Category Archives: The West Wing Newsroom

All things Aaron Sorkin.

Criticizing the critics

"What's the best part of this blog post?"  "It ends!  HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW!"
“What’s the best part of this blog post?” “It ends! HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW!”

Did you know “hate-watching” was a thing?  I suppose it’s been around for decades, an extension of the phenomenon that makes everyone slow down to gawp at an accident on the freeway despite the same everyone complaining about rubberneckers (i.e. everyone else).  We have this weird fixation/fascination with things that repel us, and in the same way we will gravitate towards stories in the news that piss us off, so too are we drawn to watching shows we don’t like so we can… well, I’m not exactly sure what, other than write snarky columns about them, gloat about them with friends and continue to wallow about in our own high-mindedness, supremely confident of our genius turns of phrase.

A focal point for hate-watching is Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom; in fact, I hadn’t heard the term until it surfaced in more than a few snotty articles about this particular show.  For the life of me I can’t find another program that is so piled on by sniping television critics both amateur and professional, steering clear of the low-hanging fruit of reality shows and looking instead to take one of Hollywood’s most successful writers down a plethora of pegs.  It has not escaped my notice that the tone of many of these pieces resembles retribution for a past slight, as if Sorkin’s dog once soiled their lawns.  The counter-argument is that Sorkin brings it on himself in how he deals with things he doesn’t like – either depicts the advocates of his bêtes noire in his fiction as inarticulate, uneducated simpletons begging to be schooled at every turn by smug know-it-alls, or just attacks them outright in the public sphere (you don’t need to be an English major to see the irony at work here in the writings of those who respond to him in kind).  Back when his ire was focused singularly on the Republican Party – the West Wing years – we were happy to play along, but when he turned his pen on the media (Studio 60 and now Newsroom) the knives came out.  As for his public persona, I can’t comment, except to remind us with a nod to Citizen Kane that the perception of the man through the filter of other people’s words is not the same as knowing him.  Maybe he’s a great guy, maybe he’s a jackass.  I’ve never met him and have suffered no injury to my person or property from him, or any of his works.  The worst I can say about him is that there have been a few of his projects I haven’t cared for as much as the others.  I am not going to then write a series of “10 Reasons Why Aaron Sorkin Sucks” articles while continuing to DVR The Newsroom obsessively and live-vent my spleen in 140 character bursts every time one of the actors delivers a cadence of familiar patois I might have once heard on West Wing.  I’m a fan.  Every time I fire up the newest episode I want to be blown away.  If I’m not, I may have some modest suggestions about where I felt things went off the rails.  I’m not approaching the show from the perspective of “well, let’s see how he disappoints this week.”  I am, and remain, a love-watcher.

Drew Chial wrote a fantastic piece yesterday about the glut of ridicule in our culture and why it’s foolish for anyone to think it needs a supply-side solution.  You can blame the spread of snark on any number of factors both socioeconomic and not, but ultimately, snark succeeds because it’s the comedy of apathy; that is, it’s cheap and anyone can do it without expending much effort.  Why bother trying to write a thousand words of reasoned analysis when you can just follow the lead of the Ain’t it Cool News comment section and dismiss something as a “crap-spewing donkey abortion oozing from a gangrenous sore on Satan’s left ass cheek”?  It reminds me a bit of that famous comedian’s joke that they made the documentary about, “The Aristocrats,” which is a can-you-top-this exercise in inventing examples of inconceivable raunch, sleaze and gore.  The same goes for the state of criticism, in which the object is not to offer suggestions for improvement but to find the most incisive way to reduce the subject to the tiniest, most pathetic, withering shell of its actual self, something we can all have a good guffaw at while it cries in the corner.  How dare they even try.

As has gone political polarization, so has criticism.  Moderates, the ones who do it because they’re fans and they want the best for the genre they love, are an endangered treasure.  Rather, the critical mass (pardon the pun) has split, with the intellectuals twisting themselves into polysyllabic, pretentious knots to fly above the fray (the nadir was The New Yorker’s review of the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson comedy The Internship, which for no discernible reason managed to include a paragraph about the collected works of Michelangelo Antonioni) and the lowbrows hiding behind online aliases acting like a thousand monkeys on a thousand keyboards flinging verbal feces, yet both self-tasked with the singular objective of tearing down instead of building up, as though validation for a life misspent can be achieved only in annihilating the accomplishments of others.  The late Roger Ebert was lambasted in many circles along with partner Gene Siskel for reducing the nuances of film criticism to a binary “recommend/don’t recommend” state, but one of the things I always appreciated about Ebert was that he always evaluated a movie for what it was.  He didn’t attack Dumb and Dumber because it wasn’t Schindler’s List.  He was not above succumbing to snark once in a while (as his famous “I hated, HATED this movie” rant about North proved) but he was first and foremost a movie fan and hoped each time, as the lights went down, that what he was about to see was the greatest movie ever made.  This I think is a sentiment that has largely been lost, perhaps in the wake of the tsunami of disappointment the planet felt as the words THE PHANTOM MENACE scrolled in front of us and we learned about the galactic dispute over taxation of trade routes.  Our primary instinct now is expecting things to suck (and then, ironically, raging about them even though all they’ve done is meet our lowered expectations).

It’s telling, and fortunate, that Facebook and its social brethren (like WordPress) don’t have a “Dislike” button anywhere, as we hardly need to make being a snarkily dismissive asshat more convenient.  But we need to get away from the whole “hate-watching” concept, where we aren’t just saying we don’t like something but are instead devoting hours of our time to viewing and then regurgitating and ripping apart every single flaw, in furtherance of whatever the endgame is – proving ourselves better, smarter, wittier?  What, truly, is the goal in hate-watching The Newsroom:  getting it canceled or making Aaron Sorkin cry?  And will either of those (one a little more likely than the other) outcomes result in a substantial improvement in our lives or the lives of our fellows?  Criticism for the sake of itself misses the point.  How do we get better?  We improve upon our mistakes.  At its best, criticism is how we help each other do that, by pointing out the missteps the subject may not see and giving them the opportunity to address them or ignore them as they see fit.  The key to good criticism lies in the nobility of its motivations, and if the motivation is the aggrandizement of our own egos, then We’re Doing It Wrong.  And anyone who thinks otherwise is a crap-spewing donkey abortion oozing from a gangrenous sore on Satan’s left ass cheek.

