The television of cruelty: Aaron Sorkin thinks we're stupid, and he's punishing us for it
Every Monday, Glynnis MacNicol will be writing about the new HBO series, "The Newsroom." Today, Episode 4, "I'll Try to Fix You." (Earlier posts here.)
Following last week's episode of "The Newsroom" I resolved to resist devoting substantial parts of these recaps to pointing out all the things Aaron Sorkin has fundamentally gotten wrong about the cable-television news world unless it was especially egregious.
After all, this is a television show and in much the same way I am able to immensely enjoy a terrific drama like "Justified" even though I suspect it's probably not plausible that a U.S. Marshal would be allowed to roam Kentucky coal country indiscriminately shooting people dead, it's not fair to care too much that Aaron Sorkin has clearly not actually watched any cable TV prior to writing a show about cable TV. (I mean, the fact U.S. presidents probably do not stand in church yelling at God in Latin did not keep the "West Wing" episode Two Cathedrals from being one of the best hours of television ever.)
Turns out I picked the right episode to apply my new set of "Newsroom" recap rules. In "I'll Try to Fix You," the fourth episode in the series, there is a lot less news and lot more character interaction. Alas, instead of freeing the audience up from comparing actual recent news to Aaron Sorkin's strange preachy version of how it should have been handled in the media, and allowing us to get to know our protagonists better, Sunday's episode simply revealed that what's wrong with "The Newsroom" is not actually its faulty news sense; it's that Aaron Sorkin has developed a great, inexplicable contempt for his audience. He believes us dumber than we were when he wrote "The West Wing," when in fact we're smarter.
"I'm on a mission to civilize," says Will to a series of dates whom he alternately calls "crazy," a "bitch," and worse than a heroin dealer, this last bit to a gossip columnist he meets at the New Year's party (which ACN is weirdly holding in its newsroom) who tells him she's in the process of penning a "takedown" of one of the "Real Housewives of New Jersey."
Why, reality television is "pollution!" exclaims Will, before launching in to the first of many tedious (and increasingly hostile) lectures about why people (or, in Sorkin's world, women) who watch reality shows and parlay in gossip are "destroying civilization" (he actually says this) and why reality stars deserve their privacy. (Which, I know I said I wouldn't be nitpicky but here is another example of Sorkin's oh-so-strange logic. You want to defend people's right to privacy? Fine! Defend it. But then why pick a reality-television star to make this argument when the entire premise of reality television is that the people on it desperately want you to know about the intimate details of their private life?)
It gets worse.
"Thank goodness you met me in time," he later says to the woman he has just called a "bitch" over dinner because she's regaling him with the details of the latest "Real Housewives." It's a guilty pleasure, she tells him. Dessert is a guilty pleasure, he says; reality television is "human cock-fighting" (which admittedly would have been a great line if it hadn't been wrapped in so much awfulness).
Of all the demeaning interactions that filled this episode, the "bitch" remark was perhaps the most jolting. Here's why: Sorkin actually meant it. The remark was not intended to be a moment that revealed to us something about the character of Will. A moment where we discover Will is an unreliable narrator and the audience is afforded a glimpse into the sort of anger churning in his mind when it comes to the world, or women, or both and allowed to draw their own conclusions about that. No. Instead when Will calls his date a "bitch" because she likes reality TV it's clear he means it, and furthermore we are assured he is right to mean it (which one might argue inadvertently reveals more about Sorkin than any one character on the show). Sorkin's judgment is immediate, humorless, and absolute (and in this episode almost entirely directed at women).
Will's Don Quixote-esque campaign (this is the second time Don Quioxte has been mentioned in the series) to civilize the women in his life (or, alternately, the misguided female population of New York City), continuously ends with a drink in his face and a gossip story about Will in Page Six, which is actually on page 10, says Charlie Skinner, as if any real New Yorker would congratulate himself for this observation.
(Will, meanwhile, doesn't read the New York Post because "his eyes are attached to his brain," which is such a ridiculous thing to say I can't let it pass. Everyone in media reads the New York Post, whether they love it or hate it, not just because Page Six does terrific media reporting but because the Post does terrific media reporting. I guess the point is Aaron Sorkin does not read the New York Post because he is too civilized).
Eventually Will lands on the cover of TMI, a Sorkin-world Us Weekly equivalent, and an emergency meeting is called wherein Skinner realizes that all these stories are not News Corp. plants (point to Sorkin on verisimilitude there: Fox News' P.R. department relentlessly attempts to plant stories about competitors in Page Six or anywhere else they are able, for that matter). Because it's the machinations of Leona Lansing—who, you will recall, threatened at the end of last week's episode to fire Will unless he got in line—that are now the focus.
