I’m back, and The Newsroom is fucking terrible

Nothing like a televised debacle of the sort that aired on HBO last night to annoy me out of the blogging indolence I’ve been mired in lately. Aaron Sorkin’s latest is the most odious ode to self-indulgence and wankery since, well, the last Aaron Sorkin odious ode to self-indulgence and wankery.

So. Jeff Daniels is a milquetoast news anchor who has a Network-style entertaining meltdown while speaking at Northwestern University. He goes on vacation, and comes back to find that his staff has largely deserted him, because his brilliance is matched by his dickishness, and his boss has hired an old flame as his new executive producer, and she has Big Ideas about how they should aspire to do the kind of “nightly newscast that informs debate worthy of a great nation” and oh my fucking god it’s SO Aaron Sorkin, the worst of Aaron Sorkin, it’s SUCH an ungainly mash-up of gauche pitter patter dialogue and grandiose fulminating, and it’s even got a full 90 second opening credits sequence with the actors dramatically turning their heads as their names pop up, accompanied by treacly music and intercut with black and white photos of Cronkite and Murrow so as to hit the nerve for Greatest Generation nostalgia that Sorkin has such a boner for, and drunk Sam Waterston even unnecessarily pops in and out, wearing a completely ridiculous bow tie, spouting more platitudinous nostalgia, and *deep breath* it’s all just such, such CRAP.

As the staff (somewhat entertainingly, actually) precognitively unspools both the true extent of the damage and the revelations of conspiratorial buffoonery to come in the first few minutes of the Deepwater Horizon spill, we keep cutting back to Jeff Daniels’ office, where Emily Mortimer (the aforementioned new executive producer) makes a syrupy paean about reclaiming the fourth estate, only to have Daniels rebuke her with a nasty one-liner. So she delivers another soliloquy, saying pretty much the exact same thing again, and he smacks her down again. So she tries again. This happens FIFTY FUCKING TIMES, and it is classic Bad Sorkin: bury the lede (the worst man-made environmental disaster in American history is being investigated right outside this office) in favor of focusing on speechifying ex-lovers, mixing the paternalistic complaints of the girl (and it’s always the girl character who’s paternalistic – girls are over-emotional, you know) with the snarky dismissiveness of the guy (and it’s always the guy character who’s snarky and dismissive – guys are cynical meatheads, you know) (Sorkin’s treatment of gender roles was never all that nuanced, even in the context of the similarly simplistic, David E. Kelley stuff of the late 90s – and Jesus, this show just reeks of 90s sensibilities – nowadays, it’s positively prehistoric) (Kelley, as well, is still peddling this shit, most recently with the revolting Harry’s Law) (these are a lot of parentheticals, huh?) and tossing it around until you’ve got word salad for two (assholes.)

But wait! The fifty-first time is the charm, because this time, even though she’s doing nothing but repeating herself again, this time the treacly piano music comes in under the speech, and Daniels just. Finally. Gets it. And then he puts on his big boy pants, and yells at reps from Haliburton and the Mineral Management Services about shit he couldn’t possibly know about, shit that took the shitty real reporters of the real world weeks to figure out, and so would’ve taken even the good real reporters of the real world days to figure out, but Jeff Daniels has the benefit of Sorkin and his team distilling two years worth of research and revelation into an impossibly informed, succinct, sixty minute broadcast to be delivered five minutes after the rig explodes, a broadcast which, to top it all off, he does off the top of his head. No prompter. No, I didn’t exaggerate that last part for effect. No, The Newsroom is not a postmodern satire of Nietzsche where the Ubermensch is realized as a souped-up Keith Olbermann. (I should totally write that show.) It’s just awful. Just really, really awful.

What really sucks is all the wasted potential. You’ve got a writer who’s shown himself capable of some truly inspiring work, a talented cast, the justly lauded creativity-cultivating atmosphere of HBO, and, as important an ingredient as any, a topic ripe for exploration. Today’s news climate does suck. It’s not just faux-nostalgia for an era of greater principles that never really existed, the kind of “things used to be purer” crap you hear whenever a famous athlete is caught roiding himself up (as if Gaylord Perry never threw spitballs and Ty Cobb wasn’t a violent racist) or when we hear all about how the latest election season is “the nastiest in history” (as if the Jefferson campaign never ran ads calling John Adams a hermaphrodite (didn’t make that one up, either.)

Yes, there was stuff like the Joseph Pulitzer/William Randolph Hearst dick measuring contest that helped set off the Spanish-American War, and the press has always had its share of character assassins and misinformation peddlers, but as recently as only a few decades ago there was also authentic courage to be found within. Murrow’s two-night editorial evisceration of McCarthy isn’t merely the stuff of legend – it was real, and it was insanely risky on both the part of Murrow and CBS executive Bill Paley to do something like A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy, not to mention other, lesser known programs like Harvest of Shame, a heartbreaking look at the grueling life of the American migrant worker. Arthur Sulzberger told Richard Nixon to go fuck himself when he tried to bully the New York Times into ceasing publication of the Pentagon Papers; when Nixon got a court-ordered injunction against their publication, Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post joined in solidarity with the Times in support of freedom of the press, and the Post began publishing their own articles on the Papers.

These were risky actions taken by powerful people who took genuine pride in their work, who saw themselves as businessmen, sure, but also as informers. As hard as it is to believe, they gave a shit about putting out a quality product, and not *just* the almighty dollar. They were interested in the truth, and took personal umbrage at being misled or manipulated. To put it in The Newsroom’s nice-sounding, if overly simplified parlance: “In the old days, we did the news well. You know why? We just decided to.”

So I would love to see a show that went on the attack against the near-total corruption, laziness, anti-intelligence and cowardice of our current world of news, the “bias toward balance” that leads to stuff like Anderson Cooper being excoriated for describing a lie as a lie, a world where lies are just “disagreements,” bigoted speech is merely “un-PC,” and one lone nut with a PhD from the Come-For-Me-Sweet-Jesus-Yes-All-Over-My-Chest-Just-Like-That Divinity School who says climate change isn’t real is enough to call the science “unsettled.” These malignancies endemic to our news model should be pointed out, and attacked, and ridiculed, and the alternative hypothesized and illustrated. But what nobody needs, what is a total waste of time and talent, what is just *masturbation* is a douchey Captain Hindsight snarking at his professional lessers and bickering with his shrill ex-girlfriend. Nobody needs it, but that’s what we’ve got in The Newsroom.

So congrats, Mr. Sorkin. You Greedo’d the fuck out of one of the easiest targets out there. Please don’t ever do a takedown of Big Tobacco; it’ll probably make me a chain smoker.

Hey, that was fun! I should totally do this blogging thing more often!

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