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Failing the Bechdel Test

HBO
HBO

The Bechdel Test, while not, admittedly, without its detractors, should be in the back of mind of any men who write female characters.  I first became aware of it about a year or so ago and it is quite amazing how many fictional works don’t live up to its very simple requirements.  The cartoonist Alison Bechdel who created it in 1985 describes it as follows:  the creative enterprise (film, play, novel, what-have-you) has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Watching this week’s The Newsroom last night I found myself thinking of the Bechdel Test and how the episode (“The Genoa Tip”) failed it.  There were at least four scenes involving two women speaking to one another, but on each occasion the subject was a man or men in general – even dropped into conversations that ostensibly had nothing to do with dudes.  Sloan and Maggie, Maggie and Lisa, Maggie and Mac – men hovered invisibly between them as both sub- and super-text.  You couldn’t help but shrug, especially since the show keeps replaying the clip of Maggie teeing off on Sex and the City (in the form of an embarrassing YouTube video) for its depiction of women who have nothing better to do than talk about men.

It’s important to remember that the Bechdel Test is not an absolute for judging whether something is worthy of your time.  For example, The King’s Speech fails the Bechdel Test because the plot focuses on the bond between two men and the only conversation between two female characters in the movie is also about them.  Perfectly serviceable material nonetheless, and the theme of the story transcends gender.  But it’s disappointing when a television series in particular that features ostensibly strong, professional female characters can’t get them talking about anything other than guys they’re dating/want to date/love from afar/can’t stand the sight of.  Most women I know define themselves and the scope of their lives far beyond the parameters of their romantic relationships, or lack thereof as the case may be.  They are people of greater substance than the boy-crazy constructs our screens and e-readers tend to be littered with.  The problem is that success, as defined by (largely male-driven, let’s be honest) popular culture, means very different things for the sexes.  The man wins the big game, scores the important account, kicks the villain off the precipice to his doom.  The woman gets Prince Charming and the happily ever after.

The key to starting off any story is figuring out what the character wants.  What’s interesting is that for most male characters, “getting the girl” is almost always the secondary goal.  In any James Bond movie that consideration comes only after the cat-stroking baddie’s plan to blow up the world has been thwarted.  By contrast, “getting the guy” is usually the primary goal for a female protagonist, and her professional goals (if there are any) are depicted as less important in the face of the possibility of true love.  (In stories where getting the girl is the man’s primary goal, said “getting” often means “getting between the sheets with” and an apple pie’s honor gets besmirched in the process.)  It therefore follows, given this premise, that conversations between characters, whether the same gender or not, would be oriented exclusively towards the pursuit of the primary goal.  In the case of two women speaking to one another, this means the subject will be a man and/or men, and thus, bzzzzt!  Bechdel Test fail.

No one is suggesting that we should stop writing love stories, or, more to the point, stories where love is all you – man or woman – need, or want.  Love is so indelibly part of the human experience that to expect otherwise is unrealistic.  It behooves us though, particularly male authors, to consider the Bechdel Test as we craft the interactions of our characters.  It’s a premise as simple as the old advice about avoiding clichés.  Instead of writing lazily that something is “as black as night” or comparing the blackness of said object to coal or ravens, force yourself away from those hoary old examples toward something new.  Likewise, if you’re writing a conversation between two women, say to yourself from the outset that the subject of men is verboten and see where the words take you instead, once you manhandle them (pun intended) onto a different path.  Yes, a large portion of “The Genoa Tip” was devoted to the aftermath of Maggie’s breakup with Don, the implosion of her friendship with her roommate over her now-very-public feelings for Jim and so on, but did a perfectly reasonable and professional discussion between Maggie and Mac over whether or not Maggie could go to Uganda on assignment have to be spoiled by Mac’s unnecessary comment about Will’s doucheyness?  I may be picking nits a little, but when the episode (and indeed, much of the series to date) had already ventured so deeply into Bechdel-fail territory it was just one tiptoe too far.

Ultimately, the lesson of the Bechdel Test, and why I consider it useful in approaching fiction (and even non-fiction opinion pieces such as this one) is this:  there is far more to a woman, and to women, than the men they fall in or out of love with, and our stories about them should reflect that.

First Thing We Do, Let’s Change the Theme Song: The Newsroom Season 2

newsroom2
HBO

Aaron Sorkin took his fair share of flack over Season 1 of The Newsroom.  Some of it was merited, some of it was the inevitable result of riding high on an impossible sense of public anticipation.  If you had The West Wing and a fresh Oscar for writing The Social Network on your CV, you’d be hard-pressed to come anywhere near meeting, let alone exceeding, those expectations.  It also does not help that Sorkin is on record in several places as a hater of the Internet in a world where that’s the equivalent of proudly declaring your undying allegiance to the carrier pigeon in the face of the emergence of the telephone.  It’s too bad, too, that he gave up on Twitter after a mere two messages – an ignominious third was a hacked spam fragment about some working-from-home scam.  Be that as it may, it was probably just as well, as more than a few of us scribes have bemoaned how much Twitter eats into our productivity.  And he’s got an entire season of television to bang out, not to mention a movie about Steve Jobs.

