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.