That Shakespeare! So talky! So much speechifying!
Why must Laertes lecture so much?
No one will mistake the bard for Aaron Sorkin, the brainy TV writer who gave us “The West Wing” and “The Social Network.” But people are certainly putting up some oddball arguments against almost certainly the strongest series to start this summer.
“The Newsroom” (HBO, 10 p.m.) concerns a newscaster who plays it right down the bland middle until he suddenly decides at a college lecture at Northwestern to really let some coed have it when she asks what makes America the bestest country in the world.
His shocking answer, one based on statistics he’s about to unfurl is an exceptional one against exceptionalism: It isn’t. It leads the world in no categories he can name except percentage of citizens imprisoned.
Jeff Daniels plays the guy with just the right puffed up importance. When someone calls him the Jay Leno of news, I thought it’s just because of the chin. But when he starts on a tirade – and some critics fault him the most for it, maybe they’ve forgotten what anchors sound like. Their profession is to talk endlessly, especially during tragedies, to keep the narrative going no matter what. There’s no stopping them. Remember Dan Rather? The guy has a lot to say. I once asked John King an innocent question at a party and started trying to figure exit strategies 20 minutes later, when he was still going on.
Sorkin is dead right on the instinct of anchors to talk. But he may be a little old fashioned if he thinks news anchor have the power today that Murrow or Cronkite have. The audience today is so fractured, no single newsman could ever wield that kind of power again – especially from cable.
And yet, Daniels’ character Will McAvoy marshals his team to create a kind of newscast now thought impossible – based on facts, without the false equivalence of “balance,” calling spades spades.
And it’s downright exciting in the debut tonight to watch the team dig up information on the just exploded BP oil rig – though the idea that they could get all of this information on the fly just after it happens is a pipedream. Yet this is, at its core, entertainment. And Will McAvoy can whip up an issue and resolve it in a single newscast to thrill us with the possibilities, just as President Jed Bartlet could move a bill through Congress thrillingly and with righteousness in a single episode (though nobody could make government move in such a way now).
The notion of “The Newsroom” is the Quixotic effort to try and do the best and it’s great to watch a TV show that’s actually about something important.
It helps, I guess, that I agree with Sorkin on his assessment of everything – the country, the news, the Tea Party know nothings, the corporate control of everything, how unfair Obama is treated, the empty calories of “entertainment news” masquerading as actual news, the fate of a democracy depending on an informed citizenry.
Relishing in his teleplays is like watching Keith Olbermann – I can pat myself on the back for agreeing with everything he’s saying. And yet Olbermann is a terrible example, full of the kind of bluster he accuses his “worst persons in the world” of having.
Daniels’ McAvoy isn’t trying to be Olbermann, but Sorkin says he soaked up atmosphere from hanging around Olbermann’s studio (on the night of the BP spill, as it happens). This is strange, because the approach of McAvoy is nothing like this. He makes his point by asking pointed questions; there’s hardly room for editorializing, summarizing or certainly not the listing of “the worst person in the world.”
The dialog crackles and sparks through most of this. It’s thrilling to take in. The banter between men and women will invariably remind you of Josh and Donna batting it back and forth in “The West Wing” – almost too much so.
It’s a terrific cast, with a whole sub level of younger staffers who have their own flirting and gamesmanship to wage. It’s got one of those big sweeping themes like the “West Wing” used to have and a lot of TV shows used to have. We don’t have sweeping themes any more. Sorkin wants to bring them back – and the kind of shows that warrant them.
And those who have been denigrating the effort even before it starts – the same people who spend their days championing “Revenge” and “Glee”? Do they not want something big and grand and swinging for the fences rather than small and grubby and reliably venal? I sure do.
Let us welcome “The Newsroom.” Let its optimism inspire one TV newsroom somewhere to change direction, to do something good.