I’ve decided to shake things up a bit for this week’s post by writing about a television show. Normally and predictably, I take the time to share my thoughts on sort of musical artifact, which is not surprising considering this is a blog dedicated to music. That said, I’d like to try my hand at covering The Newsroom on HBO. So I hope I won’t ruin anyone’s day with an unsolicited rambing.
I’m a bit of a sucker for Aaron Sorkin vehicles. The West Wing, Sports Night, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip have been favorites of mine, so I don’t shy away from admitting that I would gladly watch anything he writes. So I was ecstatic when HBO announced The Newsroom.
The Newsroom fits nicely into the Sorkin mold, and it highlights why I am enamored by his work. Sorkin’s shows succeed beyond the level of people talking fast and walking around doing important things. At his best, his shows feature two defining strengths: the importance of the subject and the value of good work.
The broad subject of his shows (the White House, a sports show, a sketch comedy show or a cable news show) are always celebrated for being integral to American culture. He has a talent for making the world of his shows the most important place to be. Even something like a sports show can be pointed to as being culturally relevant, even though it’s something we may all take for granted. Without a doubt, I have watched PTI more than any show over the last decade, but I would never think of it as “one of my favorite television shows,” like The Wire, Mad Men or Arrested Development. This odd situation is something that was not lost on Sorkin during the run of Sports Night. (Think back to the moment early in the show when the ex-South African prisoner who had his legs broken in torture set the world record for speed walking: it validates the whole reason why I watch sports.)
The value of good work comes out when you consider the basic premise that the subjects he writes about are always institutions with social and political primacy that have somehow lost their way. Sorkin’s heroes are intelligent, motivated and professional folks that manage to take on the powers that be and right the ship on those wayward pillars of American life. Through the combination of a commitment to their job and the idealistic belief that they fix a broken system, his heroes win. They lose in real life, which is why watching The West Wing during the Bush administration was so hard for me. A Washington that is defined by partisan gridlock, a sporting world ruled by thugs and charlatans, or a media enterprise ruled by corporate interests are no match for people doing good work. I’m a sucker for that world.
The Newsroom is not without flaws. Three episodes down, and I am still wondering why certain characters exist or why certain characters do the things they do. But really, the characters are irrelevant. Sorkin’s shows are about atmosphere and institutional change more than the people who cause the change. A good Sorkin show pulls you into the characters, while a “normal,” good show pulls you into the cause through the characters. He always seems to work in reverse.
Again, I have problems. Will McAvoy lives in a box where he is either a short-sighted douche or a visionary. MacKenzie McHale might be the most ridiculous name for a character on television. (Oops: that honor went to Sloan Sabbith in the second episode) I can’t see why Don Keefer is on the show any more, other than being an awkward foil. These are small problems.
My big problem is that it feels cheap to set the show two years ago. The Newsroom is a painfully necessary critique on American journalism, but the move to the immediate past does nothing more than allow Sorkin to paint the picture perfectly. The Deepwater Horizon spill, Arizona immigration legislation and the Tea Party movement have all been covered with the benefit of hindsight. That’s great, but it seems like a shortcut, and it plays into the age-old criticism that Sorkin writes only the arguments that he can win. I would much rather see the show exist as a counterpoint for stories that have more immediate relevance.
But still, I am a sucker for a world where you could sit down and watch the news without the ridiculous slant of corporate ideology. If nothing else, it gives me both a show to watch now that Game of Thrones is over and a way to feel semi-intelligent after watching True Blood.