Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Newsroom: Hit, or Retread?

There are 3 people I always trust to create a good television series: Joss Whedon, Alan Ball, and Aaron Sorkin.  These are people known in the entertainment biz as “show runners”: they create the shows, they write many (but never all) of the episodes, they may direct here and there, they almost certainly produce a bit ... essentially, they’re the creative driving force of the series.  Basically, any time any of the three of these gentlemen put out a show, I’m going to want to give it a shot.  (Well, at least two of them: sorry, Joss, but until you learn to stop letting Fox pick up your shows, I’m in a wait-and-see mode for you.  Experience is a harsh teacher.)

What these three people have in common is something that other show runners share too (names that immediately spring to mind are JMS of Babylon 5, Jenji Kohan of Weeds, Kurt Sutter of Sons of Anarchy, and Murphy and Falchuk of American Horror Story— no, we will not be using the “G” word here), but these three guys are at the top of that heap.  Others have what they have, just not as much of it.  And what that is can be distilled into two big things: characters and dialogue.

It’s often been said that you need characters that your audience will care about.  This is not that hard, actually (although it’s shocking how often writers don’t bother, considering how relatively easy it is compared to, say, convincing a network producer to buy your pitch).  But it’s just a subset of what you really need: characters that are interesting.  You need characters that, be they heroes, villains, or just innocent bystanders, are unpredictable without being insane, outrageous without being alien, and sympathetic without being maudlin.  When they show up on the screen, people watching need to go “oooh, I can’t wait to see what they’re going to do next!”  Or hear what they’re going say next, which brings us neatly to the next point, which is ...

All three of these guys have been accused of writing “stylized” dialogue, which is just a fancy way to say what interviewers have been saying to all of them for years: real people don’t talk like that (the most recent example I’m aware of being Colbert to Sorkin).  And here’s something else they all have in common: none of them ever appear bothered by that observation.  As far as they’re concerned, it’s okay to have characters speaking dialogue that isn’t strictly realistic.  And it’s okay by me too.  After all, who else put flowery, stylized langugage into the mouths of their characters?  How about William Shakespeare?  Oh, sure, you say: that’s just Elizebethan English.  But do you seriously believe that anyone ever talked in iambic pentameter all day long? using all those evocative metaphors, many of which Shakespeare actually invented for the purpose?  No, of course not.  Shakespeare wasn’t so much pushing the envelope as blowing through it and coming out the other side on fire.

These guys don’t push it as far as Shakespeare, of course, but the point is that that these guys aren’t trying to have their characters talk like real people talk.  Rather, this is the way real people wish they talked.  This is the way real people fantasize that they talk, when applying their 20-20 hindsight.  The way they dream of talking, in the conversations in their heads.  It’s actually much cooler than the way real people talk.  And, because these guys are masters, it doesn’t seem jarring or draw attention to itself the way it would in the hands of a lesser writer.  It just flows, carrying the viewer along for the ride.

Most people know Aaron Sorkin as the West Wing guy.  Indeed, in the Colbert interview I reference above, it was the only other of his shows to be mentioned (although they mentioned a few of his movies).  But I never actually watched The West Wing.  I was introduced to Sorkin via Sports Night.

Now, you must understand: I don’t watch sports.  I hate sports, in fact.  When a friend of mine said, “you have to watch this show,” I said, “why would I watch this show? I hate sports.”  This led to the following bizarre exchange:

It’s not about sports.

What do you mean, it’s not about sports?  It’s got “sports” right there in the name.

It’s about a sports show.

I don’t watch sports shows either.  Why would I watch shows that tell me about sports?  I hate sports.

Well, it’s not really about sports shows either.  It’s a show about a show, and the show that it’s about just happens to be a sports show.  But it’s not about sports.

Uhhh ... yeah, right.  Whatever.

But I gave it a shot, and I got hooked.  I watched every episode I could, and I watched it all over again in repeats.  This was easy, because, like so many shows, its life was cut tragically short.  Sorkin wrapped it up as best he could in the time he had, but there’s no getting around the fact that, when you watch the entire run (much like watching Firefly, or Carnivàle), you can’t help but feel that the world missed out on something magical due to the amazing (and apparently infinite) stupidity of network executives.  Ah, well ... wouldn’t be the first time.  Nor the last, I suspect.

