Arts and Culture

'The Newsroom'

Otherwise known as Aaron Sorkin's diaries. The pursuit of truth never seemed so unreal.

By Shannon Rupp 20 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor of The Tyee. Read her previous articles here.

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Jeff Daniels as surly news anchor Will McAvoy, a prime Voice-of-Sorkin.

Watching Aaron Sorkin's dreadful new HBO drama The Newsroom is like encountering someone with multiple personality disorder and a lack of imagination. The characters may have different names and outfits, but they're all just puppets delivering the outdated VOS -- that's Voice of Sorkin.

You know that voice. It sounds suspiciously like the voice of those old curmudgeons sitting in their undershirts yelling "you kids get off my lawn!"

Far more interesting than the show is the raging debate between fans of the show -- who tend to be greying Baby Boomers and retirees -- and its detractors. Because of it, I understand (for the first time) what the term generation gap means. And it's not about age so much as it is about perspective.

The Globe and Mail's Sarah Nicole Prickett caught some real life examples of Sorkin's patronizing, outdated style when he taught her to high-five at a news conference. Apparently he's sick of "girls" who can't do this and decided to shape her up. (And doesn't that just explain why Sorkin's shows always feel like dispatches from the man-cave?)

At 51 Sorkin is hardly old, but he is one seriously rich, privileged, white, middle-aged guy who has enough money to insulate himself from reality, which is something writers should not do if they expect to remain relevant. They run out of stories to tell and people to inspire them and they're left with recycling old stuff, for which Sorkin is notorious.

Welcome to Sorkinland

In an era of great character-driven shows -- Justified, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Good Wife -- Sorkin offers a collection of marionettes delivering rants better suited to op-eds. There's no character development, no hint of real people with real motivations, and certainly no insight. Just scene after ridiculously improbable scene of people whose behaviour makes no sense whatsoever.

For those of you who have missed the show -- congrats, by the way -- it's supposedly set in a TV newsroom, but it doesn't reflect any real newsroom anywhere, at any time. This newsroom resides in Sorkinland, a place that time forgot. Perhaps there was some natural disaster there that blended the 1950s and the 1980s and sprinkled it with anachronisms?

As I watched the first four episodes, in which a 40-ish TV producer is supposedly mystified by that newfangled email and a 20-something has Rod Stewart's 1978 hit "Do you think I'm sexy" as her ringtone, all I could think was, "Aaron: you've got to get out more!"

Apparently Sorkin's sole TV influence is Glee: he pinched the drink-in-the-face ritual and has characters flinging fluids with abandon. While we're on the subject, how is this funny? It's assault, and it barely flies in the surreal musical comedy world of Glee's high school -- but they're supposed to be childish. For Sorkin to try and sell it in a world supposedly full of New York media sophisticates is simply asinine.

Sorkin's show reflects the views of people who seem to gain all their knowledge of the world at a distance via TV, movies, and other isolating forms of mass media like talk radio and video games.

The Newsroom leaves me wondering if he ever chats with anyone but his minions, who are paid to genuflect? Does he listen to anyone else's views? Read a book? (Preferably one on journalism history.)

Stunning disconnection

The premise of The Newsroom show is that our hero, a 60-ish news anchor who is the definitive Voice-of-Sorkin, has an epiphany while speaking on a public panel. When asked why he thinks the U.S. is the greatest country in the world he deflects the question until cornered. Deeply angry, he makes a rash decision: instead of spreading nationalist propaganda, which has become the norm for corporate news media, he decides to tell the truth.

It's a universal fantasy. Who hasn't wanted to confront some peddler of marketing-babble with the truth? And it's a bang-up opener -- the one place where Sorkin's enraged rants work. Leaving aside how outdated TV news is in the age of instant online updates, we can understand the emotions of a sellout who decides he's going to defy his masters and start doing his job right, dammit! Had Sorkin wanted to tell a tale of reporters who are still fighting the good fight while their corporate owners stab them in the back, I think most of us would have cheered him on. After all, it's true.

But truth is of no concern in Sorkinland. The conceit of the show is that we relive recent news stories and the Voice-of-Sorkin puppets, dizzy with the hubris of hindsight, handle them better. Or rather, handle them in ways Sorkin thinks would be better.

I won't bore you with the many things he gets it wrong about the news gathering biz. Let's just say that among my many quibbles with The Newsroom is Sorkin's godawful news judgment. Why does Sorkin keep setting shows in workplaces he's never experienced? The equally awful Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip comes to mind. Did he miss that memo on writing what you know?

Perhaps. Scriptwriting is a collaborative business, and he's reportedly stingy when it comes to giving other writers credit. In his days at The West Wing, he's quoted as saying that the writing room researched story ideas, but he-and-he-alone wrote the scripts.

And therein lies the problem with The Newsroom. Artists engage us by showing us how the world works through their work. They don't just get researchers to pull up some disconnected facts and incidents on which to hang their ignorant personal views. That's cheap, lazy, and worse -- it's the dramatic equivalent of the Fox TV news shows Sorkin supposedly despises.

Need spirit? Watch Ephron

It's unfortunate for Sorkin that the launch of The Newsroom coincides with the death of Nora Ephron, at 71, because it prompted millions of us to do retrospectives of her hit movies. They accidentally reveal why Sorkin's work looks so dated, while so much of hers is timeless.

Superficially the two writers have some similarities. Both are criticized for focusing on the lives of privileged, white liberals, and they both spotlight characters who are romantically challenged to the point of being non compos mentis. They both write about the conflicts of working in a dying industry. In You've Got Mail, Ephron's heroine is the owner of an independent bookstore that can't compete with a corporate big box chain. Using her light, satirical touch Ephron sketches out why this is happening, all the while making us laugh.

She realizes a truth that eludes Sorkin entirely: Technology changes, people don't. So she isn't distracted by gadgets and gizmos, nor does she fear them. In both You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, the heroines fall in love with men they've never met (invariably, the most attractive sort of man) via glimpses of them online and on talk radio respectively. They might as well be lovers of any era seduced by billets-doux.

While the romantic plots are fanciful, the people in Ephron's satirical stories endure because her characters are entirely real -- we laugh because we've met these people. No doubt because she took her screenwriter mother's advice to heart: no matter what happened to her or anyone else, it was copy.

Pity Sorkin never saw that advice: I've yet to meet one of his cardboard cutout characters anywhere, although I did trip over a guy in You've Got Mail who reminded me of Sorkin himself. Ephron casts Greg Kinnear as a narcissistic newspaper columnist who writes odes to his typewriter and rants about the sinister nature of the Internet. He claims the moral and intellectual high ground by romanticizing an imaginary past -- small bookstores have a "Jeffersonian purity" while big box retailers are evil -- but the truth is he's just so self-obsessed that he has no idea what's going on around him. Of course he's a hypocrite -- isn't that the origin of the word hipster? -- and he drops his anti-tech schtick the minute he's invited to speak on a TV talk show about his Luddite views.

We laugh. But he's not unlike Sorkin making bad TV protesting bad TV.

So this is my answer to the next person who tries to sell me on how much The Newsroom has to say about journalism, or corporatization, or writing, or love, or anything to do with life in the early 21st century. Go watch Nora Ephron's films. Then we can talk.  [Tyee]

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