Let’s Give Sorkin and “The Newsroom” Due Credit.

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.

20 thoughts on “Let’s Give Sorkin and “The Newsroom” Due Credit.

  1. Jeremy Powers says:

    Good stuff, Brian, but what I find interesting is: Are you making marketing suggestions about a TV show that, like most TV shows, suffers from 98 percent marketing and 2 percent duty?

    1. Yeah, I guess I am. But I’m making the argument that that commercialized ratio, in Sorkins case, might be a bit better, in favor of relevant content, than say “CS: Miami”.

  2. I have to confess I like the show (surprise). The dialogue is a little too lofty to match what I’ve heard hanging out in real newsrooms, just as it was on the West Wing in terms of what I experienced in politics, but it does match the dialogue that we played out in our heads after we walked away (i.e. the stuff we wished we were fast enough to think of).

    One creative decision I can’t quite answer: why start in 2010 recounting actual events? The first episode was set on April 20, 2010, the third covered the three months or so running up to the 2010 elections in November and the second was – presumably – somewhere in between. If we keep to the 4 episodes per year pace, we’ll catch up to reality around episode #11.

    Will it work? Dunno. Once it finds its footing, it could be another West Wing. Or it could be Studio 60 redux.

    – Austin

    1. I don’t understand the time line, either. Although as in Episode #3, it does provide a way to follow the triumphalism of the Tea Party … and its pernicious effects. I do like the way he makes reference to real world media and public figures.

  3. Jim Leinfelder says:

    Plenty of over-50 intra-office sex and sexual intrigue in Chayefsky’s, “Network.”

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Wow! Is that a great clip or what? “I’m your last contact with known reality…and that painful, decaying love is the only thing between you and the shrieking nothingness you live the rest of the day.”

  4. Erik says:

    You gotta be shitting me. Douchebag lefty misanthropy includes palpable antipathy towards John Hughes? Or is that your own sentiment, and not found among the rest of the misfits within the archetype…

    Here’s some Onion headlines inspired by today’s column. As always, with Onion headlines the intention is irony:

    Vulgar Marxist entertainment columnist finds John Hughes works too commercial, too bourgeois

    Baby boomer entertainment columnist doesn’t think John Hughes speaks for his generation

    Unemployed entertainment columnist relives time Aaron Sorkin spoke to him in Pasadena bar

    Unemployed college drop out pretty certain tea partiers are dumb

    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      Erik: I think what’s under discussion here are the aesthetic merits of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom.” We’re all too aware of your acrid personal antipathy toward Brian. It’s unworthy and tiresome and well beside the point. Make an effort.

      1. PM says:

        Or, if you don’t want to make an effort, just ignore the post. Certainly you have better things to do with your time.

  5. Newt says:

    Re: West Wing

    “why (Sorkin) had so consciously avoided the truly unhinged, insane levels of naked partisanship of the Clinton era”

    What show were you watching, Brian?

    Sorkin ought to write a fictional screenplay about a slick, hyper-ambitious Indonesian-born immigrant who finds his way into the US presidency soley because of his pigmentation, charm and the political handlers that sculpted him. The DNC’s modern Chauncey Gardiner.

    P.S. Many freelance entertainment writers suffer from Celebrity Worship Syndrome.

    1. Newt: You left out a critical facet of The Pigmented One’s charm … namely he had the astonishing good fortune to follow the most cataclysmic, debt-inducing administration of tired cronies and fuck-ups of the past two centuries. Pee Wee Herman would have looked good by contrast.

      1. Newt says:

        Brian, you’re not going to find a defender of W in me. Unbelievably so, Obama has turned out to be three times the disaster W was. Romney has nowhere to go but up, following these two stooges.

  6. Joe Loveland says:

    I love Sorkin (Haven’t see Newsroom, though. My mommy won’t let me have HBO.).

    But I agree with Jon. His dialogue is sooooo crystallized and rapid fire that it often doesn’t feel like real people talking. Instead, it feels like hearing a densely constructed essay read outloud by people on speed.

    I admire the terrific writing, but I sometimes wish he would use the breaks just a tad and allow his characters to talk more like real people talk, with the occasional pregnant pause, indecision, ums, and banality mixed in.

    Sometimes slow-witted viewers like me need just a nanosecond to absorb and contemplate. A slower pace would make the characters feel more real to me, and less like Sorkin marionettes on fast forward. Frequent use of TiVO 8-second rewinds helps me get more out of the experience, but so would avoiding putting something less than 70-minutes of worth of dialogue into a 43-minute programming window.

    1. I’m with you, Joe. The dialogue is clever-to-beautiful-to-verbose. But the delivery is science fiction. Only a few transcendantally-gifted brains can come up with lines like that in less than a heart beat. In our case, we have Newt.

  7. Will Dewey says:

    West Wing was like speculative fiction — a plausible alternative reality, dealt with the way Sorkin thought that it should be. That was fun, but that’s all. It seems that in Newsroom he’s saying what he thinks should have been said about what really happened. That’s laying your neck on the block. I can’t wait until he catches up to today!

    1. Yeah, there’s a gamble in being (almost) right on top of the actual events in the actual news. Which is another reason why the romantic travails of the kids seems all the sillier and WAY beside the point. But then, I’m a geezer.

  8. Erik says:

    Lambo, you have to go see Dark Knight Rises. The bad guys, which are an ersatz Occupy group, have show trials. You’ll probably ejaculate in your seat.

    It’s a very right wing movie though. Middle class and bourgeoisie norms are affirmed. Revolutionary themes are discredited. The Occupy antagonists are depicted as a malign force if not somewhat retarded. Thematically, it’s basically a John Hughes movie, if you will.

    Thing is, with it drawing universally good reviews the field is wide open for an astringent misanthropes perspective. The world awaits your critique!

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