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The Newsroom, the Horror

[ 186 ] July 6, 2012 |

When I saw the persuasive bad reviews from Emily Nussbaum and Willa Paskin, I knew I was probably going to have to watch The Newsroom so I could judge for myself.  And yet, as a longtime Sorikn-on-TV detractor, as more critics expressed doubts about the Newsroom I saw the potential for a Phantom Menace effect here — that is, a follow-up taking more criticism its deserved from critics who overrated the previous one even though the follow-up was if anything a modest improvement.    As hard as it is to believe, the now almost universally (and correctly!) derided Studio 60 got rapturous reviews when it premiered.   So, hey, maybe it would be a little better than I expected — while insanely overrated, after all, The West Wing was OK at its best.   And Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterston — how unwatchable can that cast be?

Any optimism I had has dashed after the first scene of episode 1.   As you may know, even if you haven’t seen it yet, it starts out with the newsman hero played by Jeff Daniels being annoyed by the wingnut to his right and the moderate Democrat to his left with whom he agrees about pretty much everything but is a Democrat and therefore uncool, and then going into a tirade when provoked by a silly question from a “sorority sister” (more about this in a bit.)    One scene in, and we already have almost everything that makes this show so far an utter catastrophe:

  • If self-plagiarism was a crime, Sorkin would be doing 25-to-life. This is the second straight show Sorkin has started by having a character go off on a hackneyed Peter Finch-in-Network style rant/manifesto.   So you won’t be surprised to learn that the character Sorkin will be speaking through is yet another fantasy liberal Republican, who will make the moderate contrarian Democratic cliches Sorkin favors seem more…proactive.     And, yes, he will have had a complex yet uninteresting romantic backstory with the new producer.   And you’d better believe that the basic structure of covering slightly stale current events leads to plenty of Sorkin’s trademark, people reading B+ junior high school civics essays to each other.  Admittedly, the problem here is not so much that Sorkin is repeating himself as that none of these ideas was even worth doing once.
  • The only thing worse than relentless didacticism is bad didacticism. A fundamental problem of Studio 60 was that the premise of the show was that the returning writer/producers were cutting-edge comic geniuses, which was problematic given that the sketches these writers produced were both painfully unfunny and about as cutting-edge as Marmaduke. With The Newsroom, the problem is even worse.   When your characters keep insisting on the brilliance of the central character the basic structure of the show also insists on — so much better than the airhead beauty pageant contestants and “sorority sisters” the great man is forced to deal with —he’d better be saying intelligent things.   Instead, the opening tirade is the worst kind of Tom Friedman-style middlebrow horseshit. America is no longer #1, you see  — not like in the Good Old Days of apartheid and women finishing 3rd in their classes at Stanford Law and being considered unfit for anything but secretarial work.   And if we’re going to get back to the era of Joe McCarthy and Jim Crow when America really was great, we’re going to need a competent middlebrow newscast, dammit.   If you replaced Daniels with Jeffrey Tambor, this scene could be the premise for a much better show — a deliciously mean sendup of a vacuous, narcissistic centrist pundit.  But it’s apparently meant to be taken straight.

In other words, the bad ideas and the disastrous aesthetic choices have interactive effects that make them more annoying.   The role of the hero broadcaster is to “speak truth to stupid,” and that certainly seems to be how Sorkin sees his job.   He doesn’t take the slightest chance that the audience will miss something he’s already spoonfed it several times.  It’s not enough that Sorkin gives is two African-American characters — one whose only role is to be an uninteresting Obama critic, one whose only role is to respond by defending Obama uninterestingly — he had the hero tell you this about these one-dimensional characters in advance.   A cell phone mishap is telegraphed far in advance like an 80s sitcom.   And the misogyny!   Our would-be hero has no idea if the questioner is a “sorority sister” (which he means pejoratively), but it’s just some college chick asking the Great Man a silly question, and she certainly can’t expect to get any respect.    The women he works with, who a re frequently hysterical ninnies, fare little better.

David Denby’s defense of the show implies that people just can’t handle the intelligence and wit, which is certainly getting the message.   But smart and witty is precisely what the show is not.   As Nussbaum says:

Sorkin is often presented as one of the auteurs of modern television, an innovator and an original voice. But he’s more logically placed in a school of showrunners who favor patterspeak, point-counterpoint, and dialogue-driven tributes to the era of screwball romance. Some of this banter is intelligent; just as often, however, it’s artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter…Sorkin is supposed to be on a different level from his peers: longer words, worldlier topics. And many viewers clearly buy into this idea: years after Sorkin’s terrible, fascinating “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was cancelled, I still occasionally run into someone who insists that Americans were just too stupid to get it.

As Dan Rather might put it, that dog won’t hunt. Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV. The shows’ air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what’s inside—all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, “The Newsroom” treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid. Characters describe events we’ve just witnessed.

The “intelligence” in the dialogue is a dumb person’s idea of what intelligence is.  Characters prove they’re extremely smart by having memorized lists of facts and recycling the tritest sections of Richard Cohen columns.   The show won’t bring back the America that never existed, and it’s not entertaining on its own terms either.

Comments (186)

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  1. mark f says:

    If you replaced Daniels with Jeffrey Tambor, this scene could be the premise for a much better show

    To be fair, “If you replaced any actor in any given show with Jeffrey Tambor, it could be the premise for a much better show” is pretty close to being true as a matter of general principle.

  2. NonyNony says:

    If you replaced Daniels with Jeffrey Tambor, this scene could be the premise for a much better show — a deliciously mean sendup of a vacuous, narcissistic centrist pundit.

    Oh. My. Grod.

    Someone get this show into production. RIGHT FUCKING NOW!

  3. Dana says:

    I think this is mostly spot on. By “Sorkin-on-TV detractor,” it sounds like you think more of his movies[?]. I’d agree with that too.

    I thought the strangest thing about the so-called sorority girl rant was the idea that America’s youth are the problem–”Worst Period Generation Period Ever Period” or however you write that dialogue out. I mean, at the core of America’s problems is going on 40 years or so of selling off society to the corporate sector. The so-called millennials are the first generation in a while that seem disposed to understand the benefits of public investment, or a least a communitarian impulse. In any case, they haven’t had a chance to do anything at all yet–they’re just in their teens and twenties–but somehow they’re to blame for everything that’s “wrong” with America? This is the “truth” our “hero” speaks? The jumping off point for the entire show?