As an Aaron Sorkin aficionado (Sorkinado?  If that term doesn’t already exist I’m trademarking it) it’s often difficult to separate the work from the man, for his is not a style that disappears easily beneath the veil of the proscenium.  In terms of recent efforts, Moneyball was probably him at his lowest key, but in fairness he wasn’t the final writer on that movie.  Compare him to other prominent TV showrunners – would you be able to distinguish, say, Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner’s writer’s voice in another work?  With Sorkin the tropes stand out.  In a way, watching a Sorkin program is a bit like television geocaching.  Or, more crudely, the stuff of drinking games.  “Musical theatre reference!  Do a shot!”  And so, as Sunday night’s “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” unspooled, we saw an old favorite return – the flashforward/flashback and catch-up, set in a familiar Sorkin environment, a lawyer’s hearing room.  For those of you really paying attention, one of the lawyers’ names is “Gage,” and at least three prior Sorkin projects (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Social Network) feature – wait for it – lawyers named Gage.  Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) finds himself in a hearing with a $1500-an-hour attorney played by the wonderful Marcia Gay Harden, over a colossal cock-up apparently committed by his NewsNight broadcast – the airing of a false story accusing the U.S. government of using nerve gas against Pakistani civilians – which will, it seems, form the main thrust of this season’s story arc.  We then race back to the aftermath of Will’s Season 1-ending remark accusing the Tea Party of being the American Taliban, which has resulted in Atlantis Cable Media being shut out of Republican-led House hearings on the SOPA Internet copyright bill, much to the disgust of ACM president Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda).  Changes are in store around the newsroom as well as the lovesick Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), despondent over his failure to win over Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) asks to be reassigned to the Romney campaign bus (we’re still in mid-2011, show time), resulting in the arrival of a new producer who sets the wheels in motion for the revelation of something called Operation Genoa, which can “end presidencies” according to the TV panelist who first drops the hint.  We also see the ever-hungry Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) trying to get executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) interested in the rumblings of something called Occupy Wall Street.  And there’s the usual lightning-speed banter, reversals, repetition, what you’ve come to expect when you sign on for a Sorkinfest, with the occasional F & S bomb since it’s HBO.

My ongoing issue with The Newsroom is that I’m finding it difficult to latch onto any of the characters.  I can’t even remember their full names at any given moment.  Perhaps it’s not fair to compare it to The West Wing, but as an ensemble, that cast was considerably stronger than this group, who still haven’t learned how to sound like they came up with the words spilling from their mouths.  Ironically, far less attention was paid to the personal lives of the Bartlet White House staff, but we still managed to get a better sense of who they were and what they stood for.  The archetypes emerged fairly quickly:  Sam Seaborn was the idealist, Josh Lyman was the scrapper reveling in the fight, Toby Ziegler was the conscience, and so on.  By contrast, The Newsroom‘s second tier doesn’t seem to stand for or want anything, and their personal lives are deadly dull.  I’m still not sure why Thomas Sadoski’s Don Keefer is even there, as Don officially abandoned NewsNight in the series premiere and Sorkin seems to be struggling to find excuses to have him hang around – and since he’s now broken up with Maggie in this episode, his raison d’etre is even less.  Rather, the characters are little more than rotating mouthpieces to deliver Sorkin’s judgments.  I was particularly let down to see young Neal (Scott Pilgrim reference!  Drink!  Okay, that’s just me…) belittle the Occupy Wall Street organizers with the same line conservative media ultimately used to discredit them, a surprising and condescending sentiment from the left-leaning writer of the “American Taliban” line and a little out of character for the wide-eyed Neal, especially when he called it America’s own Arab Spring earlier in the hour.

Similarly, the center of the show, Will McAvoy, remains a cipher.  What he wants and why we should care about him remain gray.  Despite his willingness to make bold statements from time to time, i.e. the sorority girl rant and his opinions on the Tea Party, he is forever sliding back into inertia and uncertainty, sitting on his balcony listening to Van Morrison and smoking joints in the middle of the night – unreachable, impenetrable, aloof.  Fundamentally, one must ask, what is the worst thing that can happen to Will, or any of the people he works with:  NewsNight gets cancelled and they all go home?  Screwing up on The West Wing usually meant a cost in human life.  On The Newsroom mistakes mean the unspeakable tragedy of lost rating points, the same flaw that doomed Studio 60.  When the stakes are so low, it’s difficult to find reasons to care overmuch for these people.  The only person we then find ourselves caring about is Aaron Sorkin, and what he is saying about the state of news and the delivery of information in the world, which, at its worst, is all The Newsroom is anyway.  Would not a simple documentary suffice, then?

Off-screen, Sorkin made much of the revamping of the show which now includes a much larger staff of writers and consultants to assist him.  One change I’m disappointed with though is the remix of the great Thomas Newman’s beautiful theme music.  When you’re lucky to get music at all in most programs nowadays, a lush and lovely theme is a rare treat, and they’ve gummed this one up by remixing it to make it faster-paced and sound more like breaking news.  Aaron Sorkin of all people should know that slapping on a fresh coat of paint ain’t gonna fix rotting timber, and that if one is relying on an update of the theme to draw in new viewers (a la Star Trek: Enterprise Season 3) then one is going to be sorely disappointed, not to mention the target of the wrath of folks who thought the old one was just fine.  Imagine a similar choice on the part of the makers of Game of Thrones?  Red Wedding anybody?  Besides, one should not mess with Thomas Newman.  Period.  (To quote the panelist from this episode.)

I’ll stick with the show, of course, as television is always better with even a mediocre Sorkin offering than without it.  But these characters need to find something to go after with real stakes attached, and soon, otherwise they, and the show with them, will continue to flail under accusations of being nothing more than a weekly lecture on how news is Doing It Wrong.  We don’t want to be lectured, we want to be captivated for however long you’ve asked for our attention.  Please, Aaron, this stupid basement-dwelling blogger* begs you.  Learn how to captivate us again.  And for the love of Gilbert and Sullivan, don’t f*** with the theme song anymore.

*For the record, I have a basement, but I do not live in it.  I am unfortunately, however, a blogger.  Stupid, not stupid – that decision is entirely up to you.

