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Sucker Punch Squad: Script for Aaron Sorkin's HBO Show Exalts 'Olbermann'


Editor’s note: Script reviews of upcoming projects have been around for as long as there’s been an Internet. Therefore it’s no secret that a film can evolve into something quite different from its screenplay. Please keep in mind that this article represents a look at a particular script and not the final product.

When BH editor John Nolte asked me if I wanted to take a peek at the pilot script for Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming HBO series about the drama behind the scenes on a cable news network, I said “Yes!” without hesitation. Word on the street was that the main character was based on MSNBC’s recently dethroned Keith Olbermann, and I was curious: Would “Olbermann” be raked over the coals or treated as a media icon?

I’ll get to the answer in a few.

The show, which is as yet unnamed, takes place behind the scenes of News Night with Will McCallister, a show broadcast by the fictitious United Broadcasting Systems. Will McCallister is the pseudo-Olbermann clone who knows a lot about sports, can’t be bothered to remember the names of his staffers, and can’t seem to hold on to an executive producer (E.P.) for longer than 14 weeks. In fact, in the show’s opener, Will is given the unhappy news that his current E.P. Don has elected to join Will’s protégé, who has just been given his own show, and Don is taking most of the production staff with him.

Amongst the few junior staffers who are still on Will’s team are Maggie, Steve and Neal. Maggie and Steve are involved romantically, even though such fraternization amongst co-workers is discouraged, and the relationship is not going well.

Even worse is the news that Will’s boss Charlie Skinner, who is the president of the cable news division, has gone behind Will’s back and replaced Don with Mackenzie MacHale, a top-notch producer whose own chance at on-air stardom at a rival network fizzled and who is now in need of a job.

The twist here is that MacKenzie is Will’s former lover, with whom he parted ways on a sour note several years before. And when Will and MacKenzie come face to face for the first time in three years on her first day on the job, we are treated to Will’s famous temper a la Olbermann. “How dare you SIR!” (No, Will doesn’t actually say that. I just couldn’t resist.)

So far, so good. All typical fodder for this type of television drama: love triangles, stars with inflated egos and sneaky bosses. Then there’s the gratuitous liberal jab at certain big corporations in the guise of entertainment – Sorkin hearkens back to the BP oil well explosion for the big news of the day and Halliburton’s use of faulty cement to seal the well’s bottom. Whatever.

But let’s get back to my original question: Is “Olbermann” raked over the coals or treated as a media icon? The answer is, a little of the former and a lot of the latter. Yes, the Will McCallister character seems highly unlikable. It’s surprising that his head can fit through the front door, let alone fit within the confines of a television screen. Nobody seems to like working with him and they exit stage right as soon as they get the opportunity. In fact, Charlie Skinner tells Will that he’s probably “nicer to work for than Bin Laden.” Talk about damning with faint praise. Yet despite all of Will’s foibles, the most important thing we discover about him is that he’s a newsman who’s been wronged.

Yes, wronged. MacKenzie bemoans the fact that “they baited” Will into going into an on-air rant about how there aren’t any statistics to support the claim that America is the greatest nation in the world. (Who are “they?” It’s not mentioned, but it doesn’t exactly need to be spelled out.) As a result, Will’s lost his nerve, lost his edge, and the network has been forced by his insurance company to hire a body guard due to his receiving death threats.

There’s a money quote in this scene, uttered by MacKenzie, where he tells Will he’s not a liberal, he’s a newscaster and therefore needs to be himself — that’s his brand.

See? Newscasters are not liberals, they are themselves. And people like MacKenzie are needed to help them broadcast the right information to the hoi polloi because, as we’re also told, the great unwashed are uninformed and need people like Mackenzie and Will to give them information. Such nobility…

Get that? Maybe I’m nitpicking, but note she doesn’t say false or incorrect information, but wrong information. Who decides what’s right? Who decides what’s wrong?

Who watches those who make those decisions? That’s where we come in, my friends.

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