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“HBO is paying him millions to dramatize blog posts from two years ago.”

[ 72 ] July 20, 2012 |

Emily Nussbaum’s instant-classic review of The Newsroom said something really terrifying: it claimed the show got worse in its 3rd and 4th episodes. Sadly, she was right. The third episode, in particular, was everything the least optimistic Sorkin critic could have imagined — consisting almost entirely of Jeff Daniels following up yet another Network-style rant by lecturing conservative guests who can never come up with a decent response to the rejected drafts of Frank Rich columns the allegedly brilliant host reads them. In fairness, this is occasionally broken up by pro forma romantic subplots that are if anything more boring than listening to Daniels tell you things that you either already know or are transparently silly (Sorkin seems to think that the Tea Party consisting of conservative Republicans expressing conservative Republican ideas is a recent development.) Sorkin has fired most of the writers, although it’s not clear that they have anything to do.

One good thing about the show being so bad that Sorkin has made Pareene’s hack list.  Parenne is particularly good on perhaps the biggest underlying problem with the show — Sorkin’s windy pontificating about the Real News that Will Save America is followed up by his dramatization of what he thinks this should consist of. And it turns out that he doesn’t even mean deep reporting or reporting stories that aren’t getting enough attention, but…moderate commentary about the most over-discussed issues of the day that’s similar to, but not as good as, the evening MSNBC shows:

The thing with “The West Wing” is that the fantasy was legitimately better than the reality — these were smarter, better people than their real-life counterparts, working together at a better White House than the one we had. The problem with “The Newsroom” — and it was also the problem with “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” Sorkin’s truly bizarre show about brilliant heroic men creating an epically unfunny and preachy version of “Saturday Night Live” — is that the supposed better alternative it presents is patently inferior to the real thing. The revamped “News Night” is a mess, hosted by a man who combines an exaggerated version of Olbermann’s self-importance with Scarborough’s smugness. And he spends a lot of time shouting at Republican candidates and, for some reason, talking about Sarah Palin. (So I guess it’s “Hardball”?)

Even worse, the fourth episode leans particularly heavily on the fact that our newsman hero is a nominal Republican. It’s like Fox News announcing that it was going to have a Democrat Party Hour and then making Zell Miller and Pat Caddell the hosts, only I don’t think Fox would be oblivious to the derision this would provoke from actual Democrats. He also attacks other people’s hobbies in a manner that also doubles down on the rank misogyny of the first episodes as our hero rails against “bitches” and “old ladies with hair driers on our heads.” (Sorkin can’t even get his masculinist snobbery right — his date’s cosmo is substantially more defensible than the vodka martini [sic] Daniels assures his boss that he ordered.)

As I said last time, if you’re going to have a show that consists mostly of (excellent) actors reading speeches, they really need to be a lot smarter.

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  1. Erik Loomis says:

    It really should be required to include a [sic] after any pairing of the words “vodka” and “martini.”

    • Kurzleg says:

      I don’t understand the vodka martini thing. IMO, gin has much more to offer. Is it just a nod back to James Bond or something?

    • Murc says:

      The vodka martini is a perfectly cromulent drink. Vodka pairs well with vermouth and a proper lemon garnish works great to finish it off.

      What ISN’T perfectly cromulent is the way that many bartenders these days take ‘martini’ to mean ‘a glass full of vodka with an olive in it.’ Asking for a martini, unmodified, should produce something with gin and vermouth. Asking for a vodka martini should STILL get you something with vermouth in it.

      • KadeKo says:

        …or, to get even worse the “a martini is anything poured into a conical stemmed glass”. (Apologies in advance to your drinking sensibilities.)

      • Kurzleg says:

        I guess I prefer the aromatics and mouth feel of most gin over any vodka I’ve tried (Grey Goose, for instance).

        • Murc says:

          Which is perfectly fine. But that preference doesn’t make the vodka martini an abomination.

          Now, things like appletinis and whatnot, THOSE are awful. I’ve got no particular objection to drinks that are composed of “vodka + flavored mixture.” I’ve had some excellent times drunk on lemondrops, for example. But diluting the common meaning of a classic American cocktail is shameful. A martini has vermouth and gin in it. A vodka martini has vermouth and vodka in it. Both are garnished with olives or some sort of expertly expressed citrus peel.

          A drink served in a glass with a bendy stem, a sugared rim, and composed of vodka and flavored sugar mixture is not a martini. It might be a great drink. (I am someone who has, in the past, walked into bars and demanded to be served “the girliest drink you have.” I have done this non-ironically.) But it isn’t a martini.

          • Kurzleg says:

            I don’t have a problem with a vodka martini as a legitimate cocktail. I was just responding to the notion that the “vodka martini” signifies something of an import as used in film and tv other than, as you note, a personal preference.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      How to actually make a Martini (and remember to store your vermouth in the refridgerator and to buy a small enough bottle to get through it in a reasonable amount of time…that stuff goes bad).

