I’ve always defended The Newsroom.
Aaron Sorkin’s orgiastic nerd-fest on HBO, centered on the professional and romantic tribulations of a TV news team, has all the usual components of cable drama prestige: urgent topicality, a well-tested auteur figure at the helm, an ensemble stacked with stars and almost-stars. But from its 2012 premiere onward, Newsroom always had its naysayers. The most common complaint—that both show and characters smack of a preening self-importance—will surprise no one already familiar with Sorkin’s hyper-articulate dialogue and earnestly romantic worldview. The other frequently raised critique—that the show sometimes skirts the sensitivity line in its handling of real life events—has less to do with Sorkin’s signature style and more to do with the show’s structuring.
Newsroom‘s first season was an episodic revisiting of 2011’s major news stories: the BP oil spill, the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the capturing and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Some critics felt the show risked, at its worst moments, trading insightful historical fiction for a more queasy appropriation of human suffering. Season Two tried a different tact and followed a single fictionalized thread concerning the US’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Based on The Newsroom‘s third and final season premiere that aired on November 9, it seems, for his last lap, Sorkin wants to hybridize his two approaches. “Boston” introduces us to yet another hot lead concerning government documents and an elaborate cover-up, but its central plotline focuses on the Boston Marathon bombings of spring 2013. As I said, I’ve stood by this show. Sorkin’s handling of literal old news never felt exploitative to me. But when it comes to “Boston,” even I am starting to feel a little uncomfortable. The episode is guilty on both counts: there’s a hollow pomposity to the dialogue as well as a weird tonal ineptness throughout.
Sorkin has never been too interested in realism; each rousing monologue and rapid-fire exchange is too visibly constructed to suggest authenticity. Instead, Sorkin’s scripts invite admiration. That’s part of the fun: yes, people don’t really talk like that, but it’s a treat to spend an hour (or two, or five) in the company of a fantasized super race of folks with off-the-charts IQ and pretty great hair. And Sorkin always got away with his stylistic liberties because they surrounded a fire hose of content.
“Boston” has all the chatty trappings of a Sorkin show, but the meat and meaning are gone. At its worst, the season opener creates some cringe-worthy self-parody. Early in the episode, reporter Sloane Sabbith (Olivia Munn) and producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) stride through the newsroom as the Boston story develops. “When are we breaking in?” Sloane asks. “Whenever Mac says so,” says Don, tone fraught with significance. If you’ve watched the show, you may recall that Mackenzie McHale is News Night‘s Executive Producer. Virtually everyone in a mile radius works for her. So yes, as always, the news will air when she says so. Not a major revelation; don’t know what all the gravel-voiced stoicism is about. Later in the episode, associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) arrives in Boston, where a comically thick-accented cameraman asks: “Do y’all wanna go to your hotel, get settled in?” Maggie fixes him with her steely gaze: “We wanna go to Boylston.” She says this like it’s a line from 300. Or maybe “Luke, I am your father.” Sorkin wants us breathlessly admiring Maggie’s work ethic, maybe like: “Momentarily foregoing a mini bar Coke and a heated towel rack!? Someone hand this woman a Peabody already!!” You get where I’m going with this. Yeah, that’s your job. To do the news. You don’t get a medal. Just get in the van, hon.
While Sorkin and Co. may take themselves a little too seriously sometimes, worse are the moments they don’t take things seriously enough. One of the show’s attractions was an ability to balance out the current events class with moments of sharp, goofy, or surprisingly poignant humor. Ninety percent of the time, the News Night team is dealing with pretty serious stuff, so the jokes work best when they are self-directed, or a coping mechanism. But in “Boston” the humor is both lame and directionless. As a result, the tone becomes cloying.
In a “run-down meeting,” tech expert Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) mentions an anonymous informant who’s trying to contact him. “We used the site Crypto-Heaven,” explains Neal, “which is for. . . .” “Nerds,” injects Don. Moments later, Neal’s trying to explain an “air-gapped computer”: “There’s literally a gap of air between the computer and the rest of the world.” “That’s what I imagine the afterlife is like if you’ve been good,” quips Don. No one in the conference room laughs or even makes a face in response, which is no surprise: a line like that isn’t meant for anyone but viewers at home. Similarly, anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) attempts to make a stirring speech for the team, though he keeps flubbing lines and starting half-sentences: “These situations can be like church. They can, they can, they can show us what, they can guide us in . . . Am I saying this right?” This is likely conscious self-parody on Sorkin’s part: he and Will both have a reputation for making speeches, and Sorkin’s shows have never shied away from the humorous deflation of an otherwise Moving Dramatic Moment. But in this case there’s nothing causing Will’s sudden loss for words. No reason, it seems, except to be cute.
If you go back and rewatch “Boston” (which, let me be clear, I am not recommending), you’ll see what Sorkin’s motives were for his misguided moments of comedy. In the run-down scene, Don wants to undermine Neal’s informant from the get-go, so he uses jokes to deflate the story’s momentum and puncture Neal’s credibility. Moments after his botched speech, Will asks friend and boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterson) “Why wasn’t I able to put my finger on what we’re talking about?” “Because it’s obvious,” Charlie responds. So Sorkin was aiming for a target, he just missed it by a few inches. In other words, the set-ups of “Boston” do have pay-offs, they’re just more clumsily connected than usual. The gold Sorkin Standard we’ve come to expect married complexity with accessibility. His shows made you feel smarter by letting you get the jokes and grasp the nuance on the first go. It’s not exactly that Sorkin bats a terrible game with “Boston,” it’s that he’s fighting against his own impressive average. Unfortunately, when handling such sensitive subject matter, we don’t have time to be tonally forgiving. We can’t watch the dialogue flail, careening gradually towards a point, while a real and recent tragedy waits in the wings.
“Boston” has all the sleek exterior and smooth handling of a great Sorkin episode, but nothing seems to be driving it. It’s all husk and no corn. It’s a fast-talking, fast-moving husk.
Am I saying this right?
a Sorkinesque shell