Tag Archives: HBO

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.

Game of Thrones and the many faces of the goddess

Carice van Houten as Melisandre, warning of darkness and horror and the return of the smoke monster from Lost.

Maiden, mother, crone; child, witch, whore; the meek and the bold, the submissive and the dominant, the loving and the cruel.  The infinite and mesmerizing complexity of the feminine was embodied by the incredible women of Game of Thrones in this week’s episode, “Garden of Bones.”  While the show can come off as a man’s world in which kings, knights, lords, gentlemen and brutes alike vie for power, “Garden of Bones” reminded the audience that even as they strut in their armor and proclaim their mastery of all they survey, the men are but pieces in this grand game, and that the women are holding the board up – with a flick of their elegant wrists this precarious world will collapse.  That they have not yet done so speaks to the quiet bemusement with which they allow the boys to go about their manly and yet hollow pursuits.

That the men of Westeros are ultimately servants to the other half of the sky is evident in several scenes in the episode where men attempt to assert their dominance only to see their egos undercut by feminine power.  The arrogant Littlefinger, his very moniker a comment on his masculine limitations, waltzes into Renly Baratheon’s camp, first confronting Margaery Tyrell about Renly’s love that dare not speak its name, then presenting his unrequited crush Catelyn with Ned’s remains and dangling a chance to reunite her with her captive daughters.  In both instances the women will have none of it.

Margaery knows well that her marriage is a sham designed to secure a political alliance and is content to act her role, and Catelyn is not so naïve that a shameless appeal to her maternal instincts will excuse Littlefinger’s betrayal of her late husband.  Robb Stark is struck speechless by the simple healer Talisa when his proud military victory is utterly diminished by her simple comments to him in the battle’s aftermath, as she accuses him of massacring a bunch of innocents and having no greater plan for the future of the Seven Kingdoms.

Where Littlefinger and Robb respond to their encounters with powerful women with silence, a more sinister path is taken by another profoundly insecure man attempting to assert his dominance over the female – in the skin-crawling scene where petulant King Joffrey commands one prostitute to beat another bloody.  He cannot master them with his questionable masculinity, so he uses the coward’s fallback of fear and brutal violence instead.  Joffrey’s understanding that he can never equal Robb Stark as a military commander, the more traditional masculine role, leads him to mistreat Sansa instead.  Interestingly, while the delicate, virginal Sansa appears to be displaying battered woman syndrome in her continual proclamations of love for Joffrey despite his abuse, she is doing so not out of misplaced devotion but self-preservation – biding her time until she is freed of this monster.  Her sister, Arya, utterly defeminised by circumstance (even commenting to Lord Tywin that being a boy made it easier) is likewise still a reserve of indomitable strength, going to sleep each night muttering, like a mantra, the name of each man she means to see dead.

Indeed, the only male character who seems not intimidated by the power of women (at least in this episode) is the one whose masculinity has always been dismissed by his fellow men:  Tyrion Lannister.  In fact, it is his knowledge of his cousin’s weakness for Queen Cersei’s feminine wiles and his ability to manipulate that awareness that allows him to gain a spy against his scheming sister.

The two sides of motherhood, giving nurturer and ferocious protector, are also on display with the “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys when she is petitioning for entrance to the desert city of Qarth, first pleading that a refusal to admit her people would condemn them to death, then threatening to use her dragons to burn the city to the ground when she is rebuffed.  She is the mother of her clan of ragtag Dothraki as much as Catelyn finds herself mother and counselor not only to the Starks but to the men who would be King (treating the battling brothers Baratheon as if they were her own misbehaving children).  Where her gilded sibling Viserys was an entitled prat cut from the same unearned royal cloth as Joffrey, Dany’s leadership qualities are being forged through fire.

And speaking of fire, there is Melisandre, the enchantress, trying to tempt grizzled old Davos Seaworth with the secrets beneath her robe.  When he finally beholds her stunning (and very pregnant) naked self, the Onion Knight comes face to face with a depiction of the primal fear of all men, what they cannot understand and have never been able to control since the Garden of Eden:  the magical temple of life and sexuality that is the woman’s reproductive system, from which emerges in a Freudian ecstasy of smoke and shadow the darkness and horror that Melisandre had cautioned Renly about earlier.  To see this sheer force step forth and take shape as the sorceress smiles, at once incomprehensible and weirdly compelling, is the final affirmation in an episode already packed with revelations that the women have written the rules of the Game of Thrones, and they are its referees.  For all the talk of the old gods, even Melisandre’s repeated comments about the “Lord of Light,” it is the Goddess, in all her magnificence, elegance, vulnerability, bravery, mystery and cruelty, all her many forms, young and old, beautiful and ugly, wise and foolish, who is running the show.