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Small enough bottle? Speak for yourself, mine doesn’t stick around long enough to go bad.

        • firefall says:

          I think a small bottle is essential – it lets you know when to stop drinking that night.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          Nor does mine. But I like vermouth in all kinds of ways (even just over ice). I have martini-drinking friends who have unrefridgerated bottles of dry vermouth that are literally years old. Of course, they are of the tiny-drop-of-vermouth school (which is why the bottle of vermouth lasts so long), so it doesn’t much matter. They’re basically just drinking chilled gin (Hendrick’s, btw, which is a nice enough drink by itself).

  2. montag says:

    Maybe this is a simply a trait of Sorkin (I’ve only seen snippets of “The West Wing”), but the single most irritating feature of “The Newsroom” is that I’m supposed to think these characters are hip and intelligent because they talk so damned fast.

    Perhaps I come from a bygone age, but my lifelong impression is that people who talk too damned fast, like used car salesmen, are trying to sell me something I really don’t need, don’t want, or that will end up harming me in some way. Sorkin seems to think that dialogue is somehow better when it’s speeded up enough to resemble projectile vomiting.

    For that alone, he ought to be sentenced to watch a loop of Beckett’s plays for a minimum of three years. The man has no understanding of the concept of economy of words.

    Would his dialogue become good if there were less of it? Maybe not, but at least it would be less awful, simply because there would be less of it.

    • vacuumslayer says:

      You hit it on the head, montag. It’s the damn cadence of the show that gets to you after about, oh, 30 seconds. It has the same cadence of a screwball comedy from the classic film era, but is neither funny nor charming. And every line seems to announce to the audience: “CLEVERNESS, BITCHES! RECOGNIZE!” It’s pretty hard to take.

      • vacuumslayer says:

        Adding, I guess that’s one of the reasons I like the show “True Blood;” I just get the feeling the writers are having fun and not taking themselves seriously at all. That attitude shows up on the screen and it makes the show a hoot to watch.

      • rickhavoc says:

        His Girl Friday being the antidote.

        • Ed says:

          His Girl Friday

          is rather worse – like a bunch of woodpeckers going at each other. I realize that’s a minority opinion. Also, Rosalind Russell’s career-girl outfits are horrifying.

          I’ve seen a couple of those other series that Nussbaum praised and they’re tougher going than The Newsroom.

          There’s plenty to criticize, but I think the device of placing the series a few years back in time and using real stories makes sense. For a show like Sports Night it’s not that hard to come up with fake sports stories but concocting lots of fake news stories is a dicier proposition.

          • rickhavoc says:

            More woodpeckers then. I have yet to meet one that looks at us and thinks “if only…”?

            Re Hildy’s hat, period fashion is always wrong.

            • vacuumslayer says:

              Now, you’re just bein’ mean.

              The fashions from the early 30′s to the early 70′s were often pretty fabulous.

              The less said about the late 70′s and the 80′s, the better.

              • Ed says:

                I didn’t mean to hate on 30s/40s fashion. Russell’s HGF suits are just noisy examples of same. (Hawks said he wanted something flashy and he got it.) Grant doesn’t look so happy in a trilby, either.

          • Warren Terra says:

            Having them respond to real events as bit players and with no Mission To Save The World would make sense. Once they’re world-bestriding titans with superhuman powers of perception and insight, in fact aided by years of perspective and the work of thousands of actual people, it becomes far worse.

            In fact, it’s automatically self-defeating: if these people are so brilliant and speak such truth, but have to follow the timeline of a world where no such paragons existed, they’re automatically ineffective blowhards.

  3. Julian says:

    I suspect the vodka martini is the butchest drink to Sorkin because of James Bond.

  4. david mizner says:

    Agree entirely. But will someone explain to me why I keep watching it.

  5. Ken Cox says:

    As I said last time, if you’re going to have a show that consists mostly of (excellent) actors reading speeches, they really need to be a lot smarter.

    I would watch a show that was actors reading great historical speeches. Morgan Freeman does Frederick Douglass, Helen Mirren does Susan B. Anthony, that sort of thing.

    But you’re right, I can pick up tirades against the evil of the Koch brothers (or George Soros) on any browser.

  6. Kurzleg says:

    The funny thing is that Jeff Daniels expressly cites Sorkin’s great writing in a recent Onion AV Club interview. I’d like to think that Jeff Daniels has good taste in writing, but this gives me pause.

    • Murc says:

      An actor spoke favorably of the new show, still in its infancy, that he has a starring role in?

      I’m shocked.

      • Kurzleg says:

        The question for me is whether or not Daniels truly believes this. I get the feeling he does because otherwise he would have had a more vague, generic response rather than a specific one about the writing. But yeah, I recognize that actors talk up their own shows and try to stay on the good side of the people hiring them.

