Sunday, 15 July 2012

Writer, Writer, Show

With the arrival of Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, what was already fairly clear has now become undeniable: Sorkin is television's answer to M. Night Shyamalan.

There are two seemingly cast-iron rules to Shyamalan's output, starting with Sixth Sense and ending with The Happening (I've not seen Last Airbender): each new film will be somewhat disappointing considering what has gone before, and each new film will be treated by critics as being, at a bare minimum, ten times as shitty as the last film Shyamalan slapped together.

I can't remember the last time I read a review of a Shyamalan film that was recognisable as discussing the film I had watched.  Signs, maybe? More likely Unbreakable, though even that is underrated.  Certainly by the time The Village came out, there was significant grumbling that the film was poor, as oppose to what it actually is - reasonably good with a frustrating ending.  More interestingly, though, the amount of column inches spent on discussing the director increased dramatically.  It wasn't enough to review The Village; everyone had to bitch about how they didn't like Signs, and how Shyamalan was a dick for always giving himself cameos.

Then, when Lady in the Water (entirely lightweight with some good moments) appeared, reviews seemed to discuss the film almost as an afterthought, and then only to argue that Shyamalan's role as a visionary writer was proof his colossal ego was ruining everything, including a cynical film critic who's horribly mauled was evidence that he couldn't take being slated in the press, and mocking him for being overly-reliant on twist endings, which doesn't actually describe the film at all unless you take "twist" to mean "new development".

(The Happening, of course, was generally hailed as one of the worst films ever created, by reviewers so blinded by their contempt of Shyamalan that they didn't even bother considering whether or not what they were writing made sense any more.)

Aaron Sorkin has had a similar problem over the years (Ryan Adams too, but that's a different post), though since The Newsroom is only his fourth TV series, there's been less opportunity to observe the phenomenon.  Sorkin pissed off a spectacular number of people with The West Wing.  Conservatives hated it because it cast them as the bad guys forever stymieing the geniuses inside the White House.  Liberals hated it because it spent so much time presenting "reasonable Republicans" at a time in US history where the left was convinced the GOP was nothing but a collection of bullies hypocrites (which is true, obviously).  And lots of people in the middle hated it just because of the aura of smugness the show demonstrated.  Reports of Sorkin himself being something of a jerk didn't particularly help, either.

This background hum of disgruntlement came to the fore when Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip began.  Now,  there are a lot of reasons to not like that show, chief among them the fact that it never gave us any reason to care what happened backstage at a comedy show, and couldn't sell that show as being even remotely funny. When one of your characters is trying to justify why a comedy show should be worth writing an article about,   something's gone wrong.

So it was a disappointment.  An extremely expensive, po-faced disappointment that I enjoyed, but couldn't find it in my heart to argue deserved a second season.  From the reviews the show got, however, you could be forgiven for thinking each broadcast downloaded an electronic variant of bubonic plague straight into the viewer's eyeballs.  Tellingly, many of these screeds focused not on the show's failings, but on Sorkin himself. What made Sorkin think he could handle comedy? Did the main character being told he wasn't great at writing for black cast members mean Sorkin himself didn't know how to relate to black actors?  Which of Sorkin's ex-girlfriends was Harriet Hayes most based on, and why should we care about his personal life anyway?  On and on and on, an outpouring of dislike for a writer hastily disguised as comments on his work.

Five years after Studio 60 concluded, Sorkin has returned with what I can only describe as a classic Shyamalan move: a show about how the American media are a bunch of cowards and/or pricks.

Now, obviously, the American media are a bunch of cowards and/or pricks, at least in general, but that in itself doesn't mean the show is necessarily any good.  What it does mean, however, is that it was always going to have a rough ride.  Right now it's being decried as the worst work of fiction since Jud Suss by pretty much anyone who's paid for their critical opinion, and once again, much of the ire is directed at Sorkin himself.  Two thirds about the writer, one third about the show.  Kind of like this post, really, though I have an excuse: I didn't get paid for handing this in and calling it a review.

It's almost impossible, then, to form any kind of opinion about what the show is like without seeing it for yourself.  Here, for what it's worth, is my take on the season opener, "We Just Decided To".  The two problems that sank Studio 60 have both been rectified by the change of location: The Newsroom isn't under pressure to be too funny, and the relevance of the show is clear.  The downside is an increase in sentimentality and mawkish speeches about the awesomeness of America, along with an entirely unbearable (and unlistenable; WG Snuffy Alden's absence is noticeable here) title sequence that felt like it went on for sixteen minutes and was trying to subconsciously compel me to blow Edward R Murrow.

If you can take such moments (there's two or three in the entire seventy-minute episode), and those who watched The West Wing probably already know whether or not they can, then there's a great deal to enjoy here.  Jeff Daniels is excellent as Will McAvoy, and though his character seems a little over-the-top and cliched in his egotistic belligerence, and the rest of the cast are strong too, particularly jittery delight Alison Pill and reptilian malcontent Thomas Sadoski.  Only Dev Patel seems ill at ease, but then he didn't really get anything to do this time around in any case, so maybe that explains it. It's interestingly shot: far more expansive and coldly lit than Sorkin's previous shows, and the dialogue feels very differently paced.  If anything, it's more reminiscent of The Social Network in look than anything from Sorkin's TV work, which is presumably partially due to the absence of Thomas Schlamme. 

If nothing else, then, it's fascinating for longtime Sorkin fans to watch purely to see how differently one of his shows can seem when his usual collaborators aren't involved.  Fortunately, there seems to be plenty else, and if we're never going to get to see anything as wonderful as The West Wing spring from Sorkin's pen again, this could end up finishing a respectable second.  Just so long as the show avoids the greatest danger presented by its format: taking real news events and having the cast cover them, which is that Sorkin simply writes down exactly what he wished he could've said to everyone involved at the time.  Twitter can only get you so far, after all.  Is it really just coincidence that this first episode mentions the difficulty of saying things of any real meaning on Twitter and OH MY GOD NOW I'M DOING IT TOO.

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