Tag Archives: john wells

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.

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.