There is a famous quote from Bertrand Russell which has become so ubiquitous that it has arguably slipped into the realm of cliché: “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.” The quote is invariably wheeled out in a religious context in order to criticise believers as unthinking. It is undeniable, however, that it has a much broader application – one which encompasses our entire lives. We all want to believe that we are seekers of the truth, however messy and unpalatable that truth may be. Yet it could be said that in reality, most of us simply want to belong; to feel comfortable in our own skin. Feeling ‘right’ is a big part of that and so in actuality we want to be told that our beliefs are correct, unconsciously surrounding ourselves with people and outlets which flatter us. Furthermore, no-one wants to believe that they are mediocre – feeling right is nothing special if the vast majority of people believe the same things. So we buy into ‘hordes at the gates’ narratives. Take a cursory look at our culture – left and right, Charlie Brooker and Melanie Phillips, Labour and Tory, Democrat and Republican, Gay and Straight, Atheist and Christian, liberal West and backwards Middle East – it grows ever more polarised and dependent on the idea that one group of people know the ‘truth’ while everyone else is a drooling, bigoted, fanatical idiot. No matter what we believe individually, we of course always believe ourselves to be in the enlightened group, scorning dehumanised opponents who are simultaneously scorning an imaginary version of us.
Russell’s quote popped into my head while watching the pilot of ‘The Newsroom’, the much-anticipated new show from Aaron Sorkin. There are even allusions to Russell’s theme, with the righteous Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) arguing that it’s impossible for any news show to broadcast the ‘facts’ as people nowadays pick and choose their own ‘facts’ from many different sources. It’s one of the show’s superficial concessions to appearing ‘complex’, along with dialogue which condemns both Democrats and Republicans and an early, pivotal monologue which waxes lyrical on the decline of America as a ‘Great Nation’.
On paper, ‘The Newsroom’ should be catnip for me (and I did rush home to watch it.) I have generally loved Sorkin’s self-consciously theatrical screen work, where uncommonly beautiful people deliver unreasonably eloquent dialogue, taking on grand themes as they walk purposefully down corridors on absurdly eventful Tuesday afternoons. Certainly, some of the themes laid out in ‘The Newsroom’ are ones I have much affinity for/sympathy with: characters speak about television (and broader culture) aspiring to more than ‘gossip and voyeurism’; there is a noble belief in the power and responsibility held by the ‘Fourth Estate’ in a democracy; there is indignant dismissal of the idea that moral relativity and human failings mean that we should shy away from addressing morality and didactic (self-)improvement. These are all things I have written about before, so their being addressed on a major new show should thrill me. Unfortunately, the pilot was such a mess (and advance word from the critics seems to unanimously agree that the show gets worse) that I can’t envisage it doing anything other than harming these themes.
It is, of course, nothing new for Sorkin to tackle such themes – it’s part of why he’s so loved by certain audiences. ‘The West Wing’ presented an idyllic liberal White House during the ‘lame duck’ years of the Clinton administration and the succeeding liberal nightmare that was the Bush presidency. It was as much wish fulfilment as ‘The Newsroom’ aims to be. Yet even looking only at the pilots, the differences are clear. Instantly, the premise of ‘The West Wing’ lends itself to grand oratory, life-and-death issues and a righteous, lofty protagonist (it’s far less jarring to be presented with a President delivering hectoring monologues to his staff than a modern –day news anchor). It’s fundamentally important that ‘The West Wing’ initially focused on the ‘little people’ – the staff around the President. In fact, the President is barely in the opening episode (and the story goes that the original intention was for him to never be seen on screen). In ‘The Newsroom’, however, we are led into the show by the hectoring protagonist, Will. We are told that he has built a hugely successful career by being inoffensive and neutral – yet we see literally 1 minute of this persona before he is directing an ‘explosive’ and controversial lecture (which self-consciously nods towards the truth-telling anchor of ‘Network’) at a college student. He is ‘The Smartest Guy in the Room’ and he knows it. Undoubtedly, a liberal-minded audience is meant to swoon at his grand narrative on America’s decline – but it’s nonsense. He paints such an idealised picture of a bygone era that it’s impossible to see him as anything other than a bitter crank; the fact that he does this by almost reducing a young female to tears renders him instantly unsympathetic.
Sorkin’s previous series, ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’, had a very similar opening: a middle-aged protagonist lets the mask slip and delivers a coruscating monologue which insults his audience. In both cases, the characters are little more than ciphers for Sorkin; crucially, however, the outburst in ‘Studio 60…’ leads to the character being fired. He only appears in the pilot and his actions act as a catalyst for the rest of the series – Sorkin gets his point across but we aren’t asked to stick with the guy who just told everyone they were idiots.
Indeed, the inevitable comparisons with Sorkin’s previous work is another obvious problem. “The Newsroom” has Sorkin tropes stamped all over it, from ‘The Smartest Guy in the Room’ to the ‘walk-and-talks’ to the slightly crazy but hugely gifted ex-girlfriend. It’s all so readily identifiable that at times it lapses into self-parody. This is particularly the case as this show puts ‘the message’ above all else – literally every few minutes, a character we’ve just been introduced to makes some indignant speech or grand statement which any remotely sophisticated viewer can recognise as being in Sorkin’s voice. At times these speeches are excruciating, as when the slightly crazy but hugely gifted ex-girlfriend argues that an educated electorate is integral to a functioning democracy (and that is pretty much the exact sentence which leaves her mouth) and insists she would rather ‘make a great programme for 1000 people than a mediocre one for 1,000,000’. Sure, Sorkin’s dialogue has never been naturalistic but it’s nonetheless a stretch to believe in character after character who acts as a sketchily-drawn outline for Sorkin himself. The lack of subtlety is such that it feels less like a drama than a lecture and, even if you are sympathetic to some of the arguments presented, you find yourself worn down by just how disingenuous and smug everything is.
This failure serves to highlight what the intention is, which takes us back to Russell. It’s difficult to imagine that the show has any other purpose at this point than to convince Sorkin and his audience that they are the true believers besieged by hordes of idiots. No-one is going to be provoked by ‘The Newsroom’; no opinions will be changed, no minds will be blown. Anyone who watches ‘The Real Housewives of…’ who tunes in is not going to contemplate the morality and wider implications of that show – instead they’re going to think Will/Sorkin is a sneering wanker. The show is so blunt that it couldn’t even claim to be sneaking up on viewers, using entertainment to provoke debate – its opinion is clear and that opinion is the entire point of the show. The entertainment is secondary and that is the death-knell for a television drama.
As a post-script, I couldn’t help but contrast ‘The Newsroom’ with another show I’m currently watching, ‘Breaking Bad’. I’m halfway through the second season of this and it couldn’t be more different. The characters are at the core of everything – and what characters they are. Deeply flawed, sometimes morally repugnant yet always recognisable to us, not least for their very human motivations – the show deals entirely in moral shades of grey. It’s impossible to fully sympathise with the protagonist and his choices, yet also difficult not to like him. As a result, the show does creep up on you with shocking moments, bleak decisions and painful circumstances which cause you to question ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. I won’t write more about it at the moment since I’ve got 2 seasons to catch up on, but if you’ve not seen it I wholeheartedly recommend that you watch.