On the off chance your mind has been filled up with so much reality "pollution" this week, Sorkin has thoughtfully provided a flashback. To last week. Because apparently Sorkin doesn't trust us to keep up.
In the midst of all this Will (in a segment that prompted me to Google "Olbermann and N.R.A." because it sounded so familiar) uses his show to out the right-wing media as liars for reporting that Obama is going to take away their guns. Obama's record on gun control is dismal, Will points out. Fox News (or rather, Glenn Beck's radio show, which they mistakenly use twice in lieu of Fox News clips) and Rush Limbaugh are lying to you. Like sex offenders they should come with a warning label for the rest of their lives. In case you missed the point about gun control (which I actually did, more on that in a moment) Will also dates a woman (a liberal's liberal) who carries a gun and the episode ends with Gabby Gifford's shooting (complete with a Coldplay song), which we are assured Will and his team reported absolutely accurately, unlike NPR.
I spent a lot of this week's episode wondering what had happened to Sorkin. When did he get so mean? And why?
I imagined Will going on a date with C.J. Cregg (or even Dana Whitaker) and envisioned how instead of throwing a drink in his face she would have dusted him off with a few biting lines. After watching Maggie and Jim and Don stumble through some stiff "relationship" dialogue (Maggie and MacKenzie continue to suffer in relationships with the wrong man. Jim is now sleeping with Maggie's roommate who worries before their first date she is not smart enough for him), I recalled fondly the fun, snappy exchanges between Josh and Donna.
"The Newsroom" is just not fun, and maybe that is because Sorkin is no longer having fun. Perhaps he's too busy being angry at the world (with a hard-to-miss focus on women). Ironically, considering Sorkin's contempt for the Internet, watching the Newsroom feels a bit like delving into the political blogosphere: either you toe the line or you leave yourself open to bucketloads of verbal hate. Just this week The Chicago Sun-Times had to turn off comments on a story about Alex Okrent, the 29-year-old Obama staffer who suddenly collapsed and died at Obama headquarters, because they were getting so nasty. On "The Newsroom" there is no room to disagree or for the characters to develop; we are basically just waiting for everyone to come to their senses or be punished.
Maybe this is because Sorkin hasn't developed. One of the things that made "The West Wing" great was its dialogue. When the show launched in 1999 there was nothing like it on television. Every episode was packed from start to stop with language. You had to run to keep up. It felt a bit like a terrific history lesson and that was one of the things I loved best about it, that every episode made me feel smarter. Sorkin left "The West Wing" in 2003. Since then the Internet (and more recently Twitter) has basically supplanted the need for all those fun little facts that peppered Sorkin's television shows (in Sorkin's world the one character who spends time on the Internet is defined by his belief in Bigfoot). Viewers no longer need Sorkin's quiz-show-like brain because we have access to thousands of them with the click of a button. We no longer need to be told things because we are being told things all day, every day, non-stop. We are being told so many things half of the start-up world is devoted to helping us figure out how to be told less (aggregate, baby).
Perhaps then it's not a coincidence that one of the defining characteristics of this golden age of television we are currently enjoying is what is left unsaid.
Matthew Weiner recently described the best television writing as storytelling is the equivalent dropping the audience out of an airplane every week. These days the most powerful moments on television are often the ones in which nothing is said (think of Betty pouring Don a drink when she confronts him with pictures of his Dick Whitman past; think of Walter White opening a wine bottle with a knife and gulping down two glasses alone in the kitchen while he tries desperately to swallow his ego in order to hew to Skyler's fake story about his "gambling addiction"). Dialogue (even in a show like "Deadwood," which was overbrimming with rich language, or for that matter "Girls") is often about what the character is not saying. What the audience does not know.
TV has high expectations of its audience and audiences are accustomed to this. (So much so, that it wasn't until after the show had concluded I even made the connection between the gun storyline and Gabby Giffords, because shoehorning obvious moral lessons into an hourlong drama is currently considered so amateur it would never occur to me someone writing for HBO would even attempt it.) We have been asked by writers to step up to the plate and we have done so willingly (and gratefully!) and as a result we have been blessed with a deluge of great, great storytelling.
But not from Sorkin. Sorkin still believes we need to be spoon-fed (or battered with) dialogue and plot points. Which is too bad. I would prefer it if Sorkin assumed the audience he is writing for is smart, or at least wanted to be smarter. If I wanted to be talked to like I am an idiot there is plenty of cable television that can accomplish that.