In 1985, John Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing himself. It was a bizarre courtroom situation that arose because Fogerty had forfeited the rights to his old Creedance Clearwater Revival hits to a former record label that went after him when a song he wrote on his new album “Centerfield” sounded too much like his own work. Copyright law is complicated. What can you do.
In the last week, a script surfaced that’s purportedly the pilot to The Newsroom, the new HBO show from Aaron Sorkin, and it feels a bit like Fogerty all over again. Sorkin is cribbing off of Sorkin.
Of course there are a million grains of salt to throw with this. The primary one being that random scripts on the old internet could be from anywhere. For some reason, writers believe they can fake leaked scripts in order to gain a name through the back door (like writers did on Studio 60 when they weren’t being heard in the room), but it’s actually the writing equivalent of suicide by cop (which a troubled man did on an episode of The West Wing). The internet can be an unforgiving place and pretending to be another writer automatically creates a comparison that no one can survive against.
However, this particular script (which you can find if you search for it) seems legit. But there’s a funny thing there, when you’re reading a curious script that can be from anyone. In the back of your mind, you’re imagining that someone is doing a hell of a job copying Aaron Sorkin’s style. Even if it’s Aaron Sorkin.
There are spoilers here, although there’s no telling when this draft was written or how far off from the actual shooting it is. From matching it up with the trailer (see below), there are bits of identical language but a few instances where things are said in different locations and to different people. Still, if you want to go into the show cold, stop reading.
Of course, if you want to go into the show cold, you shouldn’t see anything from Sorkin’s previous work. This forthcoming show might as well be called Sports Night Newsroom 60 Live From the West Wing.
The series focuses on a highly respected news anchor named Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) who sticks his foot in his mouth by claiming America isn’t the greatest nation in the world and then has to deal with a new team after his co-anchor gets a new gig and takes the staff with him. That new staff is headed by Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) who has a romantic past with McAvoy.
Above it all is the wise Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the president of the network. Maggie (Allison Pill) has been with News Night as an associate producer and is staying on; she’s also dating a colleague. Jim (John Gallagher Jr) is a loyal producer working for Mackenzie who follows her to the show, is semi-seeing an attractive financial analyst on another show named Sloan (Olivia Munn) but develops romantic feelings for Maggie.
Got that? Good. Beyond the structural comparison of doing a behind-the-scenes-of-a-television-show, there’s more:
Will McAvoy is Casey from Sports Night by way of President Bartlett from The West Wing. In the pilot, there’s even a running gag about him not knowing his employees’ names – standard for the Sorkin focal point. And it runs. For a while. He also gets in trouble on national TV shouting out some statistical, yet hilariously unpatriotic, facts about our country’s situation – much like Studio 60 producer Wes Mendell in that show’s pilot.
Mackenzie is Dana from Sports Night – tough as nails, incredibly capable and romantically linked to the host of the program. The tension is a true sticking point for them working together, and it seems likely that their missed sexual/love connection will inform the relationship.
Charlie Skinner is an echo of Isaac Jaffe from Sports Night, and he (like a lot of Sorkin characters) really enjoys alcohol.
Maggie and Jim seem shockingly similar to Jeremy and Natalie from, you guessed it, Sports Night. Two unsure younger characters who are keen to date but also have to juggle their jobs.
And don’t worry. The walk and talks are all there.
This is the tip of the iceberg, but the overall point is that this particular pilot feels somehow too much like Sorkin doing Sorkin.
However there are always the grains of salt. Who knows how much of this draft ended up in the show, who knows how much each actor will build the language into their own, and who knows where the show will go beyond this first leaked pile of words.
Still, the familiar old tropes were there from the sports analogies to the smugness. Sorkin’s writing and execution are like crack cocaine, but this feels a bit like an overdose. Hopefully, the too-close feeling will pass. Hopefully, Sorkin and his team will mellow out on recycling the old into something new. But there’s a magic there as well, because Sorkin isn’t just rehashing his old character notes. He’s also digging back into his extensive past as a swift and engaging writer who writes with a furiously beating heart and fierce intelligence.
And, who the hell am I kidding. As someone who owns the Faux-Leather Attache Case DVD Box Set of The West Wing, the Sports Night box set and who has seen every episode of Studio 60 at least 3 times, I’ll be watching every minute no matter what.
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