The Changing State of Feels in American Television

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what our favorite television shows say about us, at this moment. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about what our current slate of Art Television tells us about how we view ourselves; tell the stories of ourselves.

(Of course, when I say “us” and our,” I’m speaking really just about the psychic state of the privileged viewer. The audience with the education, the advantage, the time, the luxury to lose themselves. I just need to throw out that disclaimer before I talk about the reflection of humanity in a screen.)

Anyway, this past Sunday I did the usual rotation of overheating and cooling down. Breaking Bad to start, followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey so I have something colorful to look at while I die inside, then The Newsroom, and then Boardwalk Empire if I’m still awake. Although lately I’ve been rewatching Breaking Bad as sort of an evening bookend instead of Boardwalk because I’m over it. Is it a bad idea to put myself on blast like this? Whatever. That’s what I do on Sunday nights. Now you know. That’s why your texts don’t get answered, she scoffed at absolutely no one.

Anyway, this week I was particularly struck by the differences between BB and Newsroom. I mean, of course there’s the main distinction, which is GOOD vs. BAD MASQUERADING AS GOOD. Dear Aaron Sorkin: HBO cinematography and a Thomas Newman theme song do not a quality show make. But I also got to thinking about how these two shows function in our current television landscape, and what they tell us in their successes and failures.

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Sorkin’s style has succeeded so well on network television. Why is Newsroom such a dud? The problem is that it thinks it’s airing on ABC in the late ’90s. Sorkin is a very gifted writer and an astute observer of the American workplace, but he never really evolved past the zenith of his success, which is arguably The West Wing. Banter banter, men are from Mars women are from Venus, idealistic young leaders, pratfalls. We all saw the Sorkinisms Supercut. He sticks with what he knows. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Newsroom revolves around current political events, it comes from a very un-current place.

Casual sexism and intellectual whimsy aren’t going down so easy these days, especially in a progressive space like HBO. Newsroom‘s main problem is cultural context. It’s pitted against a slate of drama and dark comedy that’s firmly rooted in the NOW. Communication between the genders may still suck, and rapid-fire bickering may stimulate the medulla, but the 2013 privileged viewer just doesn’t give a shit about glorifying themselves anymore. I mean, can we talk about protagonist Will McAvoy’s RIDICULOUS affectation of smoking cigarettes in his office? Jeff Daniels looks like an idiot every time he lights up and I know Sorkin wrote every cigarette into the script to make McAvoy seem like some kind of maverick. Sorkin’s self-obsession worked really well at a time in American history where the president played the saxophone and little girls got board games for Christmas where THE MAIN OBJECTIVE is to ANSWER THE PHONE and TALK TO A BOY. Pre-9/11, pre-Internet, Sorkin was sittin’ pretty. Back before people wanted their popular TV to get really real.

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There’s a kind of anxiety and self-critique that is essential to good television these days. Breaking Bad is a perfect example, because it illustrates the moral decay of a respectable, white, middle-class family man – and a lot of Walter White’s corruption is tied to the rejection of that stock character. Being a bad guy just feels more honest to him. And the tragedy, the absurdity, the unrelenting tension that marks every episode would not have worked on television in 1999.

I also think that the phenomenon of online watching – THE BINGE – figures greatly into BB‘s success relative to Newsroom‘s failure. The viewer consumes 10 episodes in one sitting if the shit is exciting. There is absolutely no compelling reason to watch a bunch of Newsroom at once because there’s no drive, no hurtling storylines or characters going through anything compelling. Even Girls beats it in that regard, because there’s an urgent sadness to that show and a relatability factor that encourages a sympathy binge. Banter doesn’t make me want to watch an entire season in one weekend. In fact, Sorkin-style banter is so twee and tiresome that it’s tough to rationalize two episodes back to back.

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You know, the more I write about this, the more I feel I’m floating away from my original point. I guess it’s tough to talk about a cultural moment. There are so many different types of programs on the air, and it’s hard for me to generalize “existential anxiety” to encompass everything we’re watching these days. But I do think that the act of destabilizing – our expectations, our identities, our familiar character types – is something that comedies, dramas, and action series of the 2010s do share. From the cringe humor of The Office to the unrelenting frustration of Lost, we like to feel uncomfortable in this day and age. We hate cute. We hate formula. It has to be downplayed and bastardized to work onscreen nowadays.

It does not surprise me that there’s such an air of uncertainty about Newsroom getting renewed. The finale a couple of days ago probably cemented its fate. It was a super-trite episode, very Sorkin-esque in the absolute worst way. Two characters got engaged after two seasons of sexual tension with NARY A KISS ON THE MOUTH before the proposal. Are you kidding me? There was so much character redemption and neat little one-liners that I wanted to barf. It’s just not cool, anymore, Aaron. Stop trying to make Sorkin happen. It’s never going to happen (again).

I’m interested in what you guys think about the above. Do you think there’s been a significant change in creative output and audience expectations in the last 20 years of television? Any examples to prove me wrong? Curious to know what others think about how the tube is projecting US back onto US.

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7 thoughts on “The Changing State of Feels in American Television

  1. Many insightful points! The juxtaposition of BB and The Newsroom couldn’t be more cringe-inducing, and makes for a disturbing skewering of Sorkin’s enduring self-importance and attempted manipulation of the audience. That cigarette kills me too.

    I’d like to see a comparison of Dexter and BB, because to me Dexter is an ultimate example of a show that simply cannot gauge the American public’s psyche, and has become a rudderless mess because of it, allowed to continue well past its prime (which was season one…out of 8) for no discernible reason other than grudging loyalty. We were introduced to a sociopathic serial killer masquerading (a little too well, but whatever) as a spatter analyst, complete