The underlying irony of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show, “The Newsroom”, and I’m sure he’s well aware of it, is that as much as he wants to use it to frame a discussion about the half-assed, highly compromised job so many outlets of professional journalism are doing in this country today, he too has to dilute and diminish his product to keep it commercially viable.
I had to play catch up with the three episodes that have aired so far. The first, where lovable-but-curmudgeonly cable network anchor Jeff Daniels (aka Will McAvoy), goes off on a Northwestern coed for her “let’s all reaffirm each other” question about why America is the greatest country on earth, was ripped about a hundred new ones by virtually every critic on the planet. The knives were obviously out for Sorkin. (There are even video mash-ups of “Sorkinisms”.) Having caught up … the fault I find with the main thrust of the criticism is that it gives too little credit to Sorkin’s larger ambition. The guy has ambitions beyond making another fortune. In its best moments it is plain that he wants to elevate the grade-level discourse of modern commercial entertainment from the fifth to maybe the eleventh, with a dash of college prep work here and there. Can we at least acknowledge that he has other interests than padding his bank account with yet another cop or hospital show stocked with maximum-allowable beef and cheesecake?
Gratuitous name-dropping paragraph … so I asked Sorkin over drinks in a Pasadena restaurant … why he had so consciously avoided the truly unhinged, insane levels of naked partisanship of the Clinton era while cooking up scripts for “The West Wing”? Earlier, I had asked him much the same at press gatherings. His answer remained constant. He wanted to imagine and paint a better world, a world where large-stage politics wasn’t primarily about venal rat-fucking and shameless self-aggrandizing. (He didn’t use the phrase “rat-fucking”, but I knew what he was talking about.)
My counter argument was that if he wanted the frisson of stark reality to drive audience interest (and pundit attention) how could drawing lessons from a protracted bogus scandal like Whitewater, with all the craven demagoguery and serio-comic arm-flapping involved, hurt the ratings? His basic answer was that “West Wing’s” ratings were just fine, thank you.
The commercial dilution factor of “The Newsroom” isn’t in the “speechifying” which seems to annoy both TV critics and general audiences, (but really is pretty entertaining), but rather the “personal relationship” factor. Translated: “Romantic interest” for those forced by their spouse or date to sit through McAvoy railing on about how, in actual fact, more Americans believe in angels than understand their own health insurance. Even Sorkin has said that the success of the show hinges on how much we care about the characters.
Well, dude, on that point you do have some problems. I freely admit that at my advanced age I have only limited patience with still more self-consciously whip smart post grad students agonizing over their romantic choices and failings. But then, that stuff kinda bored me when I was 24. Is life really made better by over-analyzing every remark and statement you make and is made to you? More to the point, while Sorkin’s opening dialogue in “The Social Network”, (via 50-plus takes by director David Fincher), was quite clever, let’s not forget that Mark Zuckerberg was/is trying to “out-asshole” everyone else, including nice girls who might have modified him for the better, though maybe not the wealthier.
Week Two of ‘The Newsroom” was particularly ghastly in terms of the latter-day Tracy-Hepburn ratta-tat-tat battle-of-the-genders dialogue between the kiddies. The contrast between the big, serious, fat-and-ripe news and culture story lines and the cutie-pie love stories for the masses stuff is so extreme whenever the kids come on the screen they might as well put up a card saying — “Adults Are Advised to Use the Next Four Minutes for Bathroom Needs”.
This past week’s episode, with Jane Fonda as the network boss, re-balanced the show in favor of the stuff that Sorkin, who is now 51, (so a ways past grad-school flirtation and angst) knows best, thinks most deeply about and therefore best distinguishes “The Newsroom”.
There are plenty of things to quarrel with in terms of how the newsroom in question functions. Let’s not get started again on the likelihood of any newsroom on any planet advancing the Deepwater Horizon story as far as Sorkin’s crew did on Day #1. But the larger point in Sorkin’s favor is this: At a time when both mainstream entertainment and mainstream journalism, TV in particular, tip-toe only reluctantly and fretfully into large festering cultural issues such as — how the not so bright base of the Tea Party has been radicalized to protect and serve powerful forces largely indifferent to their quality of life — Sorkin not only has identified that trend as epochal, but has the talent and industry standing to produce it as mass entertainment — America’s best form of lubricated instruction.
Were I his producer … I would strongly advise him to shift focus steadily away from the kids’, “OMG! Did he just say that to me?!” jabberings and devote steadily more energy to the conflicts inherent in trying to/daring to describe (as opposed to avoiding) the roiling ocean of dramatic material informed adults see playing out in front of their eyes every day … and night on TV news.
This century needs another Paddy Chayefsky, not another John Hughes.
The show also needs a Tucker Carlson-like character to be foisted on McAvoy as a “balancing” foil, a la the early days of MSNBC, when the network suits looked up from their demographic research and told Phil Donahue he had to book two conservatives for every liberal guest he (unwisely) placed in front of their network cameras.