The lasting lesson of The West Wing

The first time I saw The West Wing, I was in bed with a bad cold over the Christmas holidays.  Bravo was running a third-season marathon and while I’d never paid much attention to the show before, for whatever reason (sluggish, cold med-induced trance perhaps) my finger slipped off the remote as Josh and Donna bantered along through the hallways.  It wasn’t two minutes before I was hooked – I had never seen television characters interact like this before, bantering back and forth with sparkling, witty repartee that actually rewarded you for keeping your brain engaged while you were watching (as opposed to almost pleading that you turn it off).  After spending the subsequent seven years evolving into whatever the Trekkie-equivalent of a West Wing fan is (Wingnut?  Westie?) I look back on the role it played at a transitional time of my life in helping to shape my worldview – already pretty liberal, I was still missing a critical element of the equation.  I could never really say why I was a liberal, I just felt more at home in the liberal tent, and progressively disinclined at a gut level towards anything remotely conservative.  The West Wing crystallized it for me.

The missing ingredient was the power of people – that famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead that cautions us to never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, as it is the only thing that ever has.  One of the challenges to anyone’s governing philosophy is deciding which side of that famous dichotomy you sit on – the nature of mankind, whether he is by nature basically good, or basically evil.  Whether altruism and compassion are our natural state, or if we’re all fundamentally John Galts out for number one alone.  You can find plenty of arguments for and against in the animal kingdom, whether it’s in watching a pride of lions leaving their weakest members behind to the hyenas, or in seeing a herd of elephants gather to bury and mourn their dead.  Yet those same lions will tend lovingly to their cubs, and those same elephants will battle each other with their mighty tusks to win the favour of the most comely pachyderm.  As human beings we are poised so delicately on the razor edge of that question, crawling along it like the snail Colonel Kurtz rambles about in Apocalypse Now (even he calls it both his dream and his nightmare).  We want so much to be the good man that we fight ceaselessly from slipping over the other side.  When there are a lot of us gathered together in that fight, we can do some pretty damned incredible things.

In Canada, the CTS network is showing West Wing reruns nightly.  CTS is including segments in each act break called “West Wing Attaché,” where a right-leaning media personality provides “balance” (I suppose that’s what they call it, he sniffed derisively) to the ideas the episode is putting forward.  The comments offered thus far have been predictably insipid.  There has been a question asked many times in many Internet forums over the years as to why there was never a show about the Presidency produced from a Republican or more general right-wing perspective.  The answer to that one is easy – because conservatives at heart do not believe in government.  To them it’s a nuisance that gets in the way of people making money and living their lives.  It is impossible to have a workplace drama where the characters in that workplace don’t believe in what they’re doing, and more to the point, are seeking to dismantle the very structure that provides them employment.  Would ER work if the doctors were always looking for a way to reduce services and ultimately close down the hospital?  Would Star Trek work if Captain Kirk thought the Enterprise was a bloated waste of tax dollars and his five-year mission better handled by private contractors?  Closer to home, you probably know at least one guy in your office who hates being there and bitches constantly about how the whole organization is a joke.  How much time do you enjoy spending around that dude?  (As an aside, this is why I always laugh – and cry a bit – watching conservatives campaign for office, as they claim government is terrible and evil and horrible and ghastly but they want to be in it anyway.  I’d like to try this approach the next time I interview for a job:  “Well, I feel that your company should be reduced in size and finally dismantled because it is a grotesque blight on the cause of personal freedom.  Hire me please.”  The crying is for how often this pitch works at election time.)  CTS doesn’t mind the ad revenue they’re earning from airing West Wing, obviously, but I guess they feel they have to stay true to their viewer base by ensuring that not one of them starts to think seriously about the “heretical” ideas it offers up.  I will wait patiently for the day they offer similar “balance” by giving a liberal atheist a few minutes of airtime during 100 Huntley Street, and in the meantime, thank goodness for the mute button.

The West Wing characters believed in the capacity of government, whatever its flaws, to be a place where good things can be done to help people in need.  Their reward for advancing this philosophy was not wealth, fame or even a healthy family life – it had to be in the knowledge that they had done their jobs well, even if no one else knew it.  As a guiding philosophy for our brief shuffle across this mortal coil, not bad.  Not the selfish whine of the Ayn Rand devotee looking to cast adrift those who have a harder time of it while they gobble up exponentially more than their share.  Not the bottom-line focus of the corporation who cares about people only so long as you keep buying stuff from them.  Instead, fighting to do good for good’s sake – and while they’re at it, pausing to enjoy the fight itself (Josh Lyman’s telling a right-wing Senator to shove a Stone Age legislative agenda up his ass still resonates, as does President Bartlet’s utter demolition of his Bush-clone opponent in their debate with “Can we have it back, please?”)

Warren Kinsella talked about how the staff in former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s office was obsessed with The West Wing and how it proved to him that they were headed for a massive electoral wipeout.  People in politics, Kinsella argues, are never that smart.  Indeed, in some of The West Wing’s more idealistic (and unrealistic, if we’re being fair) moments it counts on the wisdom of the American people to make the correct choice, and again, this is the same country that elected George W. Bush and at this point in 2008 was ready to put Sarah Palin within one John McCain heart attack of the presidency.  Yet it’s not fair to write The West Wing off as an unattainable liberal fantasy.  Perhaps it’s a long game, something to always strive for, with the recognition that you’ll probably never get there – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t still important to try.  It’s ironic that it’s the other side that usually goes on about the importance of belief in those who seek to enter public life, because for a liberal, the pursuit of the greatness a country can attain when the best people lead its government is a true journey of political faith.  You could see faith on The West Wing in every episode, even when the characters were beaten down by political realities and implacable foes.  Communicating that faith to non-believers is the challenge real-life liberals continue to face.  The other side is usually better funded and better at getting its message out, because the other way is just easier – appealing to cynicism and greed and pitting us against them.  No one ever went broke riling ordinary folks up against invisible enemies.  But as I said in a previous post, faith unchallenged is no faith at all, and the path of faith leads to a more lasting reward.  In this case it’s the promise of a better place to live.

