Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Emily Nussbaum's Drive-by Criticism
Well, it's not just her, though as a high profile TV critic for The new Yorker, she ought to know better.
First let's define our terms. A "drive by" critique is like a drive-by shooting -- fast and mean and cowardly: the opposite of a duel, or even a meaningful confrontation: squeeze the trigger, burn rubber and scram. Readers of the magazine that employs her know that Emily Nussbaum nurses an igrnorant, irrational loathing for Aaron Sorkin. Her fully realized essays about his work sound flat and shrill, as she takes the usual miss-by-a-mile potshots at the creator of The West Wing, Sports Night and The Newsroom: Sorkin is pompous, self-righteous, a bloviating narcissisitc bully, strutting his moral superiority and his overblown vocabulary for the unwashed masses. Yeah, well, he does have a good vocabulary. But it's his chracters talking, not him, and many of them (including the producer who faked a story on the second season of The Newsroom) are anything but the preening moral paragons Nussbaum describes. The protagonist of The Newsroom (her favorite target these days) Will McAvoy, starts out the show as a sold-out cable news anchor, lobbing whiffle ball questions at politicians with no follow up, pimping the lowest common denominator of infotainment in a greedy scramble for ratings. He has ideals but he's not living up to them. By the end of the show he's going to jail to protect a source.
According to Nussbaum, having ideals makes you pretentious, and living up to them makes you a bore. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact The Newsroom is far more entertaining, and serious, than the program Nussbaum was getting the vapors over this week -- Black Mirror, the new techno-Twilight Zone from England.
Nussbaum chides Sorkin for demanding integrity from real newscasters, and sneers at him for placing himself, and his made-up people, above the hardworking real-world journalists ... her pals. Maybe that's the secret of these bizarre, infantile screeds -- the newspeople writing about Sorkin feel threatened. Well, they deserve to. I saw Chuck Todd, who took over the venerable Meet the Press recently, explaining with no shame that he asks softball questions and lets politicians lie on his show beause if he got tough with them they would never come back. Sounds like something an Aaron Sorkin "straw man" reporter would say. But it wasn't. It was a real guy, a smug college drop-out trying to fill Tim Russert's shoes and betraying every fundamental principle of his trade. Reporters are supposed to confront politicians, not suck up to them. The high-pitched whistling sound you hear is Tim Russert spinning in his grave.
So, Sorkin calls out debased puny sycophants like Chuck Todd and dramatizes one way they could do their job better. That makes him an urgently necessary moral visionary, not a clown. Sorry he hurt your feelings, Emily. But taking cheap shots at him doesn't do much to vindicate your point of view. In fact it just proves Sorkin's point.
This week's cheap shot was especially lame and petty, revealing Nussbaum's shallow view, even of the shows she likes. She was raving about the Black Mirror pilot in which the Prime Minister is coerced into having sex with a pig on live televsion, to save the life of a kidnapped princess. Emily noticed the whole nation's obsession with the unfolding story. But she failed to mention (or just never saw the significance of) the key plot point. The terrorist releases the princess a full half hour before the deadline, because he knows no one will notice, because they all have their eyes glued to their little black screens. If anyone had just glanced up for a second, the whole horror show could have been stopped. That's the point. It may be a tad exaggerated, raised to the level of fable for effect, but the point itself is sound. I had a small jolt of that same reality last April when I found myself crossing to the shady side of the street on the first sunny day of the spring, so I could read the screen of my smartphone.
Of course, if Sorkin had attempted such heavy handed commentary, Nussbaum would have been all over him like slime on tofu. But her drive-by attack chose to aim at his supposed techno-phobia. Check out this classic sentence with its perfectly aimed gratuitous parenthesis (She's discussing the creator of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker).
Because Brooker is an insider, with a deep and imaginative understanding of tech culture, he doesn't come off as The Simpson's "Old Man Yells at Cloud" (or Aaron Sorkin, his representative here on earth).
I'll tell something about Aaron Sorkin -- he's never written a sentence that clumsy, or taken a cheap shot like that at anyone. And it's bullshit anyway -- Sorkin is no Luddite ... though some of his characters are (notably news director McKenzie McHale). Neil Sampat, a character who grew in stature and importance through all three seasons of the show, was dedicated to bringing Atlantis Media into the 21st century.
His only complaint with the internet was the people who abused it. But that point is a little too nuanced to fit into Nussbaum's lazy, smart-aleck parenthesis. Nussbaum thinks that sideswipe makes her look shrewd and cool. Instead she comes off as paltry and unkind, rebarbative and unprofessional. But she remains at her post, and The Newsroom has been cancelled.
I humbly suggest the opposite approach: bring back the show, and fire the critic.