Aaron Sorkin’s Mission to Civilise
Just like Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet in The West Wing was the ideal president, Jeff Daniels’s Will McEvoy in The Newsroom (HBO), Aaron Sorkin’s latest venture, is the ideal anchorman. He’s also the perfect kind of alpha male to build a television drama around: he’s fiery, handsome, sits in an office lined with impressive looking books – presidential biographies to my eye – younger women want to date him and younger men want to research news stories for him. Gore Vidal said that all writers have a repertoire in their heads, and if McEvoy is Bartlet then every other member of Sorkin’s ensemble from The West Wing is to be found in The Newsroom also. For the benefit of those of you who aren’t ‘Wingnuts’, I won’t compare and contrast the casts from each show but suffice to say that this is partly illustrative of what has nearly every critic hot and bothered: that there’s not enough that’s new here.
Large stretches of the show are simply statistics delivered as speeches – and not just when McEvoy is doing a piece for his News Night broadcast; a device that was far easier to pull off, and better written, when they were coming out of the mouth of the President. Another problem is the timescale: why start the show in 2010? Using old news and reporting it the way it could’ve been done with the benefit of hindsight seems crass. One of The West Wing’s strengths was that it was contained within its own ‘world’ of fictional events, sometimes drawing parallels with real events, but we always cared more about the characters’ responses to them as individuals than about the events themselves. But I can’t have it both ways, a new West Wing wasn’t what we needed; we needed a Sorkin show for current times and this isn’t quite it, but it could be. (Though, after the critical reception, whether it will get a chance to be that show is doubtful.)
The ‘mission to civilise’ is, however, admirable. Sorkin comes down hard on figures like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, as well as increasingly numinous features of Western society such as reality television, gossip columns and news-free news programmes. Though, again, it often feels like a lecture from Sorkin inserted into the show instead of a holistic part of a drama.
Having said this, I like it. Thus far it has been entertaining in spite of its flaws. For one, it’s made me laugh; there’s some banter flitting around and the cast are nearly all capable of delivering it. The exceptions, at first, were the British actors Emily Mortimer and Dev Patel but even they improved after the first episode and the newsroom crew started to gel. However, to end on a linguistic point, ‘arse’ and ‘ass’ are not pronunciations of the same word, and British people are quite capable of saying the latter.
Presumably, being a sensible person, Aaron Sorkin is no fan of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, but one hopes his ‘mission to civilise’ doesn’t seek to rob us of all guilty pleasures. Trash, like EL James’s book and the abhorrent Game of Thrones in all its forms, is trash but for an amiable rush of guilt with your pleasure, may I direct you to the Universal Channel? Prime Suspect USA has come to our fair screens and demands to be watched. Helen Mirren has morphed into Maria Bello and, though I’ve never seen the original ITV version, I can’t imagine that there are any other similarities between the two shows other than that their lead characters are both called Jane. Did Helen get pretty badly beaten by a thug in the first episode? Did she have a crew of trash-talking New York cops to contend with? Did she wear a trilby? Whatever the answers to these questions, Bello’s performance as one of the many, many tough-female-cops out there is refreshingly un-condescending, she’s neither an advocate of sex-sells interoffice politics or a complete bitch. However, do catch it quick because, as they similarly did to that other fine guilty pleasure, Harry’s Law, NBC cancelled after 13 episodes. Ho-hum.
Roving through the channels, I stumbled upon something called Dead Boss on BBC3, of this comedy there’s little other to say that wouldn’t involve simply changing a consonant, but it does make one wonder if anyone is planning to cancel some shows on BBC3, or indeed, if anyone is supervising any productions at all.
(Originally written for SKRBBLR.com, July 2012.)