Just recently, I got the complete series of Sports Night on DVD and rewatched the entire thing, beginning to end.  It really is quite worthwhile, and I highly recommend it.  But the point is, it wasn’t 10 years of time for fading memories we’re talking about here, but rather less than two.  Easily fresh enough in my mind to cause a bit of déjà vu when I saw Aaron Sorkin’s new show, which premiered less than a month ago.

The Newsroom, in fact, is more than a little reminiscent of Sports Night.  It’s almost creepy in fact ... Will is Casey and Mackenzie is Dana, Jim is Jeremy and Maggie is Natalie, Charlie is Isaac.  Sloan may not be Dan yet, but that’s probably only because she hasn’t had enough airtime yet.  She’ll get there, I’m thinking.  Hell, even the “ancillary” characters (I hate to call them that because I’m sure at least some of them would find it insulting) line up to a certain extent: it’s hard not to see Neal, Kendra, and Gary as reincarnations of Kim, Eliot, and Chris, and, when you look at Don, don’t you get a little echo of Sally? even if he’s going after Natalie and not Casey?  No, wait: that should be Maggie and not Will.

It’s a very strong parallel, is my point.

Now, on the one hand, that’s okay.  I can sympathize with recycling characters that you feel like didn’t get to hit their full potential— I do it all the time in my own fiction.  And, hey: they were very cool characters the first time around, so it’s not like I’m sad to see them back or anything.  It’s just ... weird.  It’s a different show, about a different kind of show (and still one I don’t watch, as it happens), with different characters ... and yet it’s all the same.  It’s like going in to work one day and finding all your co-workers have been replaced by pod-people or something.  And then, when they don’t act exactly like their Sports Night avatars would (’cause, you know, they’re actually different characters), that jars you.  But when they do act exactly like that that’s weird too.  So I dunno.

The other issue I have with The Newsroom is that it has a much harder row to hoe than Sports Night did.  I imagine it’s a lot more like West Wing in this regard, although I wouldn’t know, since I still haven’t watched that (although I probably should).  See, Sports Night had the distinct advantage of being a comedy.  Oh, sure, it had its dramatic moments (as any good comedy will), but that doesn’t change the fact that, at its heart, it was a funny show that could surprise you by being touching and sweet and sometimes even suspenseful.  Newsroom, on the other hand, is the other way around.  It’s a serious drama, discussing weighty issues of the recent past and theoretically (hopefully) making you think ... and, every once in a while, they throw in something funny.  So far, I have to say it’s not working that well for me.  Somehow I find it easier to shift from a casual, amusing tone to a serious one, than to go from “whoa, that’s some deep shit” to “oh ho, she accidentally emailed the whole office.”  I have to believe this will get better (’cause I have faith in Sorkin’s ability to ride that line), but so far it’s a tough act to buy.  Maybe Sloan will be a good character for this (heaven knows Olivia Munn can be funny as hell, as she’s proven with her Daily Show work).  I’m in wait-and-see mode on this aspect as well.

But there’s no doubt that the three shows I’ve seen so far (episode #4 is on tonight) are pretty compelling stuff, proof that Sorkin has still got game.  Some may complain that his preaching about the loss of integrity in today’s news shows is heavy-handed, but I happen to agree with him, so maybe I’m prone to overlook that.  (It reminds me, actually, of the remarks George Clooney made in the special features of the Good Night, and Good Luck DVD.  Perhaps Clooney and Sorkin are drinking buddies or something.)  The characters are interesting, and the dialogue is hyper-real, and the show within the show is, so far, far more interesting than I would find any real-world example of a news show to be, I’m quite sure.  So far, I’m enjoying The Newsroom, despite a few niggling doubts.

So what’s the answer to the provocative question posed by the title of this week’s blog post?  Well, you may recall that I’m a big believer in paradox: the answer is both, of course.

Of course, if I wanted to prove I was a real Sports-Night-nerd, I would have phrased the title question as “Quo Vadis?”  I resisted the urge.

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