Tag Archives: Aaron Sorkin

Nickel and Dimed: Two Cents on HBO’s The Newsroom [Review]

“We Just Decided To”

June 24th, 2012

I saw all of the tweets about The Newsroom leading up to its debut. I saw them build with excitement around its beginnings, and then I saw them increase in volume while splintering off into numerous factions in the months leading up to its premiere. With some shows, screeners go out and very little is said about them within the critical community, with any chatter confined to backchannels. With The Newsroom, though, the conversation couldn’t help but spill out into public, and it became almost a rite of passage for critics to announce their opinion of the show so as to line up into certain camps.

This isn’t abnormal, precisely: whenever critics write a review, they are stating their opinion and implicitly entering into a particular group of critics who felt a particular way about a particular series. However, everything about the critical discourse around The Newsroom has been explicit, at least following it on Twitter: this is partly because of the show itself (which is divisive), and partly because of creator Aaron Sorkin (who has a divisive history), and partly because of the show’s would-be relationship to the sociopolitical. Without suggesting that Aaron Sorkin has actually made a television show that will change the news media and those who bear witness to it (which he has not, just so we’re entirely clear), the fact that he wants to renders critical evaluations into sociopolitical evaluations for some, with the rejection or acceptance of Sorkin’s worldview becoming a reflection of the critic’s own.

I don’t believe this to be true, of course, and have not read into—or read, actually—any of those critics’ reviews. When I realized that I would be going into The Newsroom tonight with the rest of the viewing public, I chose not to read the various intelligent, well-reasoned, divisive reviews of the series in advance; I knew I was going to watch it, and Twitter had already told me that the show is a case of “Your Mileage May Vary,” and part of me wanted to escape the discourse of Sorkin, and the media, and worldviews in favor of a more simple question.

Is The Newsroom an effective television pilot? A recent Facebook thread featuringprofessors/grad students discussing potential pilots to screen for students in a Television class got me thinking about this. On one level, you want to show students something great, something that grabs their attention and potentially sends them off to watch the rest of the series: we had a number of students do this with Friday Night Lights this past semester, for example. However, you could also show them a failed pilot (like David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman, which I know the folks at the Good TVeets Con recently watched) and ask them where they think it went wrong.

While both strategies have merit, and are probably easier ways to communicate how pilots are intended to work, part of me wants to show them The Newsroom, which manages to succeed and fail in the same moments. Everything that works about The Newsroom is also everything that doesn’t, as Sorkin’s powerful use of momentum means we never have time to stop and connect to something more than a feeling that may not last as long as the show might like. I am aware that too much ink has probably been spent on the show already, and I’m likely repeating things many others have said, but I can’t deny that answering even this simply question left me plenty to say about The Newsroom.

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“Those Stories Plus…” – Sports Night Season One


Those Stories Plus…

Sports Night Season One

It’s no secret around these parts that Alan Sepinwall’s criticism is a fairly big influence on both what I do and how I do it, but what I find is his most influential contribution to the television watching community is his summer coverage of various shows. Last summer, I started watching The Wire when I did because of his detailed writeups of first season episodes; yes, I knew the show existed and had even purchased some DVD sets ahead of time, but Alan’s work was the motivating factor that made me commit to the series wholeheartedly. Alan’s devotion and commitment to these shows motivates people to watch TV, to buy TV on DVD, and more importantly to discuss that television within a community of like-minded surveyers of moving image.

It also means that this summer, as Alan turns his attention to three different projects (The Wire Season 2, Band of Brothers and Sports Night), many wallets are somewhat lighter, including my own: while I have already seen The Wire’s second season, his other two projects served as the right motivation to keep catching up on shows or miniseries that I missed in the days before my television addiction. It is as a result that I now own a copy of Band of Brothers and the complete series of Sport Night; I’d blame Alan for my dwindling bank account, but then I’d have to lie and say that they weren’t worth every penny.

Sports Night, which aired on ABC from 1998-2000, is something that I’ve always known about, but to be honest I really didn’t know much about its origin, or its format, or really anything to really recommend the series beyond its pedigree. Serving as the training ground for The West Wing for writer Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme, the show covers the behind the scenes goings-on at a cable news show (ala SportsCenter), and relies heavily on the dynamic of its cast, led by the show’s two anchors (Josh Charles and Peter Krause) and the show’s executive producer (Felicity Huffman).