    • Justin Morton says:

      This.

      Young people are always ruining the world. Always.

    • This brings up an interesting thought experiment. It will be interesting to see how Sorkin handles the most objectively important news issue of the past four years, which is how the political economy of America is so obviously screwed up.

      If Jeff Daniels’ character were a serious person and the show’s outlook weren’t complete crap, they would hammer home the criminal fraud mortgage practices, the slap-on-the-wrist plea agreements the SEC and DOJ handed out to the few banks they had the temerity to take action against, the Dodd-Frank farce, etc.

      Somehow I think this will not be the case. If my worst suspicions are correct there will be an Occupy episode. The cloud of smug boomer condescension emanating from the screen will be thick enough to literally choke whoever watches it, and it will take the title of Worst Period Episode Period Of Period Television Period Ever Period from the 9/11 episode of the West Wing.

      • Eric says:

        How about the one where Toby lectures anti-globalization activists on how they’re terrible hippies doing it all wrong?

        • firefall says:

          Really? I thought that was unintentionally hilarious

        • Murc says:

          Honestly? I’m going to pseudo-defend that scene.

          I haven’t been active on the ground in a long time, but a decade and change ago, when I was 20-22 or so, I went to a number of demonstrations, rallies, symposiums, and other sundry speaking forums (forae?) in which events played out EXACTLY like that scene did. It wasn’t a question of the suit-wearing neo-liberal trotted out to defend a center-right system of belief being wrong or not; it was that the guys who showed up to tell him that were so disorganized as to be almost comical. That bit where a guy yells at Toby “Where were you shoes made?!?!?!” like he’s scoring the greatest political point ever? Seen that exact same thing happen.

          And that was when things just didn’t get completely hijacked. I hit a number of economic justice forums that were completely taken over by Paulites, and anti-war rallies that ended up featuring a motley collection of semi-racist isolationists and people arguing that cocaine should be sold over the counter. And that’s without even getting into black bloc idiots deciding to wreck shit. (I was in Toronto for the G20.) “The activist left has no fucking clue how to organize” was both sort of true and is kind of hilarious in a deeply depressing way.

          The weakness in that whole Toby sub-plot isn’t its lack of verisimilitude (it might be today; like I said, I’m not active on the ground so much anymore, but I’m told things are way more organized) it’s that they never show the logical progression, which is where after his cop escort calls him out on being an arrogant dick, Toby sits down with the struggling leader type and says “Kid, you’re right. Of COURSE you’re right. I’m here to defend half-a-loaf policies that were the product of a political process more screwed up than you can imagine. That’s my job. YOUR job is to one day do better. Let me tell you how.”

          Instead we’re simply told offscreen that Toby went back in and wowed them with his rhetoric, completely sidestepping the entire issue. To be fair, I do like that Sorkin didn’t actually show him speaking for once, but that’s where the entire thing collapses.

          • Erm, except Toby isn’t defending half-a-loaf, he’s explicitly cheer-leading free trade measures through arguments that are…less than good (“free trade ends wars!”). Which is one of the things that really annoys me about Sorkin. He often loves to tell us how awesome a speech or debate or show is/was, but then doesn’t have what it takes to actually show us something that lives up to the hype.

            • Murc says:

              Erm, except Toby isn’t defending half-a-loaf, he’s explicitly cheer-leading free trade measures through arguments that are…less than good

              Er… yes?

              I think that was kind of my point, that Sorkin falls down on the back half of that entire sub-plot.

            • AR says:

              The point has been made that President Bartlet actually has a really terrible record by the end of his second term, growing unemployment, an ultra conservative SCOTUS appointment, no healthcare, nothing to address global warming, etc.
              http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/02/14/423446/josiah-bartlet-was-a-mediocre-president/?mobile=nc

              • Murc says:

                Yup. Entirely true.

                I mean, the Supreme Court thing is at least defensible as realpolitik; when you have a Republican-controlled Senate, striking a deal where you get a liberal justice who is a staunch defender of abortion rights and a conservative justice who actually holds some principled stands that will lead to him occasionally pissing off his own faction on things like civil liberties is, arguably, the best you can hope for.

                But for the most part the Bartlet Presidency was one marked by occasionally effective foreign policy and occasional incremental compromises on domestic policy. It’s worth pointing out that Bartlet had a Republican Congress for all eight years of his tenure, but it was a good thing I was invested in the characters, not the administration.

                • John says:

                  Wouldn’t two Breyer style justices be the best you could hope for? I suppose we don’t have any recent experience with a Democratic president nominating justices to be confirmed by a Republican Senate (the last time that happened, remarkably, was in Grover Cleveland’s second administration), but Ginsburg and Breyer were both approved by the Senate’s Republican minority. And when we’ve seen Republican presidents nominating justices with a Democratic Senate, it’s been a mixed bag, but there have been at least several quite conservative justices confirmed that way (Thomas, obviously, Rehnquist, Burger, Kennedy on most subjects).

              • John says:

                A lot of that stuff was post-Sorkin, no?

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        The 9/11 Episode of the West Wing, alas, seems to be the template for the new show. I’m sure Sorkin will find a way to lock some students in a room with Daniels again.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      And leaving aside what a dumb idea this is, his other two teevee shows about the teevee also started off with the same goddamned premise. We get it! Kids today are ruining the America that never existed! Will you please go away now?

    • dangermouse says:

      There’s a lot of victim blaming that needs to happen in the next bunch of decades and there’s too many victims to count on all of them to blame themselves.

  4. md rackham says:

    Don’t really want to defend the show, but the opening Daniels rant has him say that America is not #1, but he pointedly ignores the Mortimer character’s suggestion to follow up with “but we can be again,” leaving open the idea that we never were, thus leaving room to explore the sins of the past as well as our current sorry state.

    I do not expect this point to ever be followed up on.

  5. djw says:

    Before Newsroom, has any TV show destroyed any chance of it ever have any value whatsoever so utterly and efficiently in the first five minutes?

