Friday, June 29, 2012

The Newsroom: HBO and (non)aspirational drama

Aaron Sorkin

I was about halfway through a review of the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new series The Newsroom, which premiered on HBO at the beginning of this week, when I realized I was just basically agreeing with the vast number of reviews out there—essentially, that the show (so far) is typical, tightly-written Sorkin fare, but which has gone unfortunately overboard on the sanctimony, has almost entirely started using straw man arguments, and the worst of his sexist tendencies have come to the fore. For the record, I really, really want to like the show—I love the rapid-fire rhythms of Sorkin’s dialogue and his unapologetic privileging of intelligence and book-learnin’, and The West Wing remains one of my favourite and most frequently rewatched shows—but I do have to agree with most of the criticisms I’ve read (here's a handy round-up) … at this point it feels like he’s repeating himself, and not in a good way. And the now-notorious interview with Sarah Nicole Prickett in last Sunday’s Globe and Mail has focused a lot of anger and snark on Sorkin’s borderline* misogynist arrogance and spawned a Tumblr meme in ironic imitation of Feminist Ryan Gosling.

Also, I’ve been cringing a lot lately over Sorkin’s comments in the media. Prickett’s interview was just the worst of the lot … it feels now as if he’s become a legend in his own mind and has forgotten that the other half of “telling truth to stupid” (one of the worse lines from the pilot) is yourself being receptive and open to new ideas and perspectives, and being always willing to change your mind. The beautifully scripted arguments of The West Wing seem more or less absent in The Newsroom, replaced with people just lecturing each other.

All that being said, I’m still going to watch this season of The Newsroom … I’m keeping my fingers crossed that what I saw is just the early kinks of the series, which will get ironed out as it goes and settles into a better rhythm. There were enough lovely moments—unfortunately overshadowed by the sanctimonious speechifying—to give me hope.

Plus, I just love watching Sam Waterston. He was always the best part of Law & Order. Eyebrow acting like his is a rare thing.

So I won’t review the show beyond that … but it did make me revisit a theme that came up several times in my grad class on HBO this past winter, so I’ll talk about that instead.

But one more observation, which may be neither here nor there. This is Sorkin’s fourth series after Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; what the ill-fated Studio 60 and The Newsroom have in common is that they begin with a moment of crisis and rebellion, in which a broken system is revitalized by an injection of intelligence, doughty contrarianism, and altruism. Significantly, the similar moment on The West Wing didn’t come until episode nineteen in season one, “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” (unfortunately, this video cannot be embedded).

By contrast, both Studio 60 and The Newsroom start with their Let Bartlet be Bartlet moments, which has the effect of setting up rather steep expectations. And while there’s a similar moment in the pilot of Sports Night, it’s rather low key by comparison, and in both of Sorkin’s first two series, he lets us ease into these incredibly busy and bustling worlds without raising the stakes on day one. I’m not saying that Studio 60 failed for that reason specifially, or that The Newsroom is similarly doomed … but it does feel that, having made his televisual reputation creating inspirational and uplifting series, that he cannot think small any more, and feels the need to launch his shows as one would a crusade.

I’ve been mulling over my reaction to The Newsroom all week, and I keep coming back to a pervasive aspect of HBO’s flagship dramas that sort of makes Aaron Sorkin an odd man out there. Let’s be clear: when it was first announced that Sorkin was creating a show for HBO, I rejoiced, as this was something I had long imagined as a marriage made in heaven. I’m now not so sure.

One of the most interesting things about HBO’s programming, specifically in regard to its dramatic series (half-hour comedies like Sex and the City, Entourage, or Curb Your Enthusiasm are a different thing altogether), is that they are overtly non-aspirational—which is to say, they (1) depict people, situations, and work/careers distinct from educational systems and apparatuses and the kind of accreditation that all entails; (2) are, further, overtly critical of the tacit idea that those institutions are an unproblematic path to societal happiness, and (3) reject utopian resolution.

