I was an Aaron Sorkin doubter for a long time. His reputation was too hyped for me to enjoy either Moneyball or Charlie Wilson’s War. Part of the problem was that I was told that his dialogue was “realistic.” It’s not that at all. It’s fantastic, not realistic.
But last year a friend sat me down and made me watch The Social Network. I wanted to sneer at the Sorkinese, but it won me over.
Newly converted, I decided to try The Newsroom. My brother had shown me the opening titles sequence (or more accurately, he’d shown me Thomas Newman’s theme music that plays during the opening titles sequence), and I’d watched the opening scene on Youtube because I’d heard so many screenwriters mention Will MacAvoy’s tirade. So I wanted to give it a shot.
For those of you that haven’t seen the show, it’s about a news anchor named Will MacAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) who decides that he’s going to do what he can to make the world a better place. Instead of grubbing for viewers and ratings, he decides to use his hour-long show to inform his audience. He wants to tell them things he believes they actually ought to know, rather than merely entertaining them with gossip or spectacle.
Will MacAvoy is a Republican, but Sorkin (who is credited with writing every episode) is unabashedly liberal. Most of the stories are set up so that the liberal mindset comes out on top. Not all, however. Sometimes Sorkin does go out of his way to make sure characters present both sides of an argument, which is one of the many things he’s really, really good at. I’d love to write an entire post about Sorkin’s writing style – and maybe I will some day – but for now I just want to focus on one aspect of The Newsroom.
The thing that impressed me most about the show is that the central conflict (apart from interpersonal conflicts between the characters) comes from Will MacAvoy’s “mission to civilize,” which he gets from Don Quixote. The “mission” is Will’s effort to fix all the problems in the world from his news desk. He knows it’s impossible, but it’s a worthy goal, and that makes him feel good. It hardly matters if he succeeds. The worthiness of the goal is its own reward.
A lot of TV characters have some kind of deep, dark secret that drives them through the series. If the protagonist isn’t damaged at the beginning of the show, they will eventually have to face some kind of ethical dilemma that causes them to slip into a spiral of sin. Despite their good intentions, they can’t stop themselves from falling prey to human nature, whether it’s greed, rage, or a craving for respect (Walter White and Don Draper come to mind). That’s not a rule, of course. It’s just really common, because it’s dramatic. We like watching people do bad things. We want to see if they’ll get away with it.
Will MacAvoy’s not perfect, but he’s genuinely a good guy, even if he does go out of his way to hide it. And more than that, the whole team in the newsroom is fighting for something larger than themselves – something that they really believe in. A lot of people dismiss the show as a fairy tale, and so it is. The characters are knights, devoted to chivalry. They’re monks. They stick to their principles.
Storytellers nowadays seem to delight in making characters compromise on their principles. If a man promises fidelity to his wife, we expect him to give in to temptation. If a woman believes that she must always tell the truth, we wait for her to tell her first lie. Clergymen are revealed to be hypocrites. Cops traffic drugs. If Batman tells us how much he hates guns, he’s going to have to shoot somebody sooner or later.
What The Newsroom offers is one example of a story where the central conflict comes from characters standing up for what they believe in. The world around them is bad enough that their fight is never boring. Will MacAvoy is smart, kind, good-looking, and rich, and he remains interesting. Why? Because doing the right thing is never easy.
We could use more protagonists like that.