Aaron Sorkin’s back with another shot at television with the premiere of HBO’s latest, The Newsroom, last night. Like his ‘Sports Night‘ and ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip‘ before it, the show takes place in TV. Unlike those shows, they can say “fuck” on this one. Starring Jeff Daniels as the Olbermann-esque Will McEvoy, ‘The Newsroom‘ opens up by indicting America, and specifically, American media, and dares to answer the question: What would greatness in news look like in 2012?
Last night, he gave us an hour’s worth of answers. This morning, some editors of the Observer gathered to talk about how he managed the task.
Let’s talk about ‘The Newsroom.’ As our fearless leader, Spiers, please tell us how you’re going to save us all and revolutionize everything.
Elizabeth Spiers, Editor-in-Chief: Oh, I have A PLAN.
Do you, now?
ES: Had to miss ‘Newsroom’ for a wedding last night. But from what I’ve heard it doesn’t sound like I missed much. Surprisingly to me, [The New Yorker's] Emily Nussbaum HATED it.
Brian Gallagher, Deputy Editor: Not enough Brooklyn for her.
ES: Apparently. Not enough vampires either.
BG: Aside from the cable news talking heads sucking the lifeblood from our great republic.
Jim Hanas, Social Media Editor: I had to watch the finale of Sister Wives. Turns out Meri and Janelle HATE each other.
So, let me guess: You all loved it.
Aaron Gell, Executive Editor: I’m going to just come out and admit that as manipulative and cheesy as it was, I found it unexpectedly moving. I actually teared up at one point. And I can’t figure out why.
BG: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH (about the 4th estate and the situation regarding American democracy)! I found it exciting and charming, but also completely full of shit. And the fact that Jeff Daniels is a combination of Little Man Tate, Will Hunting, and Adlai Stevenson is also a little hard to swallow. I mean, the guy seems to know everything.
Right, well, that’s Sorkin for you. But wait, Aaron: I kind of want to have a breakthrough here, because the fact that you found it moving is legitimately shocking to me.
AG: Me too. I have a thing for plucky blondes.
BG: Yeah, that was really big of him to remember [the assistant's] name at the end.
I mean, “Your name is Margaret Jordan” is like the equivalent of a raise, it seems.
To take it from the top, for a moment: Can we first say that nobody’s ever been to a media panel that engaged, ever? More than anything, this made me think greater media panels were possible.
BG: Yeah, and also the professor moderating it looked nothing like any professor I’ve ever seen, but beside the point. I would like to have known what the title/conceit of the panel was.
AG: But seriously, why IS America the greatest country in the world?
BG: I mean, the substance of his formulation is probably why most intelligent people would tell you that it is the greatest in the world. The possibility, the premise of America is as Burroughs said, “the last and greatest of human dreams” (though he did say it had been betrayed). But yes, what she had on her magic note cards, that it’s what it can be.
Did anyone notice that this is the closest thing to ‘The West Wing’ that Aaron Sorkin has done since then? Will McEvoy is basically the perfect news anchor in the same way Bartlett was the perfect president. But why does this feel so wrong when that felt so right?
BG: That is a good question.
I tried finding the answer in the idea that people in D.C. loved West Wing, and everyone in media seemingly hates The Newsroom. Is it because media folks are inherently skeptical and self-loathing and distrustful of their own image, and politicos are narcissists (and D.C. is America’s Ugly Hollywood)? Or is it because one show’s good and the other one isn’t? Also of note: Sorkin had actual politicos working on The West Wing. And as insane as they were (Paul Begala, Peggy Noonan), they seemed to get a lot right.
AG: I don’t agree that ‘The West Wing’ felt right. It felt good, for a minute, until I realized we still had Bush in the White House and he was the real president and watching a show wouldn’t change that. I suspect the same will happen with ‘Newsroom.’
BG: There’s no question that Sorkin can push those buttons, but it’s sentimental to the point of being cynical.
And yet, it made Gell go emo!
AG: True, I did start to think that Sorkin’s ability to pluck those strings has not been all that well understood. The politics and the stylistic tics are maybe beside the point. It’s Spielberg style manipuation, and it’s really fun while it lasts.
BG: Also, I think it’s amusing that the cynosure of journalistic integrity is being rendered as a TELEVISION newsroom. It’s like we totally forgot that only one generation ago, television news was already considered a far degraded form of the craft. And that Jeff Daniels is basically answering a situation that television news basically caused to begin with.
Right, Brian, that’s the other thing. Not to be ‘like that’ but I think television news is irrelevant. And boring. And people still don’t see what happens at newspapers, which would’ve made for a better show, despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary. To wit, I present the fifth season of The Wire as evidence for possibility.
AG: I don’t think the show is about television or journalism at all but about being stressed at work and having those sad little victories. That’s what all compelling TV is about I think.
BG: Right, but I think that for it’s imagery, the show had to be about TV.
But there is an interesting question and challenge there, which is: What would cable news look like done well? If it even possible? And I actually did find that compelling.
BG: Brian Lamb does cable news well, but most people find that quite boring.
I can’t remember the last time a television show was armed with actual journalists who could break news on air that isn’t breaking in to, like, Balloon Boy coverage. Do you think that’s even possible?