Is that the lasting lesson of The West Wing?  Well, it is for this Wingnut.

It’s not a great show yet, but it can be

The Newsroom has taken a lot of flack in the press for being too similar to what Aaron Sorkin has done before – a workplace drama where characters race through halls and corridors, their words flying at the same breakneck pace as their feet, while sermonizing about everything that’s wrong with the world and about the nobility of trying to fix it.  Well, what can you say, really – the man has his wheelhouse.  We’ll probably never know for certain the exact details of why Sorkin left The West Wing in the hands of John Wells after the fourth season, but I believe that he missed writing it.  On the DVD commentary for the final episode he penned, he hints at having an alternate resolution for the storyline where President Bartlet’s daughter is abducted and Bartlet steps aside to allow the Republican Speaker of the House to serve temporarily as President until she is found – but ultimately chooses to hold his piece and not pass judgement on the version penned by Wells.  When Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip came out, the old West Wing tropes crept back in to a series that was ostensibly about something a light-year removed from Washington politics – a Saturday Night Live-esque comedy show.  But when Matthew Perry’s unapologetic liberal Matt Albie and Sarah Paulson’s sorta-conservative-but-not-really Harriet Hayes got into a debate on the beliefs of their respective political parties, it was almost a flare going up from Sorkin indicating that he’d rather be putting these words in the mouths of Sam Seaborn and Ainsley Hayes.  Cementing this notion, the final four episodes that closed Studio 60’s only season were an extended plot about one of the characters’ brothers going missing in Afghanistan and the rescue operation to find him.  You could tell that the limitations of potential plots about sets breaking down and guest hosts showing up drunk were chafing Sorkin’s desire to tell big, consequential stories, and by the time he knew the show was on the way out he didn’t care to make the distinction anymore.

The Newsroom is a kind of hybrid of these two disparate beasts – a show about television that now has a logical reason for dealing with political stories.  Sorkin’s thesis is that news on both the left and the right has lost its way, that scoring points and sucking up to corporate and political interests has become more important than the reporting of the truth and the willingness to challenge people on their obfuscation and misinformation.  He’s not wrong in this, even though the right is more complicit along these lines (for all the bitching on the right about MSNBC, it is not a blatant propaganda mouthpiece for the Republicans the way Fox News is).  As conflicted anchor Will McAvoy, Jeff Daniels has a great moment in the pilot when he turns to the left-wing talking head (seated, unsubtly, on his left) and tells her that no one likes liberals because they lose all the time.  Again, as a liberal eternally frustrated by our collective inability to explain our message succinctly and stick it to people who don’t agree with us the way conservatives do, this is manna, something that desperately needs to be said, understood and acted upon.

But the show isn’t meant as a wakeup call to the left, inasmuch as it isn’t a strict smackdown of the right either.  It’s a request to both sides to do better.  For liberals to find their balls, and for conservatives to find their sense of decency.  Sorkin wants the debate – he wants both sides to present their ideas in their purest, most robust, intellectual form, bereft of political gamesmanship and the “my dad can beat up your dad” state of current discourse.  As a news anchor, McAvoy is positioned perfectly, in Sorkin’s view, to act as arbiter of this hoped-for grand debate, to call out liars and steer the conversation away from constant appeals to the lowest common denominator.  As the show puts it, to tell truth to stupid.  What frustrates Sorkin most is that the only thing preventing this happening in real life is not the lack of resources, or opportunity, but of will.  As Sam Waterston’s network boss Charlie Skinner puts it in the line that gives the title to the pilot episode, “we just decided to.”  We can just decide to.

Noble ambitions aside, how fares the execution?  Well, The Newsroom is not without its flaws, some of which may be chalked up to first-episode jitters.  The West Wing cast was considerably more seasoned than this starting lineup when they began chewing on the “Sorkinese” in 1999, and while old pros Daniels and Waterston are excellent (and it’s fun to watch Waterston play an old drunk who doesn’t give a rat’s ass after what felt like decades as stalwart integrity warrior Jack McCoy) the younger performers haven’t quite nailed the pacing of the dialogue – fast-paced banter among them feels like they are trying too hard to make sure the lines come out in the proper order, as opposed to sounding like the character thought of them first.

One of the great things about The West Wing’s pilot was how the ensemble entered the story individually, with distinct beats that gave you a great snapshot of who they were and what they might become, before they began to interact with one another and the plot built gradually to the climactic introduction of the President.  Not so here.  We’re thrown into ACN’s news bullpen with little sense of who is who and what their function is – perhaps that matches the chaotic feel of a real newsroom, but it doesn’t necessarily allow us to latch on to types we want to identify with quickly.  And this is a personal preference, but as someone who is not the biggest fan of obvious love triangles, it would have been preferable to see the Don-Maggie-Jim subplot develop gradually a few episodes in, instead of hitting us over the head with it in the first half hour, because now, dramatically, it doesn’t have anywhere to go.  Maggie is with Don and then might end up with Jim and of course Don won’t accept that and so on and so forth.  I’m still not quite sure what Don’s function will be going forward – he is supposed to be moving to another program but is still hanging around McAvoy’s “News Night” for the time being.  Anyway – easily my least favourite character and the greatest potential to be the Mandy Hampton of this series.

As for the other major player, Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale, a few histrionic moments do not provide an adequate counterbalance to Daniels’ McAvoy.  She is, in this episode, as insubstantial as the phantom vision of herself that McAvoy thinks he spots in the back row of the auditorium.  If theirs is to be the pivotal relationship around which the show revolves, I’m hoping that we see more humanizing flaws as the weeks go by, and a little less of the idealized “news goddess” with forced moments of endearment.