  6. mamayaga says:

    “Characters prove they’re extremely smart by having memorized lists of facts and recycling the tritest sections of Richard Cohen columns.”

    This is what ultimately made West Wing unwatchable.

  7. Daragh McDowell says:

    I have to say the notion of Sorkin’s movies being much better than his TV shows has me slightly confused too. ‘The Social Network’ almost libelled Mark Zuckerbeg as a sexually inadequate geek who invented Facebook mainly as a means of working out his problems with women by ignoring the fact that he just married the woman he’s been with before he even wrote code line one. That’s not to mention ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ and its assertions that a) giving Stinger missiles to the Taliban was an excellent idea that won the war despite Gorbachev having ordered a withdrawal six months before they were shipped to Afghanistan, and Soviet air losses having returned to roughly pre-stinger levels within a year of their introduction b) including a scene in which not only is the CIA’s determination to give shitloads of arms to Islamist psychopath Gulbunnin Hekmatyar written out of history, but suggests that they did their utmost to keep him from getting his filthy paws on their guns.

    This is the kind of thing that has convinced me that not only is Sorkin not only a puddle-deep thinker and a shameless recycler of hackneyed crap, but also staggeringly dishonest.

    • Daragh McDowell says:

      Apologies for atrocious typos *stares accusingly at empty bottle of Leffe nearby…*

    • Murc says:

      including a scene in which not only is the CIA’s determination to give shitloads of arms to Islamist psychopath Gulbunnin Hekmatyar written out of history, but suggests that they did their utmost to keep him from getting his filthy paws on their guns.

      … were we watching the same movie? I’ve seen it a shitload of times and I literally don’t recall this scene.

      What I do recall are at least three separate scenes where people speak quite candidly about the fact that the people they’re moving heaven and earth to get arms to include a large number of psychos, that Pakistan is not well governed, that many of the hypocritical Christian fundies supporting them at the time were unproductive at best and unstable at worst, and that they monumentally fucked up everything that happened after the whole ‘lets arm the guys shooting Russians’ phase.

      Of course the thing isn’t an incredibly detailed look at the massively complex geo-political situation and the moral consequences thereof, its a combination of a political process film and sort of a spy film. With the added bonus in that most of the shit that happened in it is 100% true. This is an excellent idea for a movie, and it was, in fact, an excellent movie.

      • Daragh McDowell says:

        Its been a while since I saw it, but I seem to recall a scene in the CIA briefing room in which Wilson and his buddies talk about sending money to Mahsoud over Hekmatyar.

        And the Stinger thing – total myth.

        • Murc says:

          Ah. I know the scene you’re talking about, and Hekmatyars name literally never comes up. They mention they’re sending training and aid to Mahsoud and that’s it. There’s no suggestion that they’re supporting Mahsoud over any alternatives or that he will be the only one getting weapons.

          I also question that the movie is making the assertions about the Stinger you think it is. They talk a lot about how the silver bullet in Afghanistan is shooting down Soviet air forces, helicopters in particular, but they actually devote something like three times the amount of screen time to talking about the Oerlikon than they do Stingers. There is an extended sequence showing guys with Stingers taking out some Hinds, but that’s because it’s, you know, a movie, and its about the Afghan insurgency, and the classic image there is of a guy shooting at Hinds with a Stinger.

          I mean, there are legitimate criticisms you can make about the movie, such as that it validates American imperialism, but if you’re going to get bent out of shape about what is really quite standard dramatic license I question how you can enjoy ANY movie. Do you get pissed off when people film in Vancouver instead of going on-location in New York or Chicago?

          • Daragh McDowell says:

            Well no, but that’s because I was born in Canada and always enjoy seeing its tax coffers swelled.

            And perhaps I’m mis-remembering a lot of stuff as my opinion of the film has gone progressively downwards.

            I DO question the ‘defeating Soviet airpower was the silver bullet!’ narrative. It was certainly a big part of it. But the basic lack of a coherent political strategy on behalf of the Soviet politburo, total lack of support for the war in Soviet society at large, and the viciousness with which the Muj fought from day one had a lot more to do with it.

    • Spuddie says:

      He lost me after Sports Night. An attempt at dramedy which just wallowed in cheezy forced sentimentalizing.

  8. eh says:

    Think the “Phantom Menace effect” link is supposed to point somewhere else

  9. HyperIon says:

    Just watch the Canadian show by the same name.

    Really funny and depressing AND the first episode was broadcast in 1996.

    You will laugh and cringe at the same time.
    Oh, those subversive Canadians.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      It was OK, but it was a pretty slavish Larry Sanders rip off. (As I think the CBC news parody show pointed out in a very funny bit.)

      • Martin says:

        I don’t agree with this at all. Tonally, the two shows were really different, and the fuckuppery that the main character in the Canadian Newsroom got up to was utterly unlike anything that ever happened on the Larry Sanders show, unless one counts the writers. Larry Sanders is probably a better show, a wiser show, but The Newsroom had a weird tinge of menace to it that made it very worthwhile, I think.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Oh, it wasn’t bad by any means, but (and I haven’t seen it since it first aired) the Larry Sanders influence seemed pretty profound at the time.

  10. Sly says:

    You can always tell when one of the character’s on a Sorkin show is mouthing the writer’s philosophy when the piano and/or violins start playing in the background.

  11. Pith Helmet says:

    I’m sorry, but I really can’t gin up even a smidgen of an impetus to watch this show. TV News is about the most useless bunch of manufactured media this side of talk radio. No about of lipstick is going to pretty up that pig.

    Want to do a compelling drama about real TV journalism? Set a program in the offices of Frontline.

  12. Mike says:

    Sorkin: Okay, so the main character I have in mind is this respected newsman who’s kind of having a breakdown and starting to act weird.
    HBO: So it’s kind of like Network, right? He starts speaking truth to power, he gets wild-eyed and starts ranting about whatever pops into his mind instead of telling neat little news stories…
    Sorkin: More like he goes from being a boring asshole to being a pompous asshole.
    HBO: The main character is a pompous asshole? What are his redeeming factors … he’s witty, or lovable, right?
    Sorkin: Of course he’s witty! I’m writing him!
    HBO: Fair enough. Does he have any … lovable traits?
    Sorkin: He won’t ACT lovable, but everyone will talk about him as if he is lovable. It’s what gives this sort of character that interesting frisson of ambiguity.
    HBO: Well, all these great actors seem to be eager to get involved, so sure, go nuts.

