The West Wing is, for me, the best thing on TV, ever. Sure, season five lulled a touch, but the rest of it was as good as it gets. Especially for broadcast TV, and I’ll forever think that Nine were culturally irresponsible imbeciles for the way they jerked us all around with the scheduling. Its relegation to late nights, absences and eventual abandonment was the source of constant scorn for the chattering classes of weekend supplement readers who derided the lack of quality adult viewing on TV, and their scorn was levied at Nine for this prime example. I also liked Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which was well written and acted, but aimed for the same dramatic urgency that WW did over, say, nukes in India, over a lack of a cold opening for the next episode of this sketch comedy show. Sad demise, that one (it debuted at the same time as 30 Rock, which had the same premise, but made a show about making a comedy show and made it as … a comedy – and it turned out to be the best comedy show on TV; and has lasted seven seasons). I have the complete series of The West Wing on DVD. One of Studio 60. All of 30 Rock. It’s really the only way to (legally) watch good TV. No ads. No inconsistent broadcast patterns.
Sorkin wrote both shows, and was responsible for A Few Good Men, Charlie Wilson’s War (check out this You Tube clip – it’s gold), The Social Network (one of the best screenplays ever produced), andMoneyball (the best sports movie I’ve ever seen). He aims for smart, and gets there most of the time. I was worried that his film success (an Oscar for The Social Network) was going to rob us of more of his TV gems.
But a few months ago I saw the trailer for The Newsroom. It has this moment where Jeff Daniels, as Will McAvoy answers a question about what makes America the (apparently) greatest country in the world. He says, “Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth, there’s some things you should know, and one of them is, there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force, and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only 3 categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined. 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20 year old College student. But you, nonetheless, are without a doubt a member of the Worst. Generation. Ever. So when you ask, “what makes us the greatest country in the world?” I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Yosemite?”
And I’m in.
One episode in, the pilot, with that diatribe above, and it’s looking good. We meet the cast, who are all a bit blah, but we get past it. Sam Waterston has a line ripped directly from the screenplay to The Insider, and I’m OK with that because it’s a fine film, and why not steal from the best? Show’s over, episode was good, series looks promising. Then episode two comes along. The dialogue is rat-a-tat. One scene has two characters in a very Sorkin-esque walk and talk, and nothing is really gained from the scene, except the lingering feeling that someone is taking the mickey out of the walk and talk construct. Episode 2 hit a few sour notes for me. It seemed to be an emerging pattern, like the old Star Trek movies – the odd numbered ones were rubbish, but were made up for in the really good even numbered outings. Except in reverse here.
It’s Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy who would be the central force in this universe, immediately sought after by every woman he seems to brush up against. It was kind of painful to see the superb Hope Davis get reduced to a world class harpy succubus as a gossip columnist with an agenda who would have bedded Will in less than a heartbeat for little other apparent reason than he was that bloke on the telly. The women on this show seem to get short shrift. Mackenzie McHale (stupid name, played by Emily Mortimer) is essentially the worst of them – according to Will, the best executive producer in television, cut from the same ‘girl who can do anything’ mould of news producers created (far more successfully) by James L Brooks for Holly Hunter in his masterwork, Broadcast News. In between her straight-arrow professionalism when it’s airtime, she’s a befuddled klutz in production meetings who gets her quotes wrong and can’t count without using her fingers. Then it gets worse – she ducks out for drinks with Olivia Munn (a fine comedy performer, playing one of those characters which serves as a wink and an ‘F/U’ to the haters who derided her employ at The Daily Show because she was attractive – playing here a woman who is the subject of *unseen* scorn because she’s a finance reporter who is attractive) and falls into self-hating scorn and tears over the fact that she’s a bad girl who cheated on a good man. Dynamite with a laser beam, whip smart when she’s behind the scenes of a live show; a simpering, girlish Cosmo casualty when the ‘on air’ light is off.
