Tag Archives: sam seaborn

It’s not a great show yet, but it can be

The Newsroom has taken a lot of flack in the press for being too similar to what Aaron Sorkin has done before – a workplace drama where characters race through halls and corridors, their words flying at the same breakneck pace as their feet, while sermonizing about everything that’s wrong with the world and about the nobility of trying to fix it.  Well, what can you say, really – the man has his wheelhouse.  We’ll probably never know for certain the exact details of why Sorkin left The West Wing in the hands of John Wells after the fourth season, but I believe that he missed writing it.  On the DVD commentary for the final episode he penned, he hints at having an alternate resolution for the storyline where President Bartlet’s daughter is abducted and Bartlet steps aside to allow the Republican Speaker of the House to serve temporarily as President until she is found – but ultimately chooses to hold his piece and not pass judgement on the version penned by Wells.  When Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip came out, the old West Wing tropes crept back in to a series that was ostensibly about something a light-year removed from Washington politics – a Saturday Night Live-esque comedy show.  But when Matthew Perry’s unapologetic liberal Matt Albie and Sarah Paulson’s sorta-conservative-but-not-really Harriet Hayes got into a debate on the beliefs of their respective political parties, it was almost a flare going up from Sorkin indicating that he’d rather be putting these words in the mouths of Sam Seaborn and Ainsley Hayes.  Cementing this notion, the final four episodes that closed Studio 60’s only season were an extended plot about one of the characters’ brothers going missing in Afghanistan and the rescue operation to find him.  You could tell that the limitations of potential plots about sets breaking down and guest hosts showing up drunk were chafing Sorkin’s desire to tell big, consequential stories, and by the time he knew the show was on the way out he didn’t care to make the distinction anymore.

The Newsroom is a kind of hybrid of these two disparate beasts – a show about television that now has a logical reason for dealing with political stories.  Sorkin’s thesis is that news on both the left and the right has lost its way, that scoring points and sucking up to corporate and political interests has become more important than the reporting of the truth and the willingness to challenge people on their obfuscation and misinformation.  He’s not wrong in this, even though the right is more complicit along these lines (for all the bitching on the right about MSNBC, it is not a blatant propaganda mouthpiece for the Republicans the way Fox News is).  As conflicted anchor Will McAvoy, Jeff Daniels has a great moment in the pilot when he turns to the left-wing talking head (seated, unsubtly, on his left) and tells her that no one likes liberals because they lose all the time.  Again, as a liberal eternally frustrated by our collective inability to explain our message succinctly and stick it to people who don’t agree with us the way conservatives do, this is manna, something that desperately needs to be said, understood and acted upon.

But the show isn’t meant as a wakeup call to the left, inasmuch as it isn’t a strict smackdown of the right either.  It’s a request to both sides to do better.  For liberals to find their balls, and for conservatives to find their sense of decency.  Sorkin wants the debate – he wants both sides to present their ideas in their purest, most robust, intellectual form, bereft of political gamesmanship and the “my dad can beat up your dad” state of current discourse.  As a news anchor, McAvoy is positioned perfectly, in Sorkin’s view, to act as arbiter of this hoped-for grand debate, to call out liars and steer the conversation away from constant appeals to the lowest common denominator.  As the show puts it, to tell truth to stupid.  What frustrates Sorkin most is that the only thing preventing this happening in real life is not the lack of resources, or opportunity, but of will.  As Sam Waterston’s network boss Charlie Skinner puts it in the line that gives the title to the pilot episode, “we just decided to.”  We can just decide to.

Noble ambitions aside, how fares the execution?  Well, The Newsroom is not without its flaws, some of which may be chalked up to first-episode jitters.  The West Wing cast was considerably more seasoned than this starting lineup when they began chewing on the “Sorkinese” in 1999, and while old pros Daniels and Waterston are excellent (and it’s fun to watch Waterston play an old drunk who doesn’t give a rat’s ass after what felt like decades as stalwart integrity warrior Jack McCoy) the younger performers haven’t quite nailed the pacing of the dialogue – fast-paced banter among them feels like they are trying too hard to make sure the lines come out in the proper order, as opposed to sounding like the character thought of them first.

One of the great things about The West Wing’s pilot was how the ensemble entered the story individually, with distinct beats that gave you a great snapshot of who they were and what they might become, before they began to interact with one another and the plot built gradually to the climactic introduction of the President.  Not so here.  We’re thrown into ACN’s news bullpen with little sense of who is who and what their function is – perhaps that matches the chaotic feel of a real newsroom, but it doesn’t necessarily allow us to latch on to types we want to identify with quickly.  And this is a personal preference, but as someone who is not the biggest fan of obvious love triangles, it would have been preferable to see the Don-Maggie-Jim subplot develop gradually a few episodes in, instead of hitting us over the head with it in the first half hour, because now, dramatically, it doesn’t have anywhere to go.  Maggie is with Don and then might end up with Jim and of course Don won’t accept that and so on and so forth.  I’m still not quite sure what Don’s function will be going forward – he is supposed to be moving to another program but is still hanging around McAvoy’s “News Night” for the time being.  Anyway – easily my least favourite character and the greatest potential to be the Mandy Hampton of this series.

