Monday, June 18, 2012

Previewing Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom"

Aaron Sorkin, of The West Wing, The Social Media and Moneyball fame is about to spring a new series on us. Newsroom begins this Sunday on HBO.

Apparently, Sorkin chose HBO over the networks because HBO offered greater creative freedom. He seems to have believed that cable TV would offer a greater opportunity to indoctrinate people.

Sorkin is a great scriptwriter, one of the best. Surely, he knows that scripts tell stories. He must also know that scriptwriters should allow stories to tell themselves.

Making a television drama into a vehicle to indoctrinate people is a bad idea. You risk alienating even the people who agree with your opinions.

The first important preview of Newsroom comes to us from Emily Nussbaum, television critic of The New Yorker.

Nussbaum is sympatico to many of Sorkin’s opinions, but still, she pans the show, brutally.

In her words:

In “The Newsroom,” clever people take turns admiring one another. They sing arias of facts. They aim to remake television news: “This is a new show, and there are new rules,” a maverick executive producer announces, several times, in several ways. Their outrage is so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema—only it makes the viewer itch.

“Moral eczema” is not an attractive image. It aptly describes a character who is so full of himself that he believes that because he feels so deeply about something he must be right.

Does that remind you of anyone?

How about, Anthony Weiner.

How did all that outrage work for him?

The pilot opens with a mild-mannered newsman throwing a politically correct tantrum about how America is not exceptional.

Nussbaum describes the scene:

When the moderator needles him into answering a question about why America is the greatest country on earth, he goes volcanic, ticking off the ways in which America is no such thing, then closing with a statement of hope, about the way things used to be.

Nussbaum tries to be fair and balanced, noting that the emotional energy has its appeal. Still, she does not believe that it compensates for the show’s more manifest failings.

She comments:

Much of McAvoy’s diatribe is bona-fide baloney—false nostalgia for an America that never existed—but it is exciting to watch. … The pilot of “The Newsroom” is full of yelling and self-righteousness, but it’s got energy, just like “The West Wing,” Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” and his hit movie “The Social Network.” The second episode is more obviously stuffed with piety and syrup, although there’s one amusing segment, when McAvoy mocks some right-wing idiots. After that, “The Newsroom” gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping. The third episode is lousy (and devolves into lectures that are chopped into montages). The fourth episode is the worst. There are six to go.

It sounds like Anthony Weiner on steroids.

Apparently Sorkin is so full of himself, convinced of the rightness (or should I say leftness) of his cause that he condescends to his audience. Nussbaum was not amused:

Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV. The shows’ air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what’s inside—all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, “The Newsroom” treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid. Characters describe events we’ve just witnessed. When a cast member gets a shtick (like an obsession with Bigfoot), he delivers it over and over. In episode four, there’s a flashback to episode three. In a recent interview, Sorkin spoke patronizingly of cop shows, but his Socratic flirtations are frequently just as formulaic, right down to the magical “Ask twice!” technique.

Of course, The West Wing was great television. It possessed a magical combination of great writing and great acting.

We can only speculate about what happened to Aaron Sorkin, but I suspect that he got the idea that being a great screenwriter made him a political philosopher. Or that winning an Oscar gave him the right and the duty to force people to think as he thinks.

The old term for this is hubris. As Nussbaum describes it, the show is an exercise in authorial arrogance.

If Nussbaum is to be believed—and I find her appraisal highly plausible-- Sorkin has, like Icarus, flown too close to the sun.

In her words:

Sorkin’s fantasy is of a cabal of proud, disdainful brainiacs, a “media élite” who swallow accusations of arrogance and shoot them back as lava. But if the storytelling were more confident, it could take a breath and deliver drama, not just talking points. Instead, the deck stays stacked. Whenever McAvoy delivers a speech or slices up a right-winger, the ensemble beams at him, their eyes glowing as if they were cultists.

I have not seen the first episodes. But now, as the old saying goes: forewarned is forearmed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Does that remind you of anyone?"

Actually, it reminds me of the Aaron Sorkin who wrote the first few episodes of the (mercifully cancelled) Studio 60.

Sorkin is:
a) a drug addict
b) a blame-America-first leftist

You can slip by in Hollywood with both attributes, but not if the general public finds out; then you become a ratings liability.

Studio 60 was Sorkin's first show in years, and right off the bat, he was trying to rationalize both a and b. Combine that with clumsy, gratuitous swipes at Republicans, Christians, and conservatives in general, and it made for the kind of TV that was difficult to watch.

I'm disappointed but not surprised to learn that this HBO show is more of the same.

Sports Night was frantic, funny television. The West Wing (along with its pilot episode, The American President) were rife with liberalism, but not in the clumsy, ham-handed way that you saw in Studio 60. They were highly entertaining shows. It's almost tragic that Sorkin can't deliver that kind of show anymore.