Thursday, September 27, 2012

"The Newsroom": Aaron Sorkin Vs. The Praise Cycle


Aaron Sorkin’s  The Newsroom premiered on HBO last Sunday night, to the groans and eye-rolling of the critics. I suppose this was inevitable. There is a cultural phenomenon I call the praise cycle. I described here four years ago, and nothing has changed since then:
Modern criticism and political journalism have created a toxic new manifestation of Jung’s collective unconscious. Masses of critics and pundits, without any apparent connection (there is no evidence of a yearly town meeting where they decide this stuff), arrive at a universal consensus. It might concern a political party (The Democrats are ineffectual wimps) or an artist (Bob Dylan is a better than ever!). But it never has much to do with reality, except by coincidence. It’s satisfying when someone whose work you detest finally comes full circle and their best work in years is universally vilified. But more often it’s infuriating. You can almost smell it before it happens. I had a sense that no matter what kind of book Tom Wolfe wrote next, he was going to get slammed. And I Am Charlotte Simmons got exactly the irrational pasting I thought it would. Maybe by the time he publishes his next book the cycle will have turned 180 degrees and they’ll all praise it … even if it sucks.
What can I say? It’s Sorkin’s turn now to pay his penance on the dark side of the cycle. He’s just been too successful lately, what with the Oscar for The Social Network and the nomination for his  work on Moneyball.
So his new show, quick talking, cynical and idealistic at the same time, brilliant and mercurial, has to be dismissed as ‘preachy’ (as if we didn’t need the sermon!) and dull. It would be called “inspirational’ and ‘challenging’ if the praise cycle had come around to the positive setting, and that’s exactly how I felt about The Newsroom,  perched on the edge of my couch for the rousing, full (cable-generous) 77 minutes of the pilot.
The critics who call its characters and situations ‘repetitive’ and ‘familiar’ would turn those glib judgments inside out on the positive turn of the cycle, and leave us with a much more accurate view: The Newsroom is “Sorkin-esque”, as it should be, distinguished as one would hope, by Sorkin’s world view, his battered idealism, his strong, sharp-witted, tough-minded characters and their rapid-fire confrontations. The various conflations of new characters with old ones, in New York magazine, on the Collider wedbsite, among other places, show a facile lack of attention to the new program. McAvoy is President Bartlett? Why, because they’re both gruff and idealistic? As most of us learned in fifth grade, there’s more to a character than a glib inventory of ‘traits’. Sorkin’s new characters share the DNA of his creative imagination with the old ones, but that should be a cause for celebration, not contempt.
Ironically, Sorkin is being ridiculed in the press for imagining that the press itself might still matter.
But even his own characters, particularly news anchor Will McAvoy, show some skepticism about this premise. Sorkin is a Utopian writer, his  fictional network is named after the mythical lost city of Atlantis ... but he knows that someone has to think in those terms, to imagine a better world, or call us to return to an earlier one where, as McAvoy stingingly puts it “We had a war on poverty, not poor people.”
The problem with Sorkin's last network series was that a skit comedy show was the wrong venue to air the issues and problems that concern him. A CNN-like news network is far more appropriate, and Sorkin proves this point by reimaging the shoddy press coverage of the 2010 BP oil spill and asking, “What if there had been one news agency smart and fast and committed enough, with the guts -- and the sources  -- to tell the real story, right from the start?” The result is great television, both elating and troubling. It could have been done so easily … just by deciding to, as the pilot’s title suggests. But it wasn’t, any more than Barack Obama’s administration resembled Jed Bartlett’s.
Sorkin keeps us thinking about the way things ought to be, and he actually believes change is possible. He presents that optimism by dramatizing the struggles and ambitions, the victories and defeats, of a fascinating group of smart committed people, from Alison Pill’s suddenly promoted Associate Producer to Sam Waterson’s drunken News Division President to Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy and Emily Morton’s incoming producer MacKenzie McHale. The acting is needle sharp. The actors know how to land a joke as well as make a speech and they work together like they’ve been doing it forever.
In short: the show is brilliant, and Aaron Sorkin is back.
Yes, the same Aaron Sorkin who created Sports Night fourteen years ago and A Few Good Men nine years before that. If you didn’t like him then, if you think The West Wing improved in the fifth season after he left the show, then you’ll probably agree with the critics and find The Newsroom a pompous snooze-fest.
But if you loved Sports Night and thought The West Wing turned into a zombie parody of his former self when its show-runner got fired, if you still sometimes find yourself muttering “You can’t handle the truth” under your breath in a breath-taking variety of situations, then you may just believe that  Aaron Sorkin is one of the great auteurs of our new Golden Age of television, and you’re just grateful to have him back. I know I am. Ignore the critics and their predictable praise cycles and give The Newsroom a chance. Let yourself feel a moment of hope, admit the secret pleasure of hearing someone “Speak the truth to stupid.”
You’ll be glad you did.

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