Tag Archives: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

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.

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.

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.