By Christine Kearney – NEW YORK (Reuters) – Aaron Sorkin has been down a similar road before.
The Oscar-winning writer of “The Social Network” and creator of the behind-the-scenes account of Washington politics, “The West Wing,” has a much-anticipated new series premiering on cable channel HBO on Sunday – “The Newsroom.”
Rapid-fire banter, clever posturing about modern-day America and a romantic view of the workplace are all Sorkin trademarks found in his new show, which examines the world of cable TV news centered around unyielding anchor Will McAvoy, who is played by Jeff Daniels.
Sorkin, 51, spoke to Reuters about the show.
Q: Going back to “Network” and “Broadcast News,” there have been quite a few accomplished looks at broadcast journalism. Seems like a daunting task?
A: “”The Newsroom” has more in common with “Broadcast News” – the romantic comedy – for sure. And both Holly Hunter’s character and Albert Brooks’ character on “Broadcast News” and most of our characters are for and against the same things. But if you go back and look at “Broadcast News” now, James L. Brooks, who wrote that, had a fantastic crystal ball. As did Paddy Chayefsky when he wrote “Network,” to see what the future is like. But boy, “Broadcast News” was written at a time when there was no cable news, there was (sic) just three networks. Now there is this 24-hour beast to feed.”
Q: Your characters want to change journalism’s crumbling role in a functioning democracy and responsibility to inform the public. What ever happened to The Fourth Estate?
A: “The Fourth Estate, well the characters on this show are trying to bring it back. But I can’t emphasize enough how, it sounds like you are going to be asked eat your vegetables every Sunday night and you are just not. The show is swashbuckling, it’s funny, the show doesn’t take itself seriously. The characters take their jobs seriously, they don’t take themselves seriously. It’s really not as dry and unbearable as it sounds.”
Q: You’ve examined the world of news before, albeit sports news, when you began your TV career with “Sports Night.” How is “The Newsroom” similar or different to previous outings?
A: “Like those other shows, you will like the show or not like the show, depending how on much you are invested in the characters. It’s not going to rely at all on whether you care about the news or where on the political spectrum you fall.
I like writing about work places and workplace families. Really, the common theme in all these shows is , ‘It’s alright to be in a big city if you can find family at work’.”
Q: But why take on news, or rather cable TV news?
A: “When I did “The West Wing,” part of the engine behind it, was that in American popular culture, our leaders, by and large, had only ever really been portrayed as either Machiavellian or adults. And I like writing very romantically, I don’t write particularly cynically, I write idealistically, and I wanted to write about a group of people who were very competent and well intentioned and they may slip on banana peels all the time, but we know that they wake up every morning thinking about us and thinking about the country and wanting to do well.
And in wanting to come up with another television series, I felt that journalism was held in at least as much contempt as government and politics, so I thought ‘I will write about another group of people who defy expectations, who aren’t cynical, who are optimistic, who aren’t narcissistic, where it is not about ratings, where their thing is, what is a good news show and what is stopping us from doing it?”
Q: Will people believe such a thing as optimistic journalists? How was the character of McAvoy born?
A: “It’s been in the oxygen supply for a long time now that the lead character, the Jeff Daniels character, was somehow based on (U.S. TV anchor) Keith Olbermann. The character is not even based a little bit on Keith Olbermann, not even inspired by Keith Olbermann. No character on this show, is based on anyone from real life. All the news events are absolutely true. We don’t make up the news events. But the characters are all entirely fictional.”
Q: How did you capture the complexities of journalism?
A: “I always find myself writing about things I don’t know anything about. So I will surround myself with very smart people and try to ask them the right questions, try to get a conversation going. And it will be a combination of that and my imagination.”
Q: Still, the media world is not foreign to you. How did you amp up your knowledge of the world of news?
A: “I visited a lot of newsrooms, including MSNBC, but also Fox, CNN , CBS – a couple more, but it’s been a year and a half ago now, when I was doing that. But I was really just looking to be a fly in the wall, the way I hung out at the White House for “The West Wing,” the way I hung out at ESPN for “Sports Night,” … just to get a sense of what does this place look and sound like and what are the obstacles involved in getting through a day.”
(Reporting by Christine Kearney, editing by Jill Serjeant and Bernadette Baum)