Coming back to The Newsroom after another couple of episodes, I’m going to have a go at thinking about the ‘kind’ of TV show The Newsroom wants to be.
I say ‘have a go’ because aesthetics, which this sort of falls into, is a complex philosophical area, and I do not have a complex philoshical background. Also, there’s still a lot of TV I’ve not seen, and I’m going to have to reference shows like The Wire from reading knowledge because I’ve not watched them. And finally, I’m tired. I keep trying to prod at my computer screen like it’s an iPad (and the laptop mouse is being a pest).*
There are plenty of shows that commentate on the real world – and they do it in different ways. Some dig in and go for gritty, willing to live in the morally grey with flawed characters and difficult questions. I’m thinking of shows like Battlestar Galactica – or, by all accounts The Wire. Dollhouse sort-of lives here, but not in quite the same way, because it also sort of lives in the more meta, pop-cultural commentating bit of the spectrum, along with Buffy and things like The OC. They often skew to a younger audience. In Britain we do acerbic, almost parodic, commentary in The Day Today, Drop the Dead Donkey and Thick of It.
And then there’s Sorkin’s shows. Perhaps it’s telling that I can’t think of anything else to bracket them with. Perhaps no-one else is trying to write television like he is.
Sorkin writes rhetoric that sweeps you up and takes you with it, not shows that make you dig in and fight with them. And that’s how he engages. (He also makes you laugh – but the comedy is rarely where he’s making the big point). And a lot of people – especially critics-y people – think that the best kind of television is the gritty kind. There are, apparently, people who will always say that the Wire and BSG are just better than The West Wing, and they’re not necessarily wrong (OK, they’re wrong) – but in part that is a matter of taste. I happen to like rhetoric and I am willing to buy into it. I would really like to just *like* The Newsroom, and put it down to my taste in style. But I don’t think I can.
I think that, like many critics have said, booth news and the current media environment are more complex than The Newsroom lets on – but then, I don’t necessarily object to TV presenting an ideal. Late night sports shows aren’t like Sportsnight, and politics is definitely not like The West Wing, but I quite like having an ideal to inspire and fight for. I’d be willing to watch The Newsroom for that – and I probably will. But it’s not unproblematic to not engage with the real world – and The Newsroom at times seems to be hiding from it, or trying to rewrite it (and yes, I am going to direct you to read Alyssa Rosenberg on that subject).
Currently, for example, I’m watching a scene in which Neal (Dev Patel) and Jim (Peter Gallagher Jr) are discussing whether or not Wikileaks is a major story (this show is starting its story in 2010) – and Neal, who thinks it is, has just been dismissed as a geek who is doing the news ‘wrong’. And who has just driven away girls by talking about the internet.
Sorkin apparently dislikes the internet (he was pretty scathing about things like facebook when promoting The Social Network) and what has been called the ‘gawkerisation of the news’ – but the opiniated, shaping the debate kind of news that the internet can and does do – especially the stuff that calls some of the TV networks on their bull – is almost exactly what Mackenzie is advocating, what Will starts to buy into, and what Sorkin seems to be pushing for. If Sorkin were talking about the dangers of the 24 hour newscycle, then he might have a point in debating the role of the internet from a negative position, but he’s not. And in moving to giving Will an opinion, he’s joining in the polarisation he seems so worried about. It is surely possible to be civil, and incisive, shaping the debate without becoming polarising and partisan – but I think Sorkin might be miswriting what that looks like.
And that would be fine. That would be totally legitimate and I could just disagree with his point of view – if he wrote it well.
They say you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. In real politics we like the poetry and are disillusioned by the prose. In TV it seems we like the prose, because it’s ‘real’, and dislike the poetry, because it’s shallow. I don’t think that’s true – neither poetry nor rhetoric are inherently shallow. Written well, both can be incredibly thoughtful and/or provocative. Sportsnight and Studio 60 were good poetry. The West Wing was great poetry. But The Newsroom. It’s not doggerel, by any means, but it is fairly mediocre.
It’s problem is that it’s preachy. It’s speechifying, and the speeches come thick and fast all the way through. There’s less build up, less relaxation, less world, less ‘real characterisation’. It is, perhaps, more like a Greek drama, where everything is compressed and everything matters. But a television series is a different media, and it doesn’t tell good, engaging stories that way. There has to be downtime, otherwise you just end up feeling like you’re being hit over the head by the writer with a big stick.
Sorkin might be a great writer, and he might have a lot to say on this issue. And on some level, dislike for The Newsroom might be about taste. But some of it that taste is a taste for not being scolded and pummelled for not agreeing with the writer. Sorry Aaron – I know this matters a lot to you, I can tell, you’re being an arse about it – but you have got to trust your characters and your world more than this, and your audience as well. Come back to subtlety. It is your friend.
* And then the browser crashed and ate the first draft. Really, this was better written, an hour ago…