As for the other major player, Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale, a few histrionic moments do not provide an adequate counterbalance to Daniels’ McAvoy.  She is, in this episode, as insubstantial as the phantom vision of herself that McAvoy thinks he spots in the back row of the auditorium.  If theirs is to be the pivotal relationship around which the show revolves, I’m hoping that we see more humanizing flaws as the weeks go by, and a little less of the idealized “news goddess” with forced moments of endearment.

As a devoted fan, I’m willing to cut Sorkin a lot of slack because I love the rhythm and spirit of his writing so much, and I empathize with his opinion on the excessive devotion major media gives to the stupid and the banal.  But he has to balance his criticism with the demands of drama, and in “We Just Decided To,” I think he’s fallen a wee bit short of the mark.  As I noted earlier, one cannot impugn his main argument about the state of the media.  But if you can’t fire your rebuttal on all cylinders, you open yourself up for accusations of pontificating, and Sorkin would be the first to admit that his ultimate responsibility is to entertain.  (As an aside, I wish he’d stop beating up on bloggers – really Aaron, some of us do like you a lot, and we’re not all the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest chain-smoking Parliaments in our muumuu’s.)

Fundamentally, television is better when it challenges us, instead of regaling us passively with the embarrassing exploits of real-life rich families.  And it’s certainly better when Aaron Sorkin is on it.  When McAvoy is asked, at the beginning of the episode, why America is the greatest country in the world, he sees MacKenzie in the audience holding up a sign that reads “It’s not, but it can be.”  That phrase, I think, is the best judgment on The Newsroom for the time being.  The elements are all there to make a challenging and entertaining show, even if they haven’t quite jelled yet.  Hopefully audiences will have the patience to go along for the ride.  I certainly do.

Even if Sorkin still hates blogs.

Stealing from the best

This is a bit of old news, but I felt it worth discussing for two reasons – one, I just found it, and two, it involves one of my favorite writers.  The gist of the matter is that Aaron Sorkin, in delivering the commencement address to Syracuse University several weeks ago, (horrors!) re-used some familiar material.  Namely, he cribbed from an address he’d given to the same school fifteen years earlier, and threw in a few lines from The West Wing for good measure.  This isn’t the first time he’s been singled out for recycling his best lines; astute fans of his work can recognize singular phrases lifted almost verbatim one from the other, or even a particular rhythm to chunks of dialogue.  (As you know, I’ve had a little fun here mimicking it.)  Occasionally, and unfairly, it’s been used by critics to undermine his arguments, as in the case of his acid-tongued rebuttal to Sarah Palin following an episode of her reality show in which she shot a moose on camera – detractors fixated on the fact that the phrase “bringing the right together with the far right” was a lift from the fourth season West Wing episode “Game On,” and missed Sorkin’s overall point.  In a way, it’s somewhat symbolic of how ideas get lost in a sea of nitpicking over minutiae; in the same way that some feel a person’s past mistakes, no matter how trivial, can utterly disqualify them from ever holding higher office.

No one can dispute that Aaron Sorkin’s is a unique voice.  He has been able to tap into the power of words to create stories and characters that have inspired millions of people.  In an environment where posting a video of yourself throwing up on YouTube can lead to a reality show and a book deal, Sorkin is that rarest of creatures – a man who has achieved fame not for his looks or indeed anything particular about his personality, but for how he strings words together.  The ranks of true celebrity writers are thin (that is, celebrities who weren’t famous for something else before their book), and apart from Stephen King there are few whose celebrity endures.  Most aren’t comfortable with the spotlight, and those out there who are writing solely because they want to end up on magazine covers soon discover they’d have better luck getting there with the aforementioned YouTube projectile vomiting.  Sorkin’s fame comes entirely from the quality of his body of work, and his conscious choice throughout his career to raise the bar instead of lowering it for cheap ratings and quick cash.  People respond to that.

Guilty pleasures aside, there is indeed a substantial element of the population that enjoys being challenged, being asked to think about things differently, to question their assumptions and debate issues without descending into name-calling.  The West Wing ran for seven years in the toxic political climate of the second Bush era, and was a lasting tribute to the virtue of public service in a time when cynicism about government’s ability to do anything was spiking (and sadly, continues to rise long after the show has ended).  People latched on to the words coming out of Sorkin’s characters’ mouths; they wanted to speak with the kind of conviction and intelligence found in idealized creations like Sam Seaborn and Josiah Bartlet, and with the well-informed smartassery of Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman.  In person, Aaron Sorkin probably isn’t as quick and sharp-witted as he is with the benefit of a keyboard and a delete key.  But what comes out of that keyboard is as much his personality as the walking-and-talking version of the man.  It’s his style.  It’s what people expect of him, and what every single person in that audience at Syracuse who knew who Aaron Sorkin was was expecting to hear.

