we used to listen to Great Men telling us what to think on TV

HBO has kindly uploaded the entire first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom to YouTube, so if, like me, you’ve read a lot about it but haven’t actually seen it, well… read about it some more!

The Good:

Sam Waterston gets to shout: “I’m a Marine, Don, I will beat the shit out of you, I don’t care how many protein bars you eat!” This happens at 0:18:00.

A young producer uncovers the unfolding story of the BP oil spill and quarrels with another producer about whether to run with it and what the magnitude of the disaster will turn out to be. THIS IS THE ONLY THING IN THIS SHOW THAT RESEMBLES NARRATIVE MOMENTUM.

The Bad:

The premise of the show is completely wrongheaded. First, nobody ever lost ratings in cable news by being more shouty and confrontational, so the idea that Will is risking something here doesn’t fly. But that means there’s really no conflict here. Will can Speak His Mind and his ratings will probably go up. You end up wondering what the fuck took him so long. (But see also Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, which played out in a universe where a comedy show would take heat for making mild jokes about “crazy Christians” — or, in other words, a universe in which no one had ever heard of the Church Lady, Ned Flanders, or anything that has ever happened on either Family Guy or South Park.)

This terrible, cringe-o-genic rant opens the show:

First of all, is he taking questions at a preschool? What contemporary college student, having an opportunity to put a question to a well-known journalist (well, newsanchor), pitches a bullshit question like “What do you think makes America the greatest country in the world?” So, right out of the gate we’re not in anything like the real world. But okay. It’s a springboard to a rant. We all saw that coming.

It starts off okayish, if you can ignore the “left and right — both sides suck amirite guys???” cheap equivalency that I think Sorkin thinks buys his character centrist credibility. Will — i.e., Sorkin and the New York Times editorial page — correct identifies a number of depressing indicators showing that maybe America isn’t the greatest country in the world. A few of them might be bullshit (e.g., our infant mortality rates are heavily sandbagged by the way we count dead babies), but I don’t think the diagnosis is wrong, overall. America has become a harsher place to live with fewer opportunities for education, advancement, or the good life as we used to know it.

But oh boy — then comes the syrupy romanticization of the recent past:

We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy.

When was it, exactly, that we didn’t beat our chest, especially when scared or threatened?

When did we not belittle intelligence? When did we not identify ourselves by our political candidates? And for the love of God, when did we “not scare so easy“?

Oh, and here’s a test — would black people consider getting in a time machine and going back there?

There was period of about two generations when America by and large had its shit together on many fronts — banks were regulated, income disparity was as low as it had ever been, and we invested heavily in science and infrastructure. But let’s not make the past into something it wasn’t. Americans were always political and always suspicious of each other. We spent money on science because we were afraid the Russians were “winning,” somehow — not because Americans had adopted a rational policy of investing in the future. Civil rights were non-existent for many people in many states, and curtailed for at least some people in every state. And television news was perhaps marginally better than it is today, but most people who wanted serious news thought TV was the enemy of good news and read the papers instead.

So. There’s that.

The Ugly:

Anything to do with anyone’s love life. UNIFORMLY AWFUL.

Emily Mortimer can’t act for shit. There, I said it, and it feels good.

If you want sexy, witty banter between a newsman and his girl Friday, why not just watch the original? It’s still good, and Howard Hawks actually liked his female characters and didn’t think they had to be cutesy and talk about shopping.

(As a bonus, Hawks and his screenwriters also knew that that Walter’s talk about the nobility of journalism was partly sincere, but also partly a good line that he used to run over people’s objections. I.e., someone in this movie occasionally says something he doesn’t mean. It’s an advanced writing technique Sorkin appears not to have brought to bear in The Newsroom.)

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4 Responses to we used to listen to Great Men telling us what to think on TV

  1. Janiece says:

    You know, even though everything you say is true, oh-so-true, I find I still enjoyed the show. Probably because “I’m drunk all the time.” Hehe. Plus there’s Sorkin’s gift for dialogue.

  2. thehandsomecamel says:

    Fair enough. I mean, hey, I watched it. He’ll always get a watch from me for creating The West Wing and Sports Night. (But lately I’ve enjoyed his movies more than his TV work.)

  3. JTS says:

    I think you mean a period of two *decades*, not two *generations*, right? Roughly 1955 – 1975.

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      I was going for a generous period bracketed by Pearl Harbor and Reagan’s first election, but your numbers are probably closer to the truth.

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