As a devoted fan, I’m willing to cut Sorkin a lot of slack because I love the rhythm and spirit of his writing so much, and I empathize with his opinion on the excessive devotion major media gives to the stupid and the banal.  But he has to balance his criticism with the demands of drama, and in “We Just Decided To,” I think he’s fallen a wee bit short of the mark.  As I noted earlier, one cannot impugn his main argument about the state of the media.  But if you can’t fire your rebuttal on all cylinders, you open yourself up for accusations of pontificating, and Sorkin would be the first to admit that his ultimate responsibility is to entertain.  (As an aside, I wish he’d stop beating up on bloggers – really Aaron, some of us do like you a lot, and we’re not all the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest chain-smoking Parliaments in our muumuu’s.)

Fundamentally, television is better when it challenges us, instead of regaling us passively with the embarrassing exploits of real-life rich families.  And it’s certainly better when Aaron Sorkin is on it.  When McAvoy is asked, at the beginning of the episode, why America is the greatest country in the world, he sees MacKenzie in the audience holding up a sign that reads “It’s not, but it can be.”  That phrase, I think, is the best judgment on The Newsroom for the time being.  The elements are all there to make a challenging and entertaining show, even if they haven’t quite jelled yet.  Hopefully audiences will have the patience to go along for the ride.  I certainly do.

Even if Sorkin still hates blogs.

Stealing from the best

This is a bit of old news, but I felt it worth discussing for two reasons – one, I just found it, and two, it involves one of my favorite writers.  The gist of the matter is that Aaron Sorkin, in delivering the commencement address to Syracuse University several weeks ago, (horrors!) re-used some familiar material.  Namely, he cribbed from an address he’d given to the same school fifteen years earlier, and threw in a few lines from The West Wing for good measure.  This isn’t the first time he’s been singled out for recycling his best lines; astute fans of his work can recognize singular phrases lifted almost verbatim one from the other, or even a particular rhythm to chunks of dialogue.  (As you know, I’ve had a little fun here mimicking it.)  Occasionally, and unfairly, it’s been used by critics to undermine his arguments, as in the case of his acid-tongued rebuttal to Sarah Palin following an episode of her reality show in which she shot a moose on camera – detractors fixated on the fact that the phrase “bringing the right together with the far right” was a lift from the fourth season West Wing episode “Game On,” and missed Sorkin’s overall point.  In a way, it’s somewhat symbolic of how ideas get lost in a sea of nitpicking over minutiae; in the same way that some feel a person’s past mistakes, no matter how trivial, can utterly disqualify them from ever holding higher office.

No one can dispute that Aaron Sorkin’s is a unique voice.  He has been able to tap into the power of words to create stories and characters that have inspired millions of people.  In an environment where posting a video of yourself throwing up on YouTube can lead to a reality show and a book deal, Sorkin is that rarest of creatures – a man who has achieved fame not for his looks or indeed anything particular about his personality, but for how he strings words together.  The ranks of true celebrity writers are thin (that is, celebrities who weren’t famous for something else before their book), and apart from Stephen King there are few whose celebrity endures.  Most aren’t comfortable with the spotlight, and those out there who are writing solely because they want to end up on magazine covers soon discover they’d have better luck getting there with the aforementioned YouTube projectile vomiting.  Sorkin’s fame comes entirely from the quality of his body of work, and his conscious choice throughout his career to raise the bar instead of lowering it for cheap ratings and quick cash.  People respond to that.

Guilty pleasures aside, there is indeed a substantial element of the population that enjoys being challenged, being asked to think about things differently, to question their assumptions and debate issues without descending into name-calling.  The West Wing ran for seven years in the toxic political climate of the second Bush era, and was a lasting tribute to the virtue of public service in a time when cynicism about government’s ability to do anything was spiking (and sadly, continues to rise long after the show has ended).  People latched on to the words coming out of Sorkin’s characters’ mouths; they wanted to speak with the kind of conviction and intelligence found in idealized creations like Sam Seaborn and Josiah Bartlet, and with the well-informed smartassery of Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman.  In person, Aaron Sorkin probably isn’t as quick and sharp-witted as he is with the benefit of a keyboard and a delete key.  But what comes out of that keyboard is as much his personality as the walking-and-talking version of the man.  It’s his style.  It’s what people expect of him, and what every single person in that audience at Syracuse who knew who Aaron Sorkin was was expecting to hear.

The expectations in seeing a star like Aaron Sorkin speak – and he is a star, make no mistake – are no different than going to your favorite band’s latest concert tour.  You know they’re going to devote the lion’s share of the setlist to the new album they’re trying to promote, but you’ll be damn well disappointed if you don’t hear a couple of their biggest hits.  Richard Ashcroft continues to close every one of his concerts with “Bitter Sweet Symphony” even though The Verve have been broken up now for several years.  You’d feel cheated if you went to see Paul McCartney and didn’t hear a single Beatles song.  Hell, you’d probably feel cheated if you paid to see Justin Bieber and didn’t hear “Baby.”  Why shouldn’t Aaron Sorkin play to his audience in the same way?  Indeed, a few of the familiar lines in the commencement speech are clearly sentiments he believes in very strongly – decisions are made by those who show up, and never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world.  These are good and important things to remind graduates about to step into a world that claims to value hard work and responsibility but instead lauds instant fame, achievement without effort, the fleeting, the hollow, the apathetic and the utterly vapid.

Sam Seaborn once quipped, “good writers borrow, great writers steal outright.”  I suppose if you do have to steal from someone, that someone might as well be you – you’re less likely to get sued for it.

Han

"It's a state of mind. Of soul, really."

Overwhelmed is a good way to describe myself after yesterday, and yet, even that somewhat hyperbolic word seems strangely inadequate.  I am so deeply moved and touched by the response to my post about my father – some of the comments left by friends and strangers quite literally brought forth tears.  And that is all my Dad, proving that what I said yesterday is true, that even twenty-five years gone he retains the ability to move and inspire everyone he touches.