    • fledermaus says:

      Also: One, Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking “Where’s Poochie”?

  13. Hob says:

    The “intelligence” in the dialogue is a dumb person’s idea of what intelligence is

    They made a TV show out of the Internet?

  14. Mac says:

    I miss Sports Night.

    That is all.

    • TT says:

      Maybe I’m alone here, but I gave up on Sports Night after only a couple of episodes because I felt that Sorkin’s preachiness (his most insufferable artistic signature) just overwhelmed it.

      Don’t get me wrong, The West Wing featured preachifying aplenty, but Sorkin was at least canny enough to give it a rest now and then in favor of focusing on backstories for and interactions between his characters, which were by far the most interesting parts of the show. I think I watched most of the second and third seasons, and it could be a good, highly watchable show at times. (Though it went downhill pretty quickly. And the “stand-alone” episode Sorkin put together immediately after 9/11 was arguably the most self-important atrocity ever broadcast on these shores.)

      • djw says:

        Sports Night wasn’t entirely unwatchable, in my view, but I suspect its reputation is driven by the conviction that Sorkin is talented, but his other work sucks, so SN *must* be good. It’s sort of like how bad backup catchers have a reputation for good defense, whether deserved or not: their defense must be good or their ability to get jobs wouldn’t make any sense.

        • Mac says:

          That could be true if one came to it now with the entrenched Sorkin hype, but I watched it and liked it plenty before West Wing and the rest were even on the air. For me it’s not its reputation that matters. I would rather go back and watch the first two seasons of SN again than many (most?) current half-hour shows.

          • djw says:

            I would say “not entirely unwatchable” and better than most half-hour sitcoms are not contradictory. But for SN to do the work it needs to do for Sorkin’s outsized reputation, “a slightly more entertaining way to pass the time than watching Everybody Loves Raymond” is woefully insufficient.

          • timb says:

            +1

            Watched it again on Netflix and was just as in love with as I was before. The earnestness works in the context of sports, since we all know sports is meaningless. Sports Night doesn’t tell us how to have a better country; it “made” a better TV show about a trifle.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        the “stand-alone” episode Sorkin put together immediately after 9/11 was arguably the most self-important atrocity ever broadcast on these shores.

        I’m not sure the “arguably” is necessary. I’m probably too hard on TWW because of how much I hated that episode.

        • charles pierce says:

          Sam says, “Terrorism didn’t work in Ireland. The Brits are still there.” Michael Collins rises from the grave and hits him with an empty Imperial pint glass.

    • timb says:

      You are correct. Such a good show

    • elm says:

      Count me as another lover of Sports Night. I also think the West Wing is a good show (not as good as Sports Night, though), although some episodes and sub-plots are annoying as hell (Lemon-Liman, anyone?) Sure, Sorkin’s vision of how government works is kinda silly, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief when I’m watching it, just like I can when watching Buffy on the whole vampire and demon thing. A Few Good Men was also very good. I think he deserved the reputation he built up at the height of his career.

      Sorkin’s problems are (among other things) that he’s run out of things to say so he’s saying the same thing over and over again; that he takes himself sooooo damn seriously; and that he injects himself in every show. Studio 60 was little more than him getting back at ex-girlfriends and old employees that he felt wronged him.

      I think it’s hardly a surprise that the best thing he’s done since the start of West Wing (and the show did go downhill quite about after the 2nd season) was Charlie Wilson’s War, where it wasn’t his own story he was telling.

  15. calling all toasters says:

    There can never be too much diparagement of The Phantom Menace.

    • fledermaus says:

      Correct, and anyone who says otherwise should be made to watch it over and over until this point is understood.

      Truly, if you haven’t watched it recently (and I can’t blame you for that) you’ve forgotten just how god awful it was, it wasn’t just Jar-Jar.

      • Colin says:

        What – you weren’t a fan of the pointless, flat pod-race that sucked up 22 minutes of time and did absolutely nothing to further the already-weak plot?

      • Murc says:

        Correct, and anyone who says otherwise should be made to watch it over and over until this point is understood.

        Late spring, 1999. I’m a senior in High School, and have taken the day off school, with my parents blessing, to camp out in line with my fellow Jedi to buy Phantom Menace tickets for myself and all my friends. I had an amazing time; only time in my life I’ve done something like that.

        Guy in front of me gets to the ticket counter and asks for a very precise series of tickets that will allow him to spend 18 hours that first day watching continuous back to back screenings of Phantom Menace.

        I didn’t think much of it at the time; it was Star Wars. It was only a few years later that the memory came back to me and I thought “Jesus. That guy spent eighteen HOURS watching the Phantom Menace. I… I hope he’s okay now.”

        • elm says:

          I also spent all down in line (in the rain) with a friend to get tickets. I do not regret that at all because it was a blast and a cultural experience interacting with everyone else in the line, even though, right as we finally got the teller, the random guy who ditched the line 8 hours earlier in frustration, comes back up to taunt us all with the tickets he bought over the phone.

          The 2 hours I spent watching the movie? I want those back.

        • gmack says:

          This made me laugh a lot. Thanks for the mental picture.

          To my mind, however, the second prequel was even worse. I know I only have myself to blame (I mean, how could I have come back for more after watching the first one), but Christ, those “love” scenes made me want to tear my own face off.

        • Daragh McDowell says:

          In retrospect, I’m impossibly glad that the whole overnight camp-out thing didn’t really happen in Dublin…

        • Halloween Jack says:

          “Jesus. That guy spent eighteen HOURS watching the Phantom Menace. I… I hope he’s okay now.”

          The Ludovico Treatment is legendarily harsh, but at least you know that he skipped the next two movies, so maybe it was worth it.

    • elm says:

      My personal favorite send-up of the Phantom Menace (and the other prequels) is Darths & Droids. Doubles as a fantastic self-mockery of rpgers.

    • Marek says:

      Harrumph, harrumph! Seriously, that movie was pathetic. And to think I lined up early for it.

