It was just after 11:30 a.m. when Aaron Sorkin rose from the hulking leather club chair in his office to light a cigarette and announce his retirement from television.
The man known for dexterous, incisive dialogue was taking a break from the throes of production on the third and final season of “The Newsroom,” his polarizing ode to cable news shooting at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. And on this early May day, the midway point in filming its six-episode closeout, the HBO drama’s swan song was positioned as a duet with its leader.
“I know the whole ‘Never say never’ stuff,” said Sorkin, whose TV imprint also includes “Sports Night,” “The West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” “But I’m pretty certain I’m about to write my last three episodes of television.”
As in, ever?
“Yeah. And I want to be really clear about this. Really clear about this,” began the 53-year-old creator, writer and producer who has a reputation for taking umbrage at how he’s portrayed by the press. “I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent in television. And I’ve had much more failure, as traditionally measured, than success in television. I’ve done four shows, and only one of them was the ‘West Wing.’”
Set in the world of a cable news, “The Newsroom” brought Sorkin back to the small screen five years after his “Saturday Night Live"-inspired drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” tanked on NBC. The new show came outfitted with the trappings one expects with the Sorkin stamp: highly stylized dialogue, an ensemble cast in a workplace and idealistic sensibilities.
The series, which debuted in 2012, also came shortly after his Oscar triumph for writing “The Social Network” and boasted an enviable cast that included Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston. It was also his first non-broadcast show, finding a home on HBO at a time when meth dealers, zombie fighters and conflicted ad men were dominating TV dramas. Breaking through the entertainment clutter became a real challenge.
While the series has been a solid enough performer — it averaged 2 million viewers per episode in its second season — and proved to be a player during awards season, it also became a surprisingly polarizing show as some critics found it “smug” and “self-indulgent” and others took issue with what they saw as its unflattering portrayal of women.
For a while too there was confusion over a Season 3 renewal. Months after the second season ended last summer, there was still no official word from HBO on the show’s future.
Then Daniels, who headlines the series as cantankerous anchor Will McAvoy, tweeted in September 2013 that the show had been renewed — but this was before HBO had made any formal announcement. It turned out the premium network was waiting on Sorkin, who had been busy writing his film adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs autobiography.
Executive producer Alan Poul recalled that at the end of Season 2, there was a sense of “where do we go from here?’”
“A lot of discussions happened,” he said. “But, first, Aaron needed to want it. And he had to be alone with that.”
Added Sorkin: “I wanted to make sure that if we did, that it was for good reason. That there was a good story to tell. That everybody was still psyched about it. And that this wasn’t an obligation.
“And then I had to take my own temperature. And then I asked HBO to announce it as the third and final season, so that everyone would know we were heading for the end.”
Sorkin insists that the decision to wrap it up now was in no way a response to the critical noise. Rather, he said, it was a matter of “knowing when to put the crayons down.”
Network executives, for one, weren’t surprised the coloring was about to stop.
“I know that Season 2 was hard for him, facing the screen and figuring out where to go,” said Michael Lombardo, HBO’s programming president, in a telephone interview. “So I wasn’t shocked.”
Over the course of a celebrated career, Sorkin has been open about his difficulties with putting words to a page and meeting deadlines. During the May sit-down interview, a draft for the fourth episode had been due two days before — but the man who started his career as a playwright had nothing.
It’s the trade-off of being in business with Sorkin, according to Lombardo.
“I told him a number of times, ‘I am not a procrastinator,’” Lombardo said. “And yet, I don’t know how many moments where it’s the day before table read, and we didn’t have a draft. Not even an outline. Nothing. I would be cursing to myself and grumbling. And then I would receive a draft, and I would get chills. The thing I learned about Aaron over time is that the procrastination is not because he is sitting at home reading the newspaper. It torments him. But that is his process.”
And if he was going to do one more season, Sorkin knew he needed someone who could help run the writers’ room — “getting the best out of writing staffs is not something I’ve always been good at.” He recruited Paul Lieberstein (who played Toby on “The Office” and served as its executive producer for several seasons) to join the series as an executive producer.
This season will have one story that unfolds over its entirety. Among the issues that the “News Night” team will tackle this year are the Boston Marathon bombing and citizen journalism, the ethics of obtaining and reporting classified documents and, of course, relationships.
Sorkin has plopped himself, in semi-cross-legged fashion, on the carpet of the newsroom set as the cast and crew scoot in. He often takes breaks from the writers’ room during rehearsals to give the room direction. And in this moment he’s guiding them in a scene that involves a climactic moment to the storyline about classified documents.
“You are all right in this situation,” Sorkin tells his cast as TV screens play looped footage from the Boston Marathon aftermath and a red-carpet awards show. “Each one of you is right. Will is right for trying to cooperate. Mac is right for being a little defiant. Neal is right for wanting to sacrifice himself. And so on. You are all right. No one is wrong.”
Daniels, later in his trailer, pointed to that moment in the huddle as representative of why an Aaron Sorkin show is worth doing.
“The man has passion, and he wants you to feel it just as strongly as he did when he wrote it,” Daniels said. Still, he’s more pragmatic than sentimental about the show’s conclusion.
“I’m not saying I can’t wait to get out of here, but I think we threw everything we had at it,” he said. “I can see where if we continued Season 4 or 5, we might’ve started repeating ourselves.”
Fast-forward to late October, and Sorkin is now less than a few weeks away from the show’s premiere. A few major news stories — like the ebola outbreak — have broken since the show wrapped.
Even so, Sorkin isn’t wishing he had kept “The Newsroom” alive to use the stories as the needle to his thread. But he occasionally finds himself thinking of another one of his shows.
“I’ve noticed myself saying, ‘Gee, there would have been a good “West Wing” episode in that,’ ” Sorkin said in a follow-up telephone interview. “So, in a few years, is when I expect to be doing that with ‘The Newsroom.’ I’m never done with something I’ve created.
“I’ve never written anything that I haven’t wanted to write again. I want to, and still am, writing ‘A Few Good Men’ again,” said Sorkin, referring to his first play that made it to the big screen in 1992 and starred Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. “I didn’t know what I was doing then, and I’m still trying to get it right. I would write ‘The Social Network’ again if they would let me, I’d write ‘Moneyball’ again. I would write ‘The West Wing’ again. And, yeah, I’d write ‘The Newsroom’ again.”
And what about that earlier retirement declaration?
“All these months later, I still don’t see another series in my near future,” he said. “But, again, you never know. Maybe I’ll get another idea.”
Cue the headlines.
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