Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Watching an Aaron Sorkin show is like having a waiter tell you with a straight face there are no bathrooms at this restaurant before finally curling into a smile. Yep, you got me, now can I go pee? The Newsroom represents a fantasy, how a news organization could operate under an ideal confluence of contacts, research, and trust. But after that opening tirade, where Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy bellows about how America isn’t the greatest country in the world anymore but it could be, it’s hard not to think of The Newsroom as prescriptive. And I can’t think of many people mistaken for intelligent that I’d less like to hear fix America than Aaron Sorkin.
I’ve never liked Sorkin’s television, not even Sports Night. For starters, it galls me that such an obvious conduit of received middlebrow wisdom can package his half-considered, common-sense, moderate-liberalism in office politics and be taken seriously. Battlestar Galactica and Arrested Development deal more seriously and more entertainingly with American politics than anything I’ve seen on The West Wing, and somehow these genre shows do it without the smug lecture. Every day people point me toward thoughtful, exciting editorials, but Sorkin’s still playing with talking points anyone with a brain has already confronted. America isn’t the only country with freedom? Public arts funding seems wasteful? Tell us more, o wise one.
Even taken as an ideal workplace visionary, Sorkin worships power like a puppy dog does his master. Just look at the markers of his banter: straight-faced repetition, people correcting each other, haggling over semantics, refusing to play along, one-upmanship. It’s an entire system of humor predicated on superiority. There is no give, no cooperation, the better to freight that final act pat on the shoulder with meaning. Everyone is as withholding as hero Will McAvoy—whose arrogance is treated as a funny quirk rather than a serious flaw—when they’re mired in Sorkinese. This isn’t the communal spirit of “Yes And” but the individualistic “No Period.” Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg is a tragic hero (who, speaking of Capra, winds up the opposite of George Bailey), but all his jokes are about being the smartest guy in the room. Sorkin eats that up, can't get enough of assholes comparing measurements. The walk-and-talk is all about power. One person has something so urgent and important that he can’t be bothered to stop and listen, so the other person tags along. They don't have to look at each other. If they stop, it’s only because the leader decides to. It's the directorial version of a power tie. Aaron Sorkin learned the wrong lesson from 30 Rock. Jack Donaghy is a cartoon, not a role model.
Essentially, Sorkin’s great society lacks humility. Here are some of the things that impress Sorkin in the premiere of The Newsroom: power, name-dropping, IQ, awards, pedantic displays of knowledge, literary quotes. Give it a week and we’ll probably bump up against Sorkin’s favorite pastime, discussing SAT scores, not that Sorkin understands his holy text. Josh Lyman talks about a “760 SAT word” and Matt Albie wrote a line about legacy being “a 480 SAT word.” That’s not remotely how it works—you don’t get a fifth of the way to a perfect score by knowing what “legacy” means—but I guess it sounds good. And people say "pretentious" has lost its meaning. Sorkin is impressed by these institutional markers of power and has no idea how empty they are, like an old-money kid jockeying for position at prep school. He still thinks it’s cool to be the scion of Margaret Thatcher’s ambassador, that it’s some kind of cred to be related to a statesman, and not just any statesman, but one with some kind of influence during the Reagan-Thatcher era. This is the guy paving the road ahead?
Of course not. Sorkin as much as says the way forward is backward—can you imagine what David Simon would make of such a phrase?—back to a time when “we acted like men” and “we didn’t scare so easy.” Where’s John Stossel when you need him? This is what I mean about Sorkin’s superficiality. That historical romanticism is a conservative meme that comes with its own pre-packaged liberal counterattacks. Yep, it was right neighborly to segregate water fountains. I thought we had all moved past this. Next week, some Sorkin creation will declaim about the sanctity of marriage, and another will parry with facts about interracial marriage laws. These are such old conversations that I’m boring myself. It's true that The Newsroom aspires to populism—notwithstanding its location on a pay-cable network—but if you really want to speak truth to stupid, why settle for rebutting your aunt's forwarded e-mails? Let’s not even get into Will McAvoy’s chivalry (“I want you to not use that language in front of women”), another uncomplicated, folksy ideal of a time gone by, back when you could call an Indian kid "Punjab" in good fun. Why can’t Sorkin just join an Elks lodge and leave us out of it?
There’s this lovely ad hominem meme that Sorkin “haters” criticize out of deflection, that his sanctimony is all the more bristling to the sanctimonious, just like Michael Moore. Frankly, I would love Sorkin’s sanctimony if he had anything interesting to say. The 20 minutes of intense newsroom drama, from around the time producer Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.) takes his intel to Will to the end of the newscast, are an exciting fantasy. It's easily enough to keep me watching, even if Greg Mottola and Thomas Newman set the precedent for a style as worshipful of powerful men as Sorkin’s writing. Speaking of which, I don’t think Sorkin’s so obtuse he doesn’t realize Jim is a tacit counterpoint to Will’s “Worst. Generation. Ever.” speech. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jim saves the day through the kind of old-fashioned work that would appeal to men like Will McAvoy and Aaron Sorkin. I guess he's one of the good ones.
Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 3:34 AM