  16. dms says:

    And yet, as a longtime Sorikn-on-TV detractor, as more critics were dubious about the I saw the potential for a Phantom Menace effect here — that is, a follow-up taking more criticism its deserved from critics who overrated the previous one even though it was if anything a modest improvement.

    Christ, do you need an editor.

  17. DocAmazing says:

    The last fictional-show-about-teevee-news that I found remotely worth a shit was Max Headroom. Before that, Lou Grant. (Or was that print news?)

  18. Gareth Wilson says:

    Haven’t seen this yet, but doesn’t using real news items mean that the main character is going to fail? He’s supposed to be sweating blood to change American journalism and politics for the better. But if he succeeded, wouldn’t say, the health-insurance contraception debate play out completely differently? But if the show keeps using real news, everything will be exactly the same as in our world.
    On harking back to the golden age of America, it’s bad enough that he’s nostalgic for an age of segregation and sexism. But he’s also nostalgic for a time when most of the developed world outside the US was recovering from the war – factories still rubble, food still rationed. So all the good things he likes about America back then come from not having any real international competition.

    • NathanHK says:

      …sucks balls in a self-important navel-gazing way. But I guess I just “don’t get it”…

      • GeoX says:

        Nope–looks like you don’t. Too bad for you.

      • Daragh McDowell says:

        At the risk of sounding like an elitist snob, if you’re going to make such a sweeping condemnation of one of the most critically acclaimed television series of all time, its probably best you come up with an argument better than ‘sucks balls’ and prebuttal better than overused sarcasm.

        • Doxa says:

          good advice but a few minor points

          if you are arguing over a popular television show in the comments section you may be a snob but it is doubtful you are any sort of elitist

          being ‘one of the most critically acclaimed’ does not preclude something from sucking balls

          • Eric says:

            Yeah on that second point, especially considering most of the comments here are trashing a critically acclaimed show (TWW) and screenwriter/showrunner (Sorkin.)

            On Mad Men, it seems like someone could make a funny Venn diagram of three groups of people: those who watched a couple of episodes and thought it was navel-gazing and boring, those proclaiming it a great show but it has now obviously jumped the shark, and those who still think it’s the greatest thing on TV.

  19. Joe says:

    The fact Alison Pill, a good actress in film and the stage, is being wasted here is a shame in itself. The bit where she lost an interview because it turns out that back in college she hid under the bed while an adviser to Jan Brewer had sex with his gf was painful alone. This of course was done with a bunch of self-indulgent dialogue that suggests the audience is your more pretentious blog reader.

    I guess there is a certain niche there.

  20. Martin says:

    Thanks so much for this. This is the richly deserved Alex Pareene takedown that Alex Pareene will never give us.

    I watched that opening scene and turned it off for ever. *shudder* It was like, ‘wow, this is bad, and more strangely, even if it turns out to be good, it’s bad.’

  21. Aaron Baker says:

    You could argue that De Rerum Natura and Paradise Lost are relentlessly didactic–they’re still great works of literature. Sorkin’s oeuvre is relentless AND bad.

  22. Rich says:

    The only one of Sorkin’s shows that I really liked was “Sports Night” and I’m not a huge sports fan. By being a half hour show it corralled Sorkin’s worst tics (didactic dialogue, overlarge casts) and showcased his least annoying tic, staccato dialogue. I actually liked Daniels in the premiere. He’s gotten some gravitas with age which, oddly, combined with his Midwestern blandness makes him good in the role. He underplays a part that asks for polemical scenery chewing (just imagine how unwatchable Martin Sheen or a younger Sam Waterston would be in this part). Waterston gets to play somewhat against type which is the other pleasant surprise.

    The relationships were all pretty predictable. I was wondering when we’d see a gay character, but maybe that will come later in the run. The bonding among the newsroom and the acceptance of the outsiderish characters also was predictable. The second episode is weaker and more Sorkin-infected.

    Critically acclaimed tv often has had this preachy, didactic side (watch reruns of “Naked City” & “Route 66″ and you’ll see similar tics courtesy of Stirling Silliphant, who was the Aaron Sorkin of his time and went on to write awful films).

    • kyle says:

      I was wondering when we’d see a gay character, but maybe that will come later in the run.

      Bet she’ll be a woman.

      • Murc says:

        You should HOPE she’ll be a woman. The most prominent gay character in West Wing was a Republican Congressman arguing strongly that a Democratic President should sign a DOMA-equivalent.

    • Julian says:

      Are we to understand that “Stirling Silliphant” was an actual human and not a character from Dr. Seuss?

    • cheap wino says:

      Critically acclaimed tv often has had this preachy, didactic side (watch reruns of “Naked City” & “Route 66″ and you’ll see similar tics courtesy of Stirling Silliphant

      This is pretty insightful. Back in the late ’80s my friends and I used to sit on the porch, watch reruns of Route 66 on Nick at Nite and play a drinking game (Rhinelander Bock!) called something like ‘spot the beat phrase’. You could get a quality start on a good drunk in that hour. The two main characters managed to capture beat attitude (jesus, those dudes were cool as shit) without having anything coherent or worthwhile to say despite saying a whole lot that was supposed to be just so awesomely deep.

      After seeing never actualized promise in Sports Night and being bored with the little of West Wing I watched I can’t help but think that The Newsroom is supposed to have the same gravitas and similarly fails to intellectually connect. Swing and a miss. Easy to find the niche to cater to, more difficult to make it worthwhile.

      Something tells me thirty years from now The Newsroom will have the same kitchy cool value as my friends and I found in Route 66 with the same level of empty intellectual engagement.

      • James E. Powell says:

        For a similar experience, you have got to see a few episodes of Mod Squad. The struggle to make the dialogue hip will produce gag reflex.

  23. mario says:

    Lord what a wankfest this thread was.
    Was it good for everyone?

  24. TBogg says:

    On Alyssa Rosenberg’s point about the misogyny, I’ll just simply point out that, had Lena Dunham written Newsroom, Rosenberg would be raving about how the show spotlights teh way men infantilize their female co-workers and how the news industry is lacking in strong female voices.

    That is Rosenberg’s little pony and she will that baby to death.

  25. hylen says:

    Marmaduke isn’t cutting edge?

