Keith Olbermann may be out of a job now, but there’s a possibility that he—or a fictional character bearing his likeness—may end up getting the
Jedediah Josiah Bartlet, or Mark Zuckerberg, treatment on HBO. Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and likely soon-to-be Oscar nominee for writing The Social Network, has told the BBC that he has written and is casting a pilot for HBO about the cable news business. (According to a report in EW, HBO is staying mum about the supposed project.) As research, Sorkin says, he shadowed programs at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC—including Olby’s now-defunct Countdown.
If the pilot actually makes it to series, I look forward to it. And dread it.
The reasons to dread first: I had a love-hate relationship with The West Wing, which was often ingenious and stirring and nearly always scintillatingly written, but also indulged Sorkin’s tendency to soapbox and to put a thumb on the dramatic scales by making his favorite characters into paragons. (Recall Bartlet’s re-election, when he showed the country the value of having a Nobel laureate President by running against James Brolin’s know-nothing Republican, stuffed full of straw and folksy-isms.) The West Wing was still an excellent show, because of and sometimes in spite of Sorkin’s writing. But if there is a single other subject besides politics that offers a chance to give noble, witty characters a chance to give arias on The Way Things Are Today and What This World Is Becoming, it is cable news.
Put another way: imagine Olbermann’s special comments, but written by Aaron Sorkin. There is a certain sector of viewers who will say, “Yeah! Bring it on!” The West Wing often served as a kind of esprits d’escalier factory, churning out the kinds of deftly turned lines and unanswerable arguments that fans wish that their own politicians had made in real life, or that they had thought of during that Thanksgiving-dinner argument with their jerk Uncle Max. But if you found the idealization and preachiness hard to take and harder to buy—well, cable-news has got to be a danger zone.
Now the reasons to hope. For all my issues with The West Wing—and even the much less-successful Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—there’s also probably not a better marriage of writer and material than Sorkin and cable news. He thrives on engaging topical events and on media in general and television in particular: besides Studio 60 and his earlier Sports Night, for instance, he wrote the play The Farnsworth Invention, about the birth of television. Studio 60, which strained to pile geopolitical import onto the world of late-night comedy, sometimes seemed as if Sorkin really wished it were about TV news anyway.
And in Sports Night, he showed a deft hand for the personalities, pace and corporate dynamics behind a news show (in that case, a SportsCenter-type broadcast, again tracking Olbermann’s career). Say what you want about cable news, it is by definition about the public conversation, and the subject matter is endless.
And credit where credit is due: in the rightly-praised Social Network, Sorkin seems to have evolved as a writer from his West Wing days, allowing his characters more complexity of character and motivation than his White House staff (who might have been flawed, but whose flaws generally boiled down to caring too damn much). Yes, his Mark Zuckerberg is a colossal asshole, in so many words (though at one point a character tells him he’s only trying to be an asshole), but the script also shows real understanding of his genius, of his drive and of the insight into human nature that separates him from most other people with a derivative idea for a website. What could easily have been a crabby screed against how the Internet has debased human relations instead became a multifaceted story about competition, the thrill of invention and the kind of connection that the Internet makes possible. (Including debasing human relations! But other things too!)
One final thing that gives me hope for a Sorkin cable-news series—which, keep in mind, does not exist and may not ever, depending how the pilot goes—is that he says he’s making it for HBO. When we talk about the difference between network and cable TV, we overemphasize the language, sex and violence restrictions. Those matter, but the most important reason that a show like The Wire could not air on network TV, even cleaned up, is sophistication of storytelling. The hallmark of most good cable shows is judiciously used messiness—the willingness not to make characters all good or all bad, the belief that the audience is capable of seeing nuance, the resistance to wrapping stories up with a moral or lessons learned.
Sorkin’s past shows could have used a little of that messiness, and frankly, I’m not sure I would have guessed that he was interested in it. There is something in him that longs for that agora of the big mass-media audience, even if it doesn’t exist anymore. (Devoted Studio 60 viewers may remember a subplot in which the protagonists tried to convince a genius TV writer to pitch his drama about the United Nations to the fictional broadcast network instead of HBO.)
But if it works, the rough edges of pay cable could just mean the difference between a clever Aaron Sorkin show (that is, pretty much all of them) and a truly great Aaron Sorkin show. And who knows? It might even make the Special Comments better.