Tag Archives: Mad Men

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.

A price above rubies

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) and Christina Hendricks (Joan).

What price does a woman put on her soul?  How blurred is the line between integrity and compromise?

As Puritanical attitudes towards what is acceptable to a television viewing audience have softened, the portrayal of women has evolved as well, with the smiling apron-wearing June Cleaver giving way to ever more complex characters, where what it means to be a woman, in all its wonderful, contradictory glory, is examined on a psychological level – much more deeply than hacky debates on the best make of shoes or how sexually inadequate their partners may be.  Last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman,” after four and a half seasons of examining the ways in which men compromise themselves in pursuit of wealth, sex and power, took its two strongest female characters and forced them to ask themselves what their own price might be.  Joan agreed to an indecent proposal in exchange for a partnership in the company, while the lately taken-for-granted Peggy decided her worth couldn’t be expressed in numbers and chose to walk when that was all she was offered to stay.

The buxom redhead Joan has been described by the show’s creators as man-like in her full command of her sexuality, a beautiful woman who is well aware of the effect she has on those obsessed by mammaries.  To their (and Christina Hendricks’) credit, she has never been portrayed as the kind of vampy temptress such a description usually fits; she isn’t working from the Erica Kane playbook, but rather striving, consistently, to prove herself as the best at her job.  As to her relationships with the men and the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, one will forgive what sounds like a puerile argument when the symbolism of Joan as mother figure is expanded upon.  Even those who have expressed sexual desire for her, whether fulfilled like Roger Sterling or unrequited like Lane Pryce, have found themselves in the position of whimpering babes at her ample breast.  Others, like cardboard husband Greg, have been unable to cope.  (Greg escaped, ironically, to the boys-only army.)  Her relationship with serial womanizer Don is perhaps the most complex of all – ironic that the two best-looking people on the show have never taken it much beyond a brother-sister level.  Don is man enough, in the end, to recognize that Joan agreeing to sleep with a lecherous car dealer in exchange for securing the Jaguar account isn’t the path she should take.  The episode played expectations by staging Don’s last-ditch attempt to change Joan’s mind without revealing until later that it took place well after the deed was done.  Was Joan truly as compromised as most reviewers of this episode tend to believe, or was it a logical progression in her evolution – a conclusion on her part, regardless of what we may think of its validity, that to get where she wants to be, she has to use every talent at her disposal, regardless of the collateral damage to her spirit?  Coincidentally, this week’s Game of Thrones featured a scene where the ruthlessly ambitious Cersei Lannister drunkenly observed to the virginal Sansa Stark that a woman’s greatest weapon lay between her legs.  Has Joan crossed that line now?  Has she decided that being good at what she does is only going to take her so far?  One thing is for certain, in the jubilation that accompanied the announcement of SCDP’s winning the Jaguar account, newly-minted partner Joan was as out of place as a prostitute at a church picnic.  Perhaps inside, that was how she felt.

Peggy, on the other hand, while she has had her share of romances (and one ill-advised fling with Pete Campbell, whose abject disinterest in her since that early episode indicates that she was strictly a novelty to him) is the little chickadee to Joan’s mother hen.  Unlike Joan, she’s never really had the option to full-out Mata Hari lecherous men into helping advance her station in life, and so her drive to prove herself comes more from a place of not having much of a choice otherwise.  She and Joan both find themselves brushing against the glass ceiling, and for Peggy, going down the road suggested by Cersei Lannister is not only unpalatable, but unnecessary.  Peggy’s worth is not tied to her future at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – it is, after all, only one of many companies out there where her talents can be of use, as is quickly proven by her meeting and ultimate decision to go work with Ted Chaough.  When she admits this to her mentor, Don – while incredibly empathetic in his encounter with Joan – cannot reconcile the idea that Peggy’s problem cannot be solved with just more money.  But Peggy is in as much a crisis of spirit as the one faced by Joan.  Oddly enough, Joan’s loyalty to SCDP and its people – her mother’s instinct again – was probably what led her to make the choice she did, the dangling carrot of a partnership aside.  Peggy, by contrast, realizes that to grow as a person she must, in a Buddhist sense, divest herself of her attachment to Don Draper and the old gang.  The little chickadee has to leave the nest.  It is a much healthier decision, and explains the smile on her face as she steps onto the elevator for the last time, with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” playing in the background in a final brushstroke of symbolism.

Proverbs 31:10 says that the worth of a virtuous woman is far above rubies.  Joan let herself be bought, some would say for far less than rubies.  Peggy didn’t.  What is most important, however, is that in the end, the choice was theirs.  They may indeed have a price, but they are going to be the ones to decide what that price is.  These women defined themselves instead of letting men do it for them – a greater achievement in the sexist era in which Mad Men takes place.  They were willing to accept the consequences of that definition, whatever they may be.  And taking absolute charge of one’s destiny is, to risk a cliche, true empowerment.