeremy (Joshua Malina, recast in so many of Sorkin’s projects he’s become a living Sorkinian motif) discovers that his father’s been having an affair for decades. As a way to externalize his attempt to find out how/when/why his family fell apart, he throws himself into the story of The Sword of Orion, a yacht that wrecked in a race a decade earlier. The boat and Jeremy’s investigation of it are never mentioned again after these particular 22 minutes are up, and his home life takes a backseat, as well. It’s not about the boat, and it’s not even about Jeremy’s coming of age, but about Sorkin enjoying the idea of a man going through this very specific type of adult tragedy and then seeking to resolve his grief by fixing an analogous real-world problem. The fact that Sorkin ripped off his own story for a West Wing episode in which Sam also realizes his father’s been having an affair for decades and also attempts to externalize the problem by investigating an outside betrayal is almost beside the point — it’s not so much about the recycling of the plot as it as Sorkin’s inability to invent (or want to invent) something new to do. He’s found a certain set piece he likes, so he trots it out again. His roots as a playwright come through here, when he could write something knowing it was designed to be put up again and again in different ways. He’s just doing his own version of it.
The habit also shows up with the revolving door through which characters enter and exit with no purpose or impact beyond the metaphor they’re there to convey. (Sorkin is essentially writing high-end Saved by the Bell-type stuff, where each episode almost exists in its own timeline.) When West Wing press secretary C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney) deals with a reporter recently returned from a foreign beat, it becomes clear that their history is filler and their future pointless. He’s only there to let Sorkin talk about how depressing it is that the political press writes more about gossip than policy. It’s not that that’s not a worthwhile thing to talk about; it’s just that it would be a whole lot more moving if it felt like it was coming from the mouth of a real human, not a mouthpiece. The guy never comes back. West Wing kind of straddled the fence with Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), a Republican hired for the White House Counsel’s office so Sorkin can prove he’s (very slightly) bipartisan and who was designed to have abstract debates about policy with the Democrats. She shows up in the second season and drifts along through the third, showing up sporadically and even earning a promotion at the end of the third season to a more senior role in the office. Then she vanishes and no one mentions her: she wasn’t a person, just an idea. Sorkin’s goals are different from what we’re used to seeing.
When you start to look at Newsroom this way — not as a drama that fails in normal ways, but as a reflection of Sorkin’s innate desire to stage one-acts with little real long-term emotional impact — the show makes slightly more sense. From any other writer, it would merely be written off as laziness to give every member of the News Night crew a personal connection to a high-level source for a major story. (e.g., Will could’ve broken the story about the death of Osama bin Laden if only he’d seen the email from Joe Biden, his golf buddy.) But the charge of laziness assumes that the writer doesn’t know how to tell a compelling drama about journalism. Sorkin isn’t interested in doing that at all. Rather, he wants to make specific points about politics and culture by having his characters speak for him. The journalism is secondary, a kind of incidental thing that Sorkin has to deal with so he can get to the preaching. Real journalism, like most jobs, is somewhat boring to watch, and it takes time and effort to turn research into drama (see All the President’s Men). Newsroom has to condense that stuff as much as possible so it can have more time for its historical fictions. The only goal here is to rewrap an old present and offer it up as a new gift.
As a TV viewer, it’s incredibly frustrating to watch someone with such obvious talent and passion say the same things over and over again. There’s nothing at all wrong — in fact, there’s a whole lot that’s right — with being drawn as a creator to the same big themes. The TV creators and film directors we’ve elevated to the American canon all have their own spiritual homes: Spielberg’s absent fathers, Scorsese’s warped Catholics, Whedon’s stoic martyrs, etc. Sorkin’s even got his own driving theme, deep down: the uneasy marriage between public service (news, government) and the special interests that make it possible (advertisers, lobbyists). Yet Sorkin never seems content enough to find new ways to talk about it. Worse, he doesn’t even seem confident enough to try. He’s instead resigning himself to crafting one-sided stories reworked from the few basic character outlines he’s kept all these years. He’s so busy spinning his old hits that he doesn’t bother to see the real dramatic potential of his new show.
In fact, the nexus of all Sorkin’s hang-ups can be found in the West Wing episode that kicked off its third season: “Isaac and Ishmael.” Written hastily as a response to the 9/11 attacks, the episode aired on October 3 of that year and began with the cast talking as themselves about how the hour was a “storytelling aberration” that existed outside the series’ main narrative. The episode is a bumpy, often mawkish playlet in which characters betray their established traits (e.g., the usually peace-loving and anti-gun C.J. delivers a monologue about the virtues of assassination) just so Sorkin could try to work out his developing feelings about living in what we were already calling a post-9/11 world. The episode is mainly a series of lectures, light history, and character notes that aren’t attached to anything else in the show’s run, and any attempt to measure the emotions of this hour against those of the ones surrounding it ends in confusion and madness. It’s merely a chance for Sorkin to get some stuff of his chest, continuity and narrative integrity be damned. That’s what’s plaguing Newsroom: it doesn’t feel like it was created to do anything else but give Sorkin another soapbox.
When West Wing was having its president gear up for re-election, one character counseled another about the direction of the campaign, saying, “I don’t care how subliminal it is. This can’t be a national therapy session.” His point was about the danger of using their candidate to feel superior to the opposition, which is the obstacle facing Newsroom. It’s designed to let its characters use Will to make themselves feel brave and true. It’s also the problem that continues to haunt Sorkin. Everything he does is a national therapy session, but he never seems to make any progress.