Some of you shared your own inspiring stories of your parents, and of your own losses.  I think it’s important to remember in times like these that which connects us all as members of the human race; our emotions.  In our darkest and our brightest moments, we all feel the same way.  We can look at someone who is suffering and understand the depth of their pain.  More than that, we can share in our joy and celebrate mutual triumphs.  We can feel so alone in this vast universe, and yet we never are.  We have each other.  We will always have each other.  A man who was equal parts president and philosopher, John F. Kennedy, said that “we all inhabit this small planet; we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.”  The possibility of our greatness is tied to our capacity for empathy, the knowledge of and the desire to do good, not out of a wish for personal gain, but because we know that it is right, and that the mere doing of good makes us all better.

There is a Korean word, han, which first came to my attention when it was used on an episode of The West Wing.  There is no English translation, but it was described on the show as “A sadness so deep no tears will come, and yet still there’s hope.”  I’m not sure if I’m using it here exactly in the way a native Korean would, but for my own purposes, it captures my state of mind this morning in a way that overwhelmed does not.  I still mourn my late father, but I am lifted, given great hope indeed, by the supportive thoughts of friends, family and strangers; the great tapestry of emotional connection that binds us all in a universal truth.  Maybe that’s a lesson to take from this experience, is that even in the depths of despair, there is always hope.  And we need not look far to find it.  It’s in me; it’s in you.  It’s in us.  It is us.

Laudantium Duo Cathedrales

"Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?"

A review I found of The Grey recently (not mine) pointed out that it’s not often we see poetry in the movies.  Nor are we likely to find it on television, particularly when there is after all so much donkey semen to be consumed, and so much ritual humiliation to be suffered, in pursuit of cash and prizes.  In a way though, it’s not really surprising.  The production of episodic television can best be likened to a meat grinder churning through product ever faster.  Compromises are the order of the day to meet the schedule; creativity takes a distant back seat to speed.  Poetry, by contrast, is meditative and contemplative – it takes time and care to compose, and even more time to read and reflect upon.  That is why the rare occasion one does come across televised poetry is such a gift.  James Lipton called The West Wing‘s “Two Cathedrals” the finest hour of television ever produced, and I’m inclined to agree.  Written by series creator Aaron Sorkin with his usual brilliance and flair, it is an allegorical story of Job, a story of a man, the President of the United States – ostensibly the most powerful man in the world – whose faith is tested to its limits.  A man who is forced to confront his innermost demons, who is pushed to the edge, to breaking, and finds solace and strength once more to stand against the coming storm.  A story of the true bravery of which human beings are uniquely capable.

The setting:  The White House.  As re-election looms, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is about to reveal to the world that he has multiple sclerosis and did not disclose it during his first run for high office.  His beloved long-time secretary and confidante Mrs. Dolores Landingham has just been killed in a car crash.  Tragedies and misfortunes pile on and the President finds himself questioning what he sees as God’s plan, wondering if God is, in fact, merely a feckless thug.  In a series of flashbacks we see young Jed demeaned by an imposing, small-minded father who seems to resent his son’s very existence.  When the President curses God in Latin (“Cruciatus in crucem – eas in crucem”) and crushes out a cigarette on the floor of Washington’s National Cathedral, he is rebelling against God and his father as one.  He has sunk to his lowest and is resigned to defeat, advising his staff he does not intend to seek re-election.  An hour before a press conference at which he plans to announce the same to the world, Bartlet sits quietly in the Oval Office, preparing himself for the grand humiliation to come – when suddenly the door is blown open by the wind and his conscience reasserts itself.  In the form of a conversation with an imagined Mrs. Landingham, Jed reminds himself – through the voice of his departed mentor and friend – that the fight is worth the struggle, that he is in a unique position to help so many faceless people, and he cannot and will not be undone by the failings of the father.  He walks outside, and as the haunting guitar of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” starts up, Bartlet is baptized by the driving rain.  At the press conference, he throws away the script and invites the question of whether he intends to run again.  It’s established earlier on that when Jed has made up his mind, he smiles and puts his hands in his pockets.  Without speaking, he does so again, and his journey is complete.  He has descended to the depths, walked through the fire, and emerged whole and greater.

One cannot watch the episode without feeling a similar lift, regardless of whether or not one is a person of faith – and that, to me, is one of the triumphs of “Two Cathedrals.”  The allegory of God/father vs. Jesus/son is plain, but it is handled so delicately that even though the underlying themes of the episode are highly religious, it does not come across as a sermon, but rather a paean to the faith a single human being can have in himself, and the ability to overcome any amount of doubt in order to do what is morally right.  There will likely be a time in every man’s life when he looks to the image of his own father and questions why he is here, or what purpose, if any, his suffering must serve, very much as Jesus on the cross cried toward heaven asking why his father had forsaken him.  It is the paradigm of the relationship between a father and a son.  The clarity and certainty Bartlet finds as he stands in the rain is to be admired, and in many ways, to be envied as well.  We should all be so lucky to understand ourselves and our place here on earth.  Where “Two Cathedrals” helps is in throwing down the challenge, forcing us to ask the question – one of the most terrifying any man can ask, because the answer can truly shape the rest of his life.  It can come to define the limits of who he is and everything he will ever be.  That is more than mere poetry – it is the essence of truth.