The connection between education and utopia may seem an odd one to make, but I should be clear that “education” here is a cipher, essentially synonymous with upper-middle-class success in accredited professions. When one does a quick rundown of popular television from its inception, working class protagonists and narrative frames are the exception, even if they account for some of the more popular shows (e.g. The Honeymooners, All in the Family, Sanford and Son);* far more common are aspirational workplaces (law firms, television stations, hospitals) or families with professional parents (The Cosby Show, e.g.).

It should be obvious, I hope, that I’m not using the term “utopia” in the sense of a paradisiacal, perfect state/life/existence, but rather as a vague sense of promise and hope, one that tacitly justifies and vindicates the current societal status quo. It is, admittedly, a somewhat fraught distinction—in part because the designation “aspirational” is somewhat vague. Further to my point above: it is rare to encounter mainstream, network television that does not present the viewer with a vaguely utopian sense of possibility. A common skeptical observation about a series like Friends was the impossibility of living in Manhattan with the degree of comfort displayed by people working as, variously, a line chef, a massage therapist, a struggling actor, or a café waitress; even the more prosperous of the group—Ross a tenured professor and Chandler some sort of business professional—should not have been able to afford the lifestyles they had, rent controlled apartment or not.

The implausibility of that, however, was entirely beside the point. Part of the pleasure of the show lay in the very depiction of that lifestyle as an unstated utopian promise.***

By contrast, an even halfhearted viewer of HBO and HBO-like television knows that it reverses this tendency (again, in its dramas—Sex and the City is nothing if not aspirational). Such dramas as The Wire or Deadwood actively resist and frustrate easy narrative closure and the cyclic rhythms of episodic stories. This much has been observed quite frequently and by more astute observers than me. What I find striking however is the way in which this has translated into a shift away from a focus on desirable upper-middle-class careers and professions to predominantly working-class or criminal contexts, in which native intelligence, intuition, and cunning are privileged over accredited training and education.

In other words: no doctors, no lawyers, no captains of industry or business professionals, no scientists, and above all, no happy families. Which is not to say that these people and professions don’t appear on HBO’s dramas—they’re just not the focus of the various shows. So, doctors Gloria Nathan and Jennifer Melfi can plan key roles on Oz or The Sopranos respectively, but in the end the shows are not about them; there are lawyers and judges aplenty on The Wire, as well as politicians and journalists and teachers, but The Wire is no legal drama any more than it is a show about politics or journalism.

"OK, when you say you 'had him whacked,' I'm just going to assume that 'he' is a
weed in your yard."

(It could be argued that The Wire complicates my argument, insofar as it does tend to be more of a workplace drama than the other series I’ve cited, and does feature what in other contexts would be aspirational professions. But these professions are overtly depicted as essentially tribal, less a matter of formal training and education than a set of innate qualities that make you, for example, “good po-lice” or not. In David Simon’s Baltimore, the principal conflict is between those of the first category, from police to politicians to teachers to reporters, and those of the second, who tend to be the ones running things).

Clockwise from top left: Deadwood, Oz, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking
Bad, The Sopranos.

This observation doesn’t hold across the board—there are many exceptions—but the trend is marked enough to give pause, especially when one considers the sheer critical mass of legal and medical dramas, and their pervasive popularity.*** By contrast, such series as The Wire, Deadwood, Oz, The Sopranos, Treme, Carnivale, and, yes, Game of Thrones, as well as such non-HBO offerings as Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy and Justified**** take as their focus cultures and contexts in which education and accreditation are all but irrelevant. Intelligence, by contrast, is highly valued—especially intelligence that allows one to maneuver a shifting landscape of power and allegiances. In many of the shows cited above, the main players are pervasively working class, largely uneducated beyond high school (if that), but possess a native cunning and acuity. An excellent example of what I mean occurs in season three of The Wire (key sequence from 0:30-2:00):

But perhaps the most obvious example of what I mean is Tony Soprano: his rise through the ranks of the mafia has won him all the outward trappings of financial and societal success and allows him to live in an exclusive suburban community. The show is frequently at pains however to point out just how out of place he is there. When we encounter his neighbours, they are all accredited professionals in law, business, or medicine—precisely the kind of people we might expect to see in mainstream network aspirational narratives. They are ill at ease with Tony, both because they know his reputation, but also because he remains a working-class Jersey kid.