  26. Murc says:

    As someone who does not think that the West Wing (at least, seasons 2-4) is insanely overrated, I’m going to attempt an extremely qualified defense of Sorkin without defending The Newsroom, which is actually pretty bad.

    Sorkin is really, really good at… well, the quote just says it all:

    he’s more logically placed in a school of showrunners who favor patterspeak, point-counterpoint, and dialogue-driven tributes to the era of screwball romance.

    Now, here’s the thing; that works. That’s something that is super entertaining to watch! People weren’t watching the West Wing because they were deeply invested in watching people shepherd Social Security reform through Congress; they were invested in it because they wanted to watch CJ give Sam shit over accidentally sleeping with a hooker and Charlie be smarter than people fifteen years his senior and Mrs. Landingham be generally awesome and wonder when Josh and Donna were finally going to screw. Throw in some legitimate moral quandaries and you’ve got yourself a show.

    All of that stuff was wonderful enough that people forget that when the West Wing tried to be really political, those were the weakest parts. It is generally agreed that “Two Cathedrals” is probably the strongest episode of West Wing. What is that episode about? It’s about a man who is watching his career fall to pieces around him because of a lie that seemed necessary at the time, about the loss of a beloved family member, about betrayals of trust and losses of faith. The “will Bartlet run for President again?” plotline is basically incidental to it.

    Sorkin is pretty good at character-driven drama. He’s just shitty at plot, and that’s sad, because apparently all the rapturous West Wing fans convinced him that his keen political and social insights were why they were watching. Which of course

    leads to plenty of Sorkin’s trademark, people reading B+ junior high school civics essays to each other.

    and

    the premise of the show [Studio 60] was that the returning writer/producers were cutting-edge comic geniuses, which was problematic given that the sketches these writers produced were both painfully unfunny and about as cutting-edge as Marmaduke.

    Now, I’m actually willing to cut Sorkin a little slack here. He believes in showing, not telling. That’s generally a good thing. Let’s take a look at 30 Rock for a second. How many actual sketches of TGS, their show-within-a-show, have we seen? The answer is none. We occasionally hear about them, but that’s it. We have to sort of take it on faith their show is actually funny enough to get renewed six times.

    There’s a good reason for this, of course; sketch comedy is hard. Most of it sucks. SNL is famous for going through years-long droughts where the only decent thing on the show is Weekend Update, which of course is observational humor, not sketch comedy.

    But to go back to Sorkin… if he has a character who is supposed to be good at speechifyin’, he’s going to show us some speeches. If his characters are supposed to be comic geniuses, he’s going to show us them writing comedy.

    Which would be fine. Laudable even! Except that he’s kind of bad at that. Kind of awful, really. He IS good at writing two people with opposing worldviews cutting verbally at each other; there’s a reason why the entire “You can’t handle the truth” scene of A Few Good Men is so famous. That’s character-driven work. But him sitting down and thinking “okay, time to write something that, in-universe, people will react to the same way they did ‘I Have A Dream’” is just going to be a train wreck.

    One thing I’m not even going to attempt to defend is the misogyny and the contempt for the modern world. I remain baffled that the guy who came up with CJ Cregg and Nancy McNally suddenly took a steep left turn in season three (with everyone regarding Bruno Giannelli’s rampant misogyny as a charming foible) and then got worse and worse as time went by. It reached the nadir for me in Studio 60 where a male producer had to explain patiently to a tough, smart, female comedian, who had come out of Chicago and managed to get starring roles in a field that is often deeply hostile to women, that a lad mag was only interested in her tits, not her mind. And she was shocked, shocked! She’d never seen anything like that before! Thank you, wise man, for showing her the way!

    But still, Sorkin remains pretty good at dialogue-driven stuff when he takes the time to be. And his movies have been pretty excellent. He managed to make Moneyball out-fucking-standing, and that was a movie about stats. Which is why my defense of him is, as I say, qualified. Heavily.

    • Let’s take a look at 30 Rock for a second. How many actual sketches of TGS, their show-within-a-show, have we seen? The answer is none.

      Nope. There are a bunch of short cutaways and setups to sketches, though, and that’s about all Sorkin provided. But instead of being lame like “Pimp my trike!” it’s hilarious like “werewolf Bar Mitzvah”. (“Werewolf Bar Mitzvah / Spoo-ky, scare-y / Boys becoming men / Men becoming wolves”). If he had shelled out a little money to any Second City or UCB people to think up a few things for him, that particular aspect of the show wouldn’t have flamed out so spectacularly.

      He IS good at writing two people with opposing worldviews cutting verbally at each other

      Nope. He can write good monologues, and sometimes those monologues interact with each other in such a way as to create that dynamic. The Nicholson speech is, indeed, great. That early scene where Bartlett cuts down the religious activists by asking how far he can bend on the number of acres he gets for selling off Zoe is a classic of the genre “How to quote the Bible to put hypocrites in their place for fun and profit”.

      But genuine and honest debate or argument or cut ‘n thrust between two conflicting worldviews? The Sam / Joanne arguments about the institutional responsibility / blameworthiness of the military/marines are hamfisted and silly. All copies of the Matthew Perry / Kristen Chenoweth stand-in arguments, of Rob Corddry’s brother arguing with his parents who hate tv, and of Action Executive Steven Weber debating the cold facts of life with the creative types and Amanda Peet, should be buried with nuclear waste. Etc.

      Even in Malice, The Best Thing Sorkin’s Ever Done, there are great monologues in conversations among characters with different worldviews/agendas – the God Complex deposition, Bill Pullman’s talk with Nicole Kidman’s mom – but they aren’t part of the ebb and flow of conversation. They’re stand-alone self-contained set-pieces.

      The rat-a-tat-tat “trade off cutting jibes” stuff and the “conflicting worldviews collide” stuff is pretty separate, in my humble opinion.

      • Murc says:

        Nope. There are a bunch of short cutaways and setups to sketches, though, and that’s about all Sorkin provided.

        That’s deceptive, though. I don’t think we have ever seen an entire TGS sketch from start to finish. Maybe in the first episode, but even that was truncated. What they do is come up with the idea (the easy part) and throw it out there for a cutaway or a one-liner. We know that there’s a recurring role for Sketch-Bot 2000, for example, but they’ve never had to actually write him. Werewolf Bar Mitzvah is indeed hilarious, but it’s, like, four lines. They’ve never shown an entire sketch beginning to end.