Will is the idealised Republican in Sorkin’s world, the one who is willing to go on TV and highlight that party’s, and its propagandists’ shortcomings, misgivings and lies, all the while declaring himself – what I guess is – the modern day equivalent of the Goldwater Republican, as the character displays no political neutrality and is essentially a liberal in disguise. Maybe that’s his point – scratch a moderate Republican and you get a Democrat… Maybe. I like the points he’s making (Fox News is a fetid and flagrant propaganda tool; Sarah Palin goes on TV to back up the discussion points with pre-arranged questions with answers written for her; Rush Limbaugh is a unpleasant gasbag). But his hiding McAvoy behind the curtain of how Sorkin conceives moderate Republicanism is just a mild bit insulting. I can only speculate how people on the right might react (Limbaugh himself seems to think that The Dark Knight Rises, a film about a billionaire willing to fight when the government fails to in a major battle against an anarchistic class warrior, is a ‘liberal conspiracy’ because the villain is named Bane; whereas Romney’s old job was at Bain Capital… long bow there, Rush).
The plebeian self-congratulatory shambles that has seeped its way into the final scenes of episodes two weeks in a row (the frenzy over the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Giffords; the salvaging of the Egypt correspondent) makes me want to shut off and never tune in again. If this was a show debuting during regular ratings period US broadcasting, I would; but it’s just it and Breaking Bad keeping the intellectual home fires burning for me at the moment, and every episode I watch is another episode preventing me from ‘accidentally’ switching over to the vile cultural detritus being marketed as ‘dramality’ on the Ten network. Leave that for another rant.
The last two episodes, ‘I’ll Try To Fix You’ and ‘Amen’ had groundings in quality drama. But the dénouements killed them for me. Especially the former. Faced with pressure from corporate (Jane Fonda, having shown up for episode three and just absolutely KILLING it), Will’s faced with a bunch of scandals and tabloid accusations looking to destroy his image/career. We’re made to realise that it’s all trivial when a gunman opens fire on a suburban Arizona gathering and a congresswoman is shot – presumably mortally. But Will won’t declare her dead. It’s not up to the media. In the meantime, in a stirring example of narrative subtlety, the heinously overused and sentimental-bordering-on-grotesque Coldplay song ‘Fix You’ is being played. Will wants to fix America, American discourse, American media. Get it? He’s thinking it, Chris Martin is singing it (“I will try … to fix you.”) Giffords isn’t dead. They made the right call, and it’s an off-camera triumph akin to redefining pi. I almost wanted to throw, like, a brick, and like, the screen.
Then there was the follow-up, ‘Amen’, wherein the events in the Arab Spring get the Newsnight treatment. Two points in the episode made me uneasy/angry/bilious/diuretic. The recently hired Egypt correspondent (the titular Amen) is off the grid, and everyone’s worried. Rush Limbaugh is being a fat-headed idiot on a computer screen, and Neal (Dev Patel) gets all worked up and punches the monitor, breaking it and a couple of fingers. Take that, mp3 of unsympathetic neo-con! Within that badly framed moment, the drama was lost. It’s one of those things, when comedy is done wrong, it becomes painful, sad. When drama is done wrong, it becomes funny. I could all but imagine if Rush Limbaugh saw that he would have laughed his monstrous caboose off, and I was all but with him (this rarely happens; except for the fact that he’s done work with Family Guy and I liked it each time he showed up; as a commentator he represents everything that’s wrong with the political Right in America). So it turns out that Amen has been captured and is being held for ransom. Will makes a quiet phone call, organises the ransom himself, and keeps it on the D/L. But somehow everyone in the office hears about it, and in a telegraphed and obscenely overdone sequence, people start lining up to give him cheques to cover the difference. The he walks out of his office and everyone gives him a standing ovation. End credits.
It really was as bad as it sounds.
It was at this point I reached a conclusion: one more episode. I was going to give Sorkin, one of the finer writers in film and television (who, if nothing else, is aiming and succeeding at writing film & TV content that isn’t stupid, nor does it treat its audience thusly) the benefit of the doubt, but if I have to endure one more pretentious, self important moment of “We aren’t the greatest nation in the world, but we can be, and here’s an example of how Americans can be exceptional” self-aggrandisement, I’m out. I’m heartened that the already-greenlit second season will have a new writing staff. And there’s only 12 episodes to get through.
It’s not much of an ask, and amid all the rough, it’s worth enduring if there’s a diamond in there, somewhere.