The human factor: Game Change

Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in Game Change.

When Aaron Sorkin was first developing The West Wing, he was advised repeatedly that shows about politics don’t work.  It’s one of the more interesting ironies that even though pundits are fond of dismissing political machinations as “inside the beltway” minutiae that make no difference to the lives of ordinary people, political stories, whether they are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the President’s Men or JFK, are among the most compelling dramas out there.  Why, might one ask?  There is something Shakespearean in narratives set amidst the pursuit of, or the exercise of high office – they are our latter-day tales of the courts of kings and queens.  In fact, Game of Thrones, HBO’s award-winning fantasy series, wins praise not for its dragons and magic and special effects but for the plights of its very human characters caught up in the drive for political power.  Indeed, “HBO” and “Game” would seem to be a winning combination, as exemplified by the premiere this past weekend of Game Change, the Jay Roach-directed story of the McCain-Palin presidential campaign of 2008.  In today’s climate it’s difficult to put politics aside when looking at a movie like this, but the script (by former Buffy the Vampire Slayer actor-turned-writer Danny Strong, who also wrote Recount) jettisons ideology to a large extent.  You don’t really get the sense from the movie of what McCain and Palin were running on or how they differed from the successful Democratic ticket.  The story focuses instead on what made The West Wing and the best political movies work – the human element.

You don’t have to agree, even slightly, with the positions of John McCain or Sarah Palin to enjoy this movie – you can be the staunchest, conservative-loathing left-winger and still relate to the weary McCain’s fading hopes to be President, the suddenly infamous Palin’s desire to prove herself on a national stage and seasoned advisor Steve Schmidt’s drive to win.  There is an honour to these people when viewed in their private moments (fictionalized as they may be here) and a humanity that we come to realize is stripped away under the lens of 24-hour news coverage, rendering them less people than caricatures defined at the whims of others.  The sublimely talented Julianne Moore is an eerie dead ringer for the infamous Alaskan governor, nailing her look, her movement and her oft-imitated voice, and showing us what made average people gravitate to her in the first place.  It was easy to snicker at Tina Fey’s “I can see Russia from my house” line back in the day; much less so to see the film’s Palin experiencing being pilloried night after night to raucous laughter.  The always watchable Woody Harrelson is excellent as Schmidt, who is instrumental in getting Palin on the ticket over McCain’s initial preference of Joe Lieberman, and who watches like Doctor Frankenstein as his “creation” spirals out of control, only to try and salvage what he can of the party as the campaign begins to go off the rails.  In one of the final scenes, as he angrily tells Palin she will not be allowed to give her own concession speech on election night, he has come full circle, a believer in and defender of the traditions of American democracy, after living the consequences of trying to win through cynical political calculations alone.

Asked by Anderson Cooper at the end whether he would have put Palin on the ticket had he the chance to make a different choice, Schmidt only comments with resignation that in life, you do not get do-overs.  As the real-life Sarah Palin maintains her public presence and muses to the press about jumping into the 2012 Republican race should Mitt Romney not achieve a solid lock on their nomination, the ultimate lesson of Game Change rings loudly – the reason why, contrary to popular (or at least entertainment executive) belief, political stories work.  John McCain, Steve Schmidt and the Republicans looked at Barack Obama’s effect on his supporters and concluded that rock star charisma was enough to win.  What they and the world came to realize in 2008 was that it is not – gravitas matters more.  At its heart Game Change isn’t about wonkery and punditry and polls; what it does is put the lie to the old saw that anyone can be President – or, perhaps more accurately, that anyone should be President.  Some people just aren’t up to the job, and that’s nothing against them.  Sarah Palin certainly wasn’t, and there is a hint of classical Greek tragedy in the tale of a woman given such an enormous opportunity only to see it drift away because of her own failings.  I’m a proud liberal – I cannot condone Palin’s politics, how she conducts her life or how she would choose to impose her worldview on others, but I can empathize with the loss of a dream I didn’t realize I even wanted.  We all can.  That’s why Game Change works, and why it can take its place among the best political stories – because of the human factor.