Tag Archives: The Social Network

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.

My kingdom for a good m-m-movie

Few can disagree that 2011 was a forgettable year for movies.  One is reminded of the 1994 baseball season, which, owing to a crippling strike, was the first without a World Series.  You almost wish that the Academy Awards could skip a year themselves.  A rule change a few years ago expanded the field of Best Picture nominees from five to ten, and this past year, the Academy couldn’t even gather ten films worthy of the top honour – settling instead for nine.  And none truly captured imaginations and inspired the affections of millions, or infected the zeitgeist like famous films gone by; the closest contender is The Artist, whose primary selling point is that it’s a silent movie done in the style of the 1920’s – an exercise in Hollywood nostalgia (or navel-gazing if one wants to be cynical about it), and appealing most to old show business insiders heartsick for the halcyon days of Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer.  As a prime example of how low 2011 set the bar, the highlights of one of the performances nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids) is the character defecating into a sink.  The Simpsons has a great word to express the apex of being unimpressed:  for lack of a term more in the mode of the Queen’s English, 2011 in film was simply meh. 

But this isn’t the place to whinge about how Hollywood never makes anything good anymore, because I don’t believe that’s necessarily true.  They just seemed like they were having an off year – maybe they were depressed after the triumph of the Tea Party in the mid-term elections.  2010 offered some fantastic entries, including two personal favourites – The Social Network and The King’s Speech.  Both were masterfully written, impeccably acted and crisply directed, and both were essentially about a shy and retiring person finding his voice (metaphorically in the former, literally in the latter) and forcing the world to hear it.  It remained an open question up until Oscar night which of the two would emerge on top – ultimately the Academy opted for the movie with the more endearing protagonist, and The King’s Speech was thus crowned (interesting trivia note, it was the second movie in a row to win Best Picture featuring a performance by Australian actor Guy Pearce, after The Hurt Locker in 2009, even though in that one he gets killed in the first five minutes).

Visually, The King’s Speech is not as interesting as The Social Network, with its digital trickery in the portrayal of the Winklevoss twins by a single actor and the use of tilt-shift photography in a regatta sequence.  Many of the shots in The King’s Speech are quite simple – medium and close-ups of the characters, slightly off-centre to indicate their lack of comfort in their surroundings and with others.  But you cannot take your eyes away from the screen, because the performances and the writing hold you like a vise.  As much praise as Colin Firth deserves for his role as King George VI, with his commendable choice not to overact the King’s infamous stammer and thus render it cartoonish, for me the real joy in the movie is Geoffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue.  I have decided that Rush is one of those actors I can watch in anything.  As much as everyone raved about Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Rush was the unsung star of that film, creating a complex character despite a thin script with just the right smattering of Robert Newton thrown in.  Rush can even elevate dreck like Mystery Men with his presence.  Indeed, without Rush, The King’s Speech never would have been made – in a breach of protocol, the script was dropped off at his home without going through his agent first, but Rush loved what he read enough to get things moving.

As mentioned previously, The King’s Speech and The Social Network are both masterpieces of screenwriting (indeed, they both won Oscars for their writers), but for very different reasons.  The Social Network is Aaron Sorkin through and through; the cadences and references used by each character belong to that unique universe of his creation.  David Seidler’s dialogue in The King’s Speech is equally remarkable, but for a different reason – how understated it is.  Although regular readers know I admire Sorkin greatly, sometimes it’s difficult to imagine any real person speaking the way he writes them – people aren’t that quick, witty, off-the-cuff or as complex in the iterations of their arguments.  By contrast, there is wit and sharpness in the words of The King’s Speech, but amazing economy as well – the script is a mere 90 pages and very little was excised in the final cut.  The wit and personality of the players seems more natural; there is less sense of the screenwriter typing the lines.  Seidler is letting the characters speak, he is not forcing his words into their mouths.  For a movie about finding one’s voice, this choice is not only appropriate but adds to the realism of the story and deepens its emotional resonance.  They say as much as, and only, what is needed.  And the richness of what they do say makes you want to go back and watch the movie again and again.  If it happens to be airing on any given day, I am compelled to sit and watch the whole thing – and I still smile when dear Bertie pulls it off in the end.

So far, 2012 does look to hold more cinematic promise – we have The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit and Skyfall all due to hit screens before the year is out.  Perhaps we can consider 2012 to be 2011’s mulligan, its do-over.  I’m hopeful as always, every time I sit back in the theatre and the lights go down, that I’m about to see the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.  Sometimes, like with The King’s Speech, I come pretty darned close to thinking just that.