BG: Speaking of which, it just occurred to me that this show is thus far setting up network news as the antidote to cable news, which is almost hilarious.
Again, I admire the show for trying to come up with what it would look like. Not Sorkin, but the show. Because one guy attempting to answer this is just insanely egotistical, which Aaron Sorkin most certainly is.
BG: My first thought was that ‘Newsroom’ is to a newsroom as ‘General Hospital’ is to an actual hospital. It’s dramatized to the point of incredulity, but it’s still somewhat fun to watch.
Did anybody notice when they invoked Erin Andrews—who was the victim of very real-life sexual harassment and predatory behavior—as the lady who Aaron Sorkin’s very fake character is dating? That was odd.
BG: The first thing I thought was that Sorkin at one point asked her out and she said no, and he was settling that score.
Wouldn’t surprise me.
BG: But okay, that is an interesting point. That same issue is sort of in play in the fact that they are seemingly going to cover things retroactively. Like the BP spill. We all know how that played out, but they are going to go back and do the ideal version of the coverage.
Right. I was really skeptical about this when I heard it – and in no way was the BP spill that exciting, nor did news break on it that quickly – but I enjoyed the way it played out. And again, I ask: Could news ever look like that?
AG: Maybe if we all get our news from Newsroom and vote for fake presidents we can pretend that the world is awesome.
BG: And then once that fake world is well-established, we can secede from the real world.
With the vampires from True Blood.
ES: Sorkin’s ability to get away with preachy exposition by coating with wit is sort of amazing. Anybody else and I’d want to punch the writer.
BG: I feel the same, except for the “anybody else” part. Can you imagine how annoying Sorkin must’ve been in college?
Insufferable. Especially at Syracuse.
BG: He’s like a hidebound version of Diablo Cody. All the dialogue is impossibly witty, and I think that in the end it’s at the expense of any depth. After a while, it all seems implausible, precisely because of how “good” the dialogue is.
AG: Maybe we should support this… the media hasn’t had a particularly good rep lately. An hour of propaganda on premium cable every week could do wonders for our careers.
BG: [That wit] is fine in something like ‘In The Loop,’ because it’s not aiming for profundity. But Sorkin most certainly is.
But again, ‘The West Wing’ managed to have witty characters, and it did at moments achieve great moments of profundity. I don’t see this show winning a Peabody.
BG: Are you kidding? The media loves nothing more than to give itself awards. And a show about the slipping standards of news? I’ll eat my hat if it doesn’t win a Peabody.
JH: “Why does everyone in media hate the show so much?” Um. Because we hate everything, especially if it involves anyone we might run into.
Yeah, but everyone in media loved the fifth season of ‘The Wire.’ And David Simon was actually a reporter at The Baltimore Sun.
AG: Well, Sorkin DATED MODO. Hello?
BG: To be fair, everyone in the New York media demographic loved the entire run of The Wire. But point taken.
ES: I think that’s the rare instance of media loving something because it’s actually good.
BG: Back to the content for a second. It really annoys me that they seem to be setting up some sort of sexual/romantic past with Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, and from the allusions in the dialogue that somehow precipitated his stopping caring about journalistic standards…
Right? Not to flash a feminist card, but why are all the women on the show so patently nerve-wracked and emotional?
BG: Also, it was very funny that they had to explain away her seemingly discordant speech about American democracy delivered in Oxbridge’s finest elocution. “She was born in America!”
The Power of the Studio Note (also see: Dev Patel’s entire role on the show).
JH: I’m still stuck on this thing about what the New York media will embrace and reject. What do ‘Mad Men’ and and ‘The Wire’ have in common that ‘Girls’ and ‘The Newsroom’ lack? Or maybe it’s the other way around.
BG: [But] the New York media certainly seems to have embraced ‘Girls,’ no?
ES: I think ‘Girls’ lacks sophistication, vis a vis the other shows. But people don’t measure them against each other because everyone knows it’s Lena Dunham’s debut. And there’s a bit of condescending head patting that she could do her very own TV show.
FINAL QUESTION TIME. Why did Gell get weepy? Everyone, GO!
AG: That’s easy: male menopause.
I think it’s because you were coming to terms with enjoying it. The show, not male menopause.
BG: I mean, the show I think is good television. I just don’t think it should be read as legitimate media criticism, or even having much bearing on reality. Like most television.
AG: I think it’s because putting out a weekly paper is hard and stressful and requires a certain amount of self-delusion that what we’re doing matters, or could matter. And editing a bunch of starry-eyed 24-year-olds is a bitch, and like Will I actually can’t remember half their names, and yet it’s inspiring when they succeed and Chartbeat lights up and the lawyers start calling… In that sense, on a psychological level, ‘Newsroom’ taps into a certain wish I think I’m harboring about what we’re doing having some kind of meaning. Because it certainly doesn’t pay that much.
BG: Yeah, but Gell, don’t forget the time you gave up $1 million dollars a year of your salary for the ability to fire [Observer managing editor Michael] Woodsmall at the end of every week.
AG: A good investment, I think.
Last thoughts, anyone?
JH: “[Keels Over]“
ES: I was looking at galleys and I just had the sudden realization that the U.S. is not the best country in the world. I’m going to go rethink my entire career.
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