        • matt says:

          It’s not just that he wants to stay on the good side of the producers: he is probably contractually obligated to go out and give interviews about how great this stuff is. Do you remember when Katherine Heigel trashed “Knocked Up” after it came out? She got roasted pretty good (and then did the same for her show a year or two later) and it really hurt her career.

          Daniels is a pretty good writer himself and I doubt that he loves everything he has to say, but he’s a nice guy and a team player.

        • Ed says:

          I expect that Daniels means it. Actors tend to appreciate Sorkin’s work for what I’d think would be obvious reasons and even second rate Sorkin is better than a lot of the writing that’s a jobbing actor’s daily bread.

  7. The Washington Generals says:

    Yes, but what of the recent WWE Raw vs. Smackdown plotlines?

  8. Clarence says:

    I think they would have done better to go the other direction. Make the show about a vacuous, tyrannical anchor of a pointless news show. The preachiness and the examples of a well-done news show could then be suppliied in the form of the competition. They wouldn’t need to supply a constant stream of quality which was also entertaining.

    It would be a much more entertaining show, and it would be much easier to write.

  9. John says:

    Having avoided the show and then watched Episode 4 with my father last night, all the criticisms are pretty clearly right on – Sorkin is not as smart as he thinks he is, I felt like I’d seen the show two dozen times before, and the politics are idiotic and obnoxious. And yet, I was entertained throughout. The show is completely risible in terms of content, but I’m apparently a sucker for the trappings of Sorkinianism. I now think less of myself.

  10. Are we getting a new post on this topic every time you remember you really don’t like the new Sorkin show?

    Just wondering.

  11. Murc says:

    Sorkin just really needs to go back to his roots.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; people weren’t watching the West Wing because of its incisive political commentary, although it did sometimes achieve that. They were watching it for the dramatic interplay between the characters in the inherently interesting high-stakes environment of the White House.

    There were a number of sub-plots that basically boiled down to “this person fucked up an important piece of legislation in front of people whose respect and approval means the world to them. Let’s watch the fallout!”

    And, you know, nothing wrong with that. The show was actually at its weakest when it tried to hammer home a point. If Sorkin were writing West Wing today, based on Studio 60 and Newsroom, it would involve Bartlet addressing a joint session or CJ in the briefing room yelling at reporters for like half of every episode, with the other half being self-congratulatory twaddle.

    Sorkin needs either an editor or to just forget about the social commentary. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind watching him make a sitcom. He has the chops to make a half-hour dialogue driven comedy work, supported by the proper team.

  12. KadeKo says:

    Kudos for the telling detail of prefiguring that Fox’s “reach across the aisle” would include a show labeled “Democrat Party Hour”.

    • Kurzleg says:

      I seriously can’t believe they haven’t already done this as an exercise in moving the Overton window even more.

    • Murc says:

      What makes me wince is that I’ve started encountering perfectly polite people who actually do not know that it is “Democratic Party.”

      They are happy to start using the term properly once I explain to them that this is how we self-identify, how we have for close to 200 years, and it would be pretty silly if I called it “the Republic Party,” but the fact remains that they had no idea.

      Shit’s insidious.

      • skippy says:

        better than your “republic” example, ask your friends how it would sound to use the noun “jew” in place of the adjective “jewish.”

        eg: sounds like some kind of jew agenda to me, saxby!

        • Murc says:

          For my friends, that would work.

          I… have a couple aging relatives who don’t understand why it’s no longer cool to use “jew” like that anyway, so on them, not so much.

  13. DanMulligan says:

    I can see why you would dislike it although your venom is hard to fathom. But, before you trash it completely can you point to another show taking on the Koch brothers, in any way?

  14. Trevor Austin says:

    Sam Watterson is fun to watch on the show. I would watch the Sam-Watterson-is-a-drunk-television-exec show for a half hour every week.

    The problem with Studio 60 and Newsroom is that the shows are full of Sorkin People [1], who can be fun to watch and listen to, but they’re stuck doing non-important things and doing them badly. Sorkin people belong in the White House or on the bridge of the Enterprise.

    I would watch the hell out of a Sorkin-helmed Trek about an iconoclastic captain fighting to live up to the values of an increasingly sclerotic Federation a couple hundred years after TNG.

    [1] c.f. Tawin’s account of Cooper People: http://www.llumina.com/mark_twain_on_cooper.htm)

    • Hogan says:

      The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people’s mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man’s mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

  15. cpinva says:

    re: vodka vs gin.

    if you’re really that much into self-abuse, just drink the squeezings from a can of sterno, same difference. the problem with both spirits is that, regardless of the quality of both ingredients and distilling process, at the end of the day you’re still left with vodka & gin.

    • Murc says:

      I don’t really drink either straight, but they’re great as mixers. And if your only goal is to get drunk as quickly and painlessly as possible, you could do a lot worse than vodka, which will get you there with a minimum of throat, mouth, and nose searing.

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