"Psychiatry and cunnilingus brought us to this."*

*Note to people who haven't watched The Sopranos: this is a hilarious reference.

There is a fun little irony at work with shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, insofar as they have come to be the television of the liberal intelligentsia, while in substance and content having no use for the educated and professional classes. In my favourite example of how HBO has come to be embraced by intellectuals, an ad in The New Yorker for season five of The Wire featured playwright Tony Kushner gushing about how much he loves the show, saying that “there’s so much to admire, it’s hard to be concise,” essentially giving permission to those who might otherwise be embarrassed to watch television.

By contrast, Aaron Sorkin’s shows (and films) are overtly aspirational—and more than that, they function as liberal intellectual fantasias, utopian depictions of how things would be if we genuinely had the best and the brightest running things. The Newsroom—the first episode, at least, though I’d be very surprised if the rest of the season proves different—is like a distillation of the traits and tendencies of his previous work. Intelligence is the brass ring of the Sorkin world (the Sorkinverse?), but intelligence of a very specific nature: one must be articulate and argumentative, with legions of facts and figures at one’s fingertips, and it must also be intelligence in the service of civic or political high-mindedness.

None of this, I want to hasten to add, is a bad thing in and of itself—certainly, as I’ve said, I love much of Sorkin’s work, and really, I have no issue with liberal utopias on television, certainly not if they’re really well written and acted. Which is one of the reasons why The Newsroom’s first episode was such a disappointment. As mentioned above—and as pointed out in pretty much every review I’ve read so far—The Newsroom doesn’t lack for argument or virtuoso displays of statistical literacy … what it does lack is even the sense of even-handedness that made The West Wing a joy to watch. Which is not to say that The West Wing was fair and balanced (to coin an expression), but it was rarely mean-spirited, and allowed for the principals to be wrong and have their minds changed. Par example:

By contrast, here’s the opening scene from The Newsroom, in which anchor Will McAvoy has his extremely articulate meltdown (the rant starts at 1:36):

To be fair, there’s a lot in this rant to admire, and it certainly articulates the frustration of people on both sides of the political spectrum with no patience for mealy-mouthed platitudes and/or patriotism, and who loathe dogmatic talking points of any political stripe (certainly, Will’s comments on the idiotically reductive use of “freedom” as a catch-all are thoughts I’ve frequently had). But after his rant, he descends into the kind of nostalgic “America was once so great” rhetoric that so desperately needs a whole whack of caveats … “We waged a war on poverty, not poor people (provided they were white)” would be, for example, a key amendment there. McAvoy’s nostalgia—and the show’s—for the days of Edward R. Murrow needs to be tempered with a dollop of awareness of the period’s systemic racism and misogyny.

OK, I’m starting to rehash the show’s early reviews, so I’ll get back to my principal argument. The bottom line, here, is that there is little to differentiate this show (so far) from something Sorkin might have created for network television. About the only difference we note, stylistically, from his previous three series, is the occasional dropping of the f-bomb. Perhaps I’m selective in the series I watch, but I’ve come to expect an awful lot more from HBO. Sorkin at this point seems painfully taken with his own sense of himself as a brilliant writer.

But he ain’t got nothin’ on David Simon. Just sayin’.

*On rereading this post before putting it up, I now think “borderline misogyny” is generous, and puts me in mind of a West Wing line:

BARTLET: “You know that line you’re not supposed to cross with the president?”
CJ: “I’m coming up to it?”
BARTLET: “Look behind you.”

Big sigh.

**The very big exception here is cop shows. See the footnote below for more on that.

***All of this is not, I hope it goes without saying, a hard and fast rule. Exceptions abound, and I’m not even venturing out of the realm of fictional television.

****Again, police procedurals are a slightly different case, as they privilege innate rather than learned intelligence, and field experience rather than education. But they are arguably the most utopian mainstream genre—aspirational not in the sense of offering an improved lifestyle, but in promising to maintain the societal equilibrium necessary for it.

*****A few notable exceptions: the Glenn Close legal drama Damages; Mad Men; HBO’s polygamist drama Big Love; but then, each of these “exceptions” are themselves difficult to unproblematically designate as aspirational shows.

No comments: