In a trailer for Aaron Sorkin's coming HBO series "The Newsroom," a high-profile cable news anchor is pressed to reveal his stubbornly obscured political party affiliation while giving a panel talk in a crowded university auditorium.
"You've almost religiously avoided stating a political allegiance," says a professor to the impatient-looking Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels. ''You're popular because you don't bother anyone."
But it's a softball question from a female student -- "Why is America the best country in the world?" -- that ultimately sets McAvoy off. "It's not the greatest country in the world," he finally says, before launching into a most unpatriotic diatribe, one the students eagerly record on their iPhones, making him an unwitting viral-video star, which leads to a major career crisis.
Based on that scene, we might expect McAvoy to emerge as a kind of born-again, anti-establishment folk hero: the Jerry Maguire of cable news. But, in the same trailer, McAvoy describes himself as a Republican, which is not necessarily what you'd expect from a lead character in a series on the same channel that aired the Sarah Palin-skewering "Game Change" this year. A nuanced portrayal of a conservative in an entertainment medium that is -- accurately or not -- associated with Hollywood liberalism? What a novel idea.
But, instead of being seen as an innovative compromise, Sorkin's creative decision has pissed off people on both ends of the political spectrum. (Sound familiar?)
According to a New York Magazine report published last year, Sorkin aspired to film a roundtable-debate scene with cameos by Chris Matthews (of MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews") and the late conservative pundit Andrew Breitbart -- who would both be playing themselves. Although Breitbart has since died, it was MSNBC that reportedly nixed the idea, refusing the Matthews cameo partly because, in NYMag's words, the show seemed to be skewering left-leaning media.
A more recent entry on Breitbart.com had a different take. "There's nothing funnier than when liberals who venomously hate Republicans, like Aaron Sorkin, decide what it is we really believe," wrote John Nolte. "You know, how deep down we're lying and dishonest about everything and that even deeper down we know liberals are absolutely right about everything."
The Breitbart.com post links to an opinion piece Sorkin wrote for the Huffington Post, eviscerating Sarah Palin for eviscerating a caribou on her reality show, "Sarah Palin's Alaska." Although Sorkin does appear to venomously hate Sarah Palin, he does not once mention Republicans or politics specifically in his post, keeping his focus instead on the phony pioneer girl.
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A handier illustration of Sorkin's presumed anti-Republican stance might have been a 2010 interview with Elliot Spitzer on CNN, where the writer-producer observed that the "Democrats may have moved into the center, but the Republicans have moved into a mental institution," before adding, "I'll take the Democrats."
After insisting that "The Social Network" -- which was in theaters at the time of his CNN appearance -- was apolitical, Sorkin reminded his interviewers that "nobody has to agree with anything that I'm saying in order to see this movie."
Two years later, Sorkin is finding less to say.
"I have no political background, and I have no political agenda," he said in a recent interview with the New York Times. The remark caught the attention of Forbes reporter Jeff Bercovici, who uncovered six figures' worth of political donations Sorkin has made over the years -- all to Democratic Party candidates or groups (the current leader of the free world among the recipients.) "That's an awful lot of money to throw at politicians whose views you don't feel particularly strongly about," wrote Bercovici.
It's no secret Sorkin is friendly with liberal commentator Keith Olbermann, whose own Democratic campaign contributions cost him his job at MSNBC in 2010. Sorkin spent time on the set of "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" while researching "The Newsroom," and Sorkin has said that the BP oil-spill disaster, which Olbermann was covering at the time, inspired him to stage "The Newsroom" in the very recent past, drawing from real-world events at the time.
Any parallels that can be drawn between Olbermann and McAvoy will be aided by Olbermann's recent claims that he inspired the character.
"This is the second show he's done about my life," Olbermann told the Times, referring to "The Newsroom" and "Sports Night," which Olbermann believes was inspired by his time at ESPN.
Along with the oil spill, the capture of Osama bin Laden will make its way into "The Newsroom": Sorkin told the Times that the May 2011 event will be addressed in the seventh episode. It seems a safe bet, then, that President Barack Obama will loom somewhere in the background of the show, which should wrap up its 10-episode season sometime around Labor Day -- when we can reasonably expect cable-news viewership might be on the rise, in connection with the November presidential election.
Sorkin has created high-pressure workplace dramas before, with mixed success. "The West Wing" ran for seven successful seasons on NBC between 1999 and 2006, reviving the careers of Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe along the way. Sheen played a popular Democratic president who was thought to have been inspired in part by Bill Clinton, but the series itself was far less tethered to real-world people and events than "The Newsroom" promises to be.
"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" -- a behind-the-scenes look at a sketch-comedy show -- ran for only one season after premiering in 2006 (along with the far more successful "30 Rock," its half-hour sitcom equivalent that is still on the air today).
"Sports Night," also set in a newsroom, has a legacy that falls somewhere in between: Although the half-hour dramedy lasted only two seasons, it was mourned by a cult following for many years after it went off the air.
"The Newsroom" marks Sorkin's first foray into cable television, and we have every reason to expect he will settle in quite comfortably -- for well over a decade, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "The Social Network" and "Moneyball" has seamlessly navigated between the big and the small screens.
On HBO, he will be working with a 10-episode arc instead of a typical network season of 22, and, based on promotional clips, we can expect the script will take advantage of four-letter freedoms. But the subject matter, once again, will be a powerful institution that he clearly cares about, despite his signature protests that he's no authority on anything but storytelling.
It feels safe to say that Sorkin's political affiliation became a bit of news only because he is claiming not to have one. Is that in itself intended to be some kind of statement? Or is Sorkin trying to distance himself from any political themes that will be presented in "The Newsroom"?
"There are going to be people who say that I'm just putting my own politics on display," Sorkin told the Times. "Which again I'm not. I don't really have my own politics. I'm very easily convinced of other people's positions."
The Newsroom will premiere on HBO on June 24 at 10 p.m. EDT.