I’m not going to go episode by episode, or really even offer any sort of constructive thoughts about the show’s storylines – it’s a damn good show, one that I suggest everyone watch, but there’s more important things to discuss. For now (I’m only done the first season), I want to talk about what works, what doesn’t, and how I’m absolutely fascinated that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip fell apart like it did when Sorkin had these lessons to fall back on.

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How Aaron Sorkin Ruined ‘Studio 60’ – Part Two: Comic and Dramatic Execution

I had said before that I would be discussing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in comparison to 30 Rock, and I will be…but not to the extent I was before. I didn’t want this to turn this into a question of whether 30 Rock or Studio 60 is the better series, because I really don’t think that there’s a challenge there. What I want to take a look at is how each show took their initial premise and turned it into a series that combines comedy and drama, because their pilots are more or less entirely the same concept. Revered sketch comedy series faces creative problems and network pressure, and in that state of upheaval they must pull themselves together. I attempted to consider this piece as a competition between them, but I’ll just make this simple statement: Tina Fey got it right, and Aaron Sorkin got it wrong.

The Comedy

I know that Sorkin isn’t a comedy writer…but why the hell does he even try, then? He is great at writing short little quips (And there’s some great ones), but he isn’t capable of writing capable sketch comedy if his life depended on it. And yet, for some reason, it’s basically the way they’ve injected comedy into the show’s format since its pilot. While the pilot showcased some very funny stuff from funny people, I am entirely convinced that none of the characters themselves are capable of telling a joke: in fact, that was even a plot point for Harriet! Sorkin should have left the sketch comedy alone and let these characters define their own comic style. By relegating the comedy into sketch comedy format, even Matt and Danny have been unable to define themselves as something other than comedy writers. I’d say that only Jack, untainted by the show within a show, remains funny out of the show’s regular cast.

While the show may not be a drama, it is inherent that it be at least a little bit funny for its premise (A comedy show’s cast) makes a lick of sense. Sorkin’s rapid fire dialogue is funny, yes, but often takes for granted the fact that the people saying it are funny. I believe that Sorkin’s decision to make these characters simple actors as opposed to people, when it comes to comedy, forces us to believe they’re funny without actually ever showing it to us. And that’s poor writing.

Smartly, 30 Rock made a distinct decision to pretty well ignore the sketch comedy itself outside of spot bits in certain episodes. The comic focus, therefore, switched to Tina’s neurotic behaviour, Tracy’s paranoia, Kenneth’s awesomeness, Jack’s awesomeness, Jenna’s awkwardness, etc. In other words, we found these characters funny not because they wrote or performed comedy, but because they were actually funny.

The Drama

Okay, this is going to take a while here. When Aaron Sorkin ran The West Wing, he was able to tackle enormously large issues thanks to his setting; by placing his characters smack dab in the middle of the world’s most powerful government, he had free reign to do whatever he wanted…and the result was a compelling drama that was varied and interesting and was willing to tackle things other shows didn’t dream of tackling.

And Studio 60 started on the right path: early season drama reflected exactly what it should have. Jordan was a great source of this drama, a young executive struggling to appear presentable (Whatever happened to that assistant of hers, she was intelligent and called Jordan on her bullshit). Jack was another great source, as his dealings with Macao were actually kind of interesting to see and added some level of depth to the proceedings. And, even the show within a show offered some perspective on ratings and cast drama. That setup, then, was combined with Matt/Harriet, with interpersonal conflict, with all of that jazz. It’s just like The West Wing: presidential drama takes center stage, Josh/Donna supports it.

However, after the show was clearly not coming back for a second season around midseason, Sorkin apparently decide to ignore all of this. Suddenly, Jordan became a hormonal mess who was in love with Danny of all people, and stopped being a network executive except when Sorkin wanted to have a reality TV rant. Matt/Harriet suddenly became the entire show, not even leaving room for poor Jack forced to sit back on the sidelines. Suddenly, this wasn’t a show about television, it was a show about two people who just won’t get over one another and a completely contrived relationship that has never, ever made sense.

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Filed under 30 Rock, NBC, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Television