The expectations in seeing a star like Aaron Sorkin speak – and he is a star, make no mistake – are no different than going to your favorite band’s latest concert tour.  You know they’re going to devote the lion’s share of the setlist to the new album they’re trying to promote, but you’ll be damn well disappointed if you don’t hear a couple of their biggest hits.  Richard Ashcroft continues to close every one of his concerts with “Bitter Sweet Symphony” even though The Verve have been broken up now for several years.  You’d feel cheated if you went to see Paul McCartney and didn’t hear a single Beatles song.  Hell, you’d probably feel cheated if you paid to see Justin Bieber and didn’t hear “Baby.”  Why shouldn’t Aaron Sorkin play to his audience in the same way?  Indeed, a few of the familiar lines in the commencement speech are clearly sentiments he believes in very strongly – decisions are made by those who show up, and never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world.  These are good and important things to remind graduates about to step into a world that claims to value hard work and responsibility but instead lauds instant fame, achievement without effort, the fleeting, the hollow, the apathetic and the utterly vapid.

Sam Seaborn once quipped, “good writers borrow, great writers steal outright.”  I suppose if you do have to steal from someone, that someone might as well be you – you’re less likely to get sued for it.

God save Sam Seaborn

In the absence of compelling summer television and a firm disinterest in whomever The Bachelorette picks, we are engaged in a repeat viewing of the entire seven seasons of The West Wing.  Assaulted by news feeds of corporate-backed Tea Party lunacy and the fiscal axe falling on libraries, it’s good to step away for an hour or two each night into Aaron Sorkin’s erudite exploration of the virtues of public service and the triumph of liberalism.  When TWW was originally airing during the height of the Bush administration it was a welcome salve for wounded progressive hearts and a source of hope for better days ahead – showing what it could be like when the reins were held by people who genuinely believed in government as a meaningful force for good rather than some nebulous beast to be starved lest they not be able to buy another yacht.

No character better exemplified this than the Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe in an arguably career-defining role as a fast-talking, pure-hearted and paradoxically handsome nerd, able to translate his unassailable convictions into elegant turns of phrase for the President to deliver just as smoothly.  Where Toby Ziegler was the moral conscience of the senior staff, and Josh Lyman was the warrior determined to win at all costs, Sam was the idealist, the dreamer, a bottomless well of hope never tempered by politics as usual.  Originally intended to be the focus of the show – he was the first character to be introduced in the pilot episode – Sam began to fall off the radar as the seasons progressed, usurped at the center of the series’ main plots by Josh and Toby.  As a writer, it’s not difficult to see why this may have occurred for Sorkin – a character of such upstanding value and with so few apparent flaws as Sam is very hard to write.  Usually the approach is to test the limits of their values and morality by challenging it from every angle, daring the character to retain their hope against the creeping ennui of human failings.

We saw this articulated in Sam’s best episode, Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.  Sam is struggling with the revelation that his father has been cheating on his mother for 28 years when he is asked to look into a pardon request for a man who had been accused of espionage for the Soviets during the Second World War.  Determined at the start to reverse what he feels is a mockery of justice, Sam ultimately discovers that his pet cause was, in fact, a traitor, the revelation of which combined with his father’s infidelities nearly crushes him.  In a touching scene where he breaks down in front of Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), he confesses the need he feels for certainties in life on which to hang his hope, like “longitude and latitude.”  And yet at the end Sam makes a difficult phone call to try and begin reconciliation with his father.  He has found his certainty – and his hope – again in the faces of his friends.

One always got the sense that Sam was driven to prove that hope could triumph cynicism.  After a soul-flattening career using his intelligence and skill with the law to protect oil companies from litigation, working at the White House was his chance to redeem those mistakes.  It would have been nice to see the hinted-at wounded part of his character explored in greater depth had he stayed a few seasons more.

Rob Lowe’s and Aaron Sorkin’s respective early departures from the series after its fourth season left a huge question in what the plans for Sam Seaborn ultimately would have been.  Yet a tease was dropped in the third-season episode Hartsfield’s Landing.  Discussing the intricacies of a standoff with the Chinese over a game of chess, President Bartlet comments to a stunned Sam, “You’re going to run for President one day.  Don’t be scared, you can do it.”  A flicker of reaction crosses Sam’s face, both sheer terror at an incredible notion that he might not have ever considered, replaced swiftly by a quiet confidence that if he has inspired that kind of hope in someone he admires so deeply, he might just succeed.  The currency of hope remains potent, and we are grateful that it is – making one agree with Toby’s final line to Sam as he walks out of the series in the fourth season episode Red Haven’s On Fire – “God save the United States of America… and Sam Seaborn.”