        Studio 60 actually tried to linger on the sketches and musical numbers, doing full production on them. This changed a bit (and for the better) in the back half of the season, when they started doing a lot of brief cutaways instead, but I stand by my point; Sorkin wanted to show that these guys were comedic geniuses by showing them doing comedy and being genius at it, the same way he wanted to demonstrate that Bartlet was great at speeches and debate by showing him giving speeches and engaging in debate.

        Which is laudable, except he’s not actually any good at that.

        • You might be right, but I’m blanking on examples. The only thing I can come up with is the We Are A Major I can’t even finish typing it it’s too dumb opening sketch. There’s also a rehearsal for a “religious zealots confront science facts” game show with Rob Reiner as a rabbi that gets some extended time, but not any more than 30 Rock has devoted to rehearsals of different sketches.

          Everything to say about 30 Rock is said by Eric below.

      • Eric says:

        Totally agree on 30 Rock. The actual nuts and bolts of making a show isn’t the focus of the series, but they’ve shown bits of sketches, whole sketches, the writing of sketches, and even shown the difficulty of adding a not particularly good performer (Jack) into the mix as a guest on the show.

        And what they’ve shown is precisely the opposite of a show (TGS) that should have been renewed for one season, much less 6. Arguably 30 Rock itself is at a point that it should no longer be renewed, but that’s a separate topic.

        • Murc says:

          It’s super easy to come up with a sketch concept and throw it out there if you don’t have to follow through, though. It’s all very well and good to say “Okay, Jenna and Tracy have a longrunning sketch called Prince William and Prince” and put them in funny costumes on a set if you don’t then have to actually write five minutes of that.

          And yeah, they’ve shown the writers room, but they don’t really show them breaking the show, and when they do its very, very briefly. Studio 60 once tried to do that for ten minutes, because they actually wanted to SHOW the process, and it was really pretty awful.

    • David says:

      It reached the nadir for me in Studio 60 where a male producer had to explain patiently to a tough, smart, female comedian, who had come out of Chicago and managed to get starring roles in a field that is often deeply hostile to women, that a lad mag was only interested in her tits, not her mind. And she was shocked, shocked! She’d never seen anything like that before! Thank you, wise man, for showing her the way!

      That was not at all what was happening in that plot. She was fully aware that the mag only wanted to see her tits – and she quite derisively mocked Simon and Tom for thinking she wasn’t.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I agree with you (and Denby) that his stylized dialogue per se isn’t the problem and can be virtue, as several of his screenplays and the best episodes of TWW suggest. But this:

      He believes in showing, not telling. That’s generally a good thing
      .

      Sorkin does not believe that, or if he does he’s really doing it wrong. Even the most obvious things in Studio 60 and the Newsroom have to be explained again with expository dialogue.

      • Murc says:

        Well… yes. He is, in fact, doing it wrong. I firmly believe that Studio 60 and the Newsroom are a result of Sorkin believing that the reason people were watching West Wing for his keen political and social commentary rather than because we loved Josh and Sam and CJ.

        This doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in showing rather than telling, just that he’s fucked it up really hard sometimes. I firmly believe that an examination of his canon bears this out; every time we are told a character has certain traits, the character WILL attempt to show those traits. Just about every time. That’s more than you can say for some writers.

    • djw says:

      Let’s take a look at 30 Rock for a second. How many actual sketches of TGS, their show-within-a-show, have we seen? The answer is none. We occasionally hear about them, but that’s it. We have to sort of take it on faith their show is actually funny enough to get renewed six times.

      Huh. The script makes pretty clear, on a regular basis, that TGS is pretty terrible. That a terrible show gets repeatedly renewed requires surprisingly little suspension of disbelief on my part.

  27. whetstone says:

    My wife and I tried to watch “The West Wing.”

    She said, “when they kill off the Noble Black Doctor Whom the President Feels Warmly Towards, we stop watching.” I feel like that saved us a lot of time.

    I do like Moneyball and A Few Good Men, although I don’t think Sorkin meant YOU WANT ME ON THAT WALL, YOU NEED ME ON THAT WALL to be as campily funny as it turned out.

    (Moneyball is legitimately good–perhaps because Sorkin didn’t have an ax to grind?)

    • charles pierce says:

      In addition to my Beane-o-phobia, I thought Moneyball was dark and a little joyless for very long stretches.

      • Murc says:

        I thought Moneyball was dark and a little joyless for very long stretches.

        So exactly like a baseball game, then?

      • timb says:

        Wow, lose a couple of post-season series to the Yankees, which you should have won, and the finest blogger currently working starts to carry a personal grudge.

        I liked the book and movie of Moneyball, despite the movie’s weird fascination with Scott Hatteburg and OBP, when the truly revolutionary Beane move was drafting college pitchers. No mention in the movie at all…

    • Halloween Jack says:

      I don’t think Sorkin meant YOU WANT ME ON THAT WALL, YOU NEED ME ON THAT WALL to be as campily funny as it turned out.

      Totally worth it just for this Achewood strip.

  28. [...] The Newsroom, the Horror – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money When I saw the persuasive bad reviews from Emily Nussbaum and Willa Paskin, I knew I was probably going to have to watch The Newsroom so I could judge for myself. And yet, as a longtime Sorikn-on-TV d… [...]

  29. David says:

    Mackenzie: The media is biased toward success, and the media is biased toward fairness.

    Maggie: How can you be biased towards fairness?

    Mackenzie: There aren’t two sides to every story. Some stories have five sides, some only have one.

    Staffer: I still don’t–?

    Will: Bias towards fairness means that if the entire congressional Republican caucus were to walk into House and propose a resolution stating that “The Earth is flat”, the Times would lead with “Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on shape of the world”.

  30. charles pierce says:

    I am now going to throw up a post that will make Lemieux hate me forever and ever.
    I hated SportsNight from episode 1, when one of the anchors made a perfectly logical argument for legalizing pot, and Sorkin spent the rest of the episode running away from it and used an injured-kid-ex-machina to close the deal. I liked a great many installments of The West Wing. I thought Studi0 60 was a trainwreck from the first minute. (Enough with the Gilbert and Sullivan already!) And I’m going to give The Newsroom a full season because, a) I like Emily Mortimer a great deal and b) because seeing San Waterston twinkle after being Jack McCoy for two decades is a hoot.