Ten quick grammar lessons from The West Wing

If you want to write well in any capacity, professional or otherwise, you should watch The West Wing.  Hell, you should watch it over and over again, scrutinize, memorize, take copious notes and write countless essays on its tropes and its impact on the human psyche.  Rarely, if ever, has there been a series so in love with the peculiarities of the English language.  Truly – few writers can turn arguing over grammatical construction into entertaining television.  Not lost is the irony that if Aaron Sorkin were inclined to participate on Internet message boards, he’d definitely be considered a grammar Nazi – in the best sense of the word of course.  Presented then for your perusal, ten useful takeaways to pin to the office wall for reference whenever needed:

  1. Unique means one of a kind.  Something cannot be “very unique.”
  2. Nor can something be “extremely historic.”
  3. Alliteration can make a reader need an avalanche of Advil.
  4. It’s not “attorney generals,” it’s “attorneys general.”
  5. Writing your sentences, dangling modifiers should be avoided.
  6. “Hallowed” is not spelled with a pound sign (#) in the middle of it.
  7. Pregnancy is a binary state, you either are or you aren’t.
  8. “Frumpy,” onomatopoetically, sounds like what it is.
  9. No one knows what “redoubtable” means.
  10. The fourteen punctuation marks in standard English grammar are:  period, comma, colon, semi-colon, dash, hyphen, apostrophe, question mark, exclamation point, quotation marks, brackets, parentheses, braces and ellipses.

The most lasting lesson, however, may be that fundamentally, it’s not a bad thing to want to appear smart, and that there is virtue in forever trying up your intellectual ante.

Break’s over.

The Winter of Discontent – West Wing Season 5

As I’ve mentioned before, we spent the summer rewatching The West Wing from start to finish.  That marathon ended a few weeks ago and I’ve been neglectful about sharing further thoughts on this epic journey of television drama.  It seems appropriate then to return to the subject on the 45th anniversary of the debut of another classic NBC program some of you may be familiar with – Star Trek.  There is even a touch of synergy to the two in that the only appearance on TWW by a regular member of a Star Trek series cast in fact took place in Season 5.  Think about that for a moment (no running to Wikipedia to check) and I’ll reveal it at the end.

John Wells is no slouch, but even he had to be scratching his head as to how to resolve the conundrum Aaron Sorkin left him in the fourth-season finale, Twenty-Five.  Zoey Bartlet was a hostage to terrorists, President Bartlet had stepped aside and conservative Republican Speaker Glen Allen Walken was now Acting President.  I can picture Wells nursing a scotch, staring at a blank screen with a cursor blinking and hurling a stream of profanity at it.  Equally disorienting is the experience of watching the fifth-season premiere, 7A WF 83429.  The teaser begins with whip-pans, quick cuts, distorted sounds and images (such visual trickery becoming the trademark of director Alex Graves) and the audience desperate for a glimpse of the friends they’ve missed since the end of season 4.  When you do see them finally, they are disheveled, in darkness, as lost as we are without the familiarity of Aaron Sorkin’s keyboard behind the scenes.  Wells did the best he could, and the episode does have some beautiful moments – the ending montage set to Lisa Gerrard’s “Sanvean” in particular – but things just aren’t right.  I said earlier today that watching the post-Sorkin West Wing is like going back to your favorite restaurant, saying hello to your favorite waitress, settling into your usual table, reaching for the menu and finding out they’ve changed chefs.

It’s tough to say for certain, but Sorkin seemed to take great care in ensuring that characters behaved consistently from one episode to the next.  You get the sense in many of the season 5 stories that characters who would habitually go left were being wrenched right (no political pun intended) to serve the demands of the plot.  Would the Leo McGarry who saved Josh Lyman from being fired in the pilot and told him “as long as I’ve got a job, you’ve got a job” in Season 2’s Noel really strip Josh of his legislative portfolio and cut him out of the loop as he did in the three-episode arc that followed Constituency of One?  Would Leo really be willing to walk from Jed’s side to defend some other guy – supposedly his real best friend, whom we’ve never seen or heard about before – in An Khe?  Would the Bartlet administration, who had shown such hope and confidence in NASA in Galileo really become utterly disdainful of them in The Warfare of Genghis Khan?  And how in the name of all that is holy did Congressman Robert Royce of Pennsylvania from Season 3 suddenly become Senate Majority Leader in Jefferson Lives?  (I blame a casting mishap on that one – I’m guessing that the “Majority Leader” character was written with no one in mind, H. Richard Greene was cast before anyone remembered he’d already played this other role, and the character was then named Royce in a bit of retroactive continuity.)  Still, this lack of internal consistency in Season 5, an unfortunate side effect of a dozen writers working on it instead of only one, only adds to the discomfort we feel in watching it.  These people don’t feel like our friends anymore.  They’ve changed, man.

Ultimately, Season 5 was when The West Wing went from masterpiece to just a pretty good show.  And yet there was one standout gem of an episode that just for its 43 minutes made one hope that the magic could be recaptured.  I’m referring of course, to the fake documentary episode Access.  JUST KIDDING!  Heavens no.  That well-meaning misfire is best left forgotten.  I’m referring to Debora Cahn’s award-winning The Supremes.  The elderly liberal Chief Justice is ailing, a young conservative judge on the Supreme Court has died, and the White House is besieged on all sides as they attempt to choose a replacement who can survive the Senate confirmation process.  In what had to have been one of the most expensive guest casts for a single episode of television in history, Glenn Close, William Fichtner, Mitchell Ryan, Milo O’Shea and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Doctor, Robert Picardo, all lend their dramatic talents to what turns out to be a funny, erudite, wholly implausible but inspiring and thoroughly entertaining romp – ending with a scene of standing ovation that we want to join in with.  While the nitpicker in me bemoans the absence of even a mention of Season 1’s Justice Mendoza (with all those other guest stars they surely couldn’t afford Edward James Olmos as well), the episode is a little helping of vindication for those of us who stayed with The West Wing, lending some hope that all was indeed not lost.  Those beloved characters felt like our friends again.

Ironically, Season 5 would be the last time The West Wing would operate as originally intended.  Season 6, which I’ll get into at another time, saw old friends change jobs, new characters enter the picture and the thrust of the show become not the administration of President Bartlet but the race to replace him – with several episodes in the latter half of the season taking place not anywhere near the White House.  For me, the final word on Season 5 – and there could be more, but I’m trying to keep it under 1000 words – is best paraphrased from Toby’s pronouncement on Bartlet’s new Vice-President, Bob Russell.  It wasn’t the best, it wasn’t the worst, it was just what we were stuck with.