    Moneyball was a disaster because it made a tin god out of Billy Beane, the most overrated man in baseball since “Bart” (Union Buster) Giamatti kicked, and I think Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and (especially) Miguel Tejada should all get together and beat Sorkin senseless with a Scott Hatteberg-model Louisville Slugger.
    I’ll show myself out.

    • MikeJake says:

      The thing about Moneyball is (and it’s the movie I’m talking about here), it’s not that Billy Beane’s methods were necessarily brilliant and right, it’s that the “old guard” was so laughably and stubbornly wrong in how to evaluate players. If you have a limited pool of resources from which to assemble a team, you’re going to have to make tough choices, and you need to evaluate those choices with something more rigorous than “that kid has a nice looking swing.” It’s a strike against the haughtiness of a seniority that doesn’t realize how washed-up it is.

      • James E. Powell says:

        If only there were some way to do the same with policy makers, particularly at the federal level.

      • charles pierce says:

        Yeah, and if you have hands-down the best three-man rotation in baseball, you should win at least one playoff series and, when you don’t, you should not blame your players.

    • I think Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and (especially) Miguel Tejada should all get together and beat Sorkin senseless with a Scott Hatteberg-model Louisville Slugger.

      This’d be more entertaining than anything Sorkin’s ever done.

    • Murc says:

      You know, while I myself liked it, I cannot think of a single sportswriter who didn’t at least dislike Sports Night. You represent a continuance of this trend.

      • charles pierce says:

        I thought it was OK. I hated that first episode. But the two guys who played Keith and Dan were basically OK, as was Felicity Huffman, who’s always good. It did have the unfortunate Malina Effect, however.

  31. mk says:

    Very unsatisfying program, especially when watching main character ask BP officials the “tough” questions because in real life, those questions were being asked on the blogs, not on American TV News programs. Remember the photo op created of Obama swimming in the supposed gulf of mexico with his daughter? American TV Media companies were paid off by BP (as well as universities, scientists, gov’t. agencies/officials, etc.)

    Very unsatisfying because as I watched the program I thought, this is a fantasy and a big waste of time.

  32. Dirk Gently says:

    Okay, so Star Wars itself is definitely over-rated, and some of the hate on The Phantom Menace was reaction to nostalgia rather than an honest comparison, but this

    even though the follow-up was if anything a modest improvement

    IS FUCKING WRONG. It just is. Take it back, or I shall go find my mahogany box of dueling pistols, good sir.

  33. Scott Lemieux says:

    I want to be clear: the follow-up in question was Attack of the Whatever, not the Phantom Menace. The Phantom Menace was unspeakably awful; my only point is that people were too generous on TPM and took it out on the awful but not obviously worse sequel.

  34. Joe says:

    Yesterday’s episode, to be honest, was okay.

    Jane Fonda was pretty good.

    • mark f says:

      While taking a brief break from pretending that there’s anything worthwhile to the 2012 Red Sox, I caught a scene where Watterson was arguing with Fonda in a giant conference room. It was pretty terrible, and advanced the notion that the Tea Party is something that powerful people should be afraid of and that everyone behind the scenes in newsmedia is a secret liberal.

      • thanbo says:

        Then you missed the point of the argument. It’s not that the Tea Party is what the powerful should fear, it’s the Koch Brothers who have been financing the Tea Party, and their influence in Congress in supporting the wingnuts at the expense of the moderate Republicans, that the media has to fear.

  35. thanbo says:

    I thought the first show was good, the second sucked, and the third was, well, bland. Sam Waterston, who seems to be Sorkin’s alter ego qua creator of the show/creator of the New Will McAvoy, on trial before the Owners over whether his creation will fly when he takes on Congress and the Koch Brothers – eh. Let’s heavy-handedly remind people who Really Runs the News.

    My uncle used to get an electronic-audio hobbyist magazine that wouldn’t take ads from manufacturers whom they reviewed. IOW, bias towards the sponsors is not a new problem.

    And yes, as someone above commented, Will McAvoy is a Sorkin fantasy Republican, the kind of Loyal Opposition that is a Democrat’s ideal of a Republican, just like Alan Alda was in the last season of The West Wing.

    At a more fundamental level, this seems to be a novelization of Jon Stewart’s ongoing critique of political media – you have to give us information, report the news responsibly, so that we can make up our minds. But, as some say, “facts have a liberal bias”, so TV and radio news sources play around with the “fair and balanced” idea (and not just Fox, whose slogan it is) of granting equal time to looney positions as if they should be treated as equally credible to considered opinions.

    • Joe says:

      “Sorkin fantasy Republican”

      And, Hawkeye Pierce was something of a fantasy, as are many characters in television. eh. Lots of shows are heavy-handed. Roseanne wasn’t exactly subtle either.

      I thought the first episode sorta sucked myself. Too much preaching and heavy-handed dialogue. Will bringing the gfs in to get his ex to move on, e.g., actually showed some subtlety. Takes time for a decent show to get into a groove.

  36. [...] would find problematic today.) The idea that strategic voting is somehow unethical is a norm in the Aaron Sorkin sense — i.e. it describes an way of doing things that never existed and doesn’t make [...]

  37. [...] Robber Sentenced To 1,256 Years, Will Be 1,287 Years Old When Sentence EndsPaddy MitchellThe Newsroom, the Horror – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money html { margin-top: 0px !important; } * html body { margin-top: 0px !important; } [...]

  38. [...] I said last time, if you’re going to have a show that consists mostly of (excellent) actors reading speeches, [...]

  39. [...] example of this phenomenon is the exaggeration of the influence of CBS News.   One of the many puzzles of The Newsroom is why Sorkin thinks that having an MSNBC in which the anchors won every debate with the same [...]

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  41. […] Thanks! (“Bestowed Upon You by Aaron Sorkin,” perfect.) Amazingly, despite being right in my wheelhouse and superbly executed it’s not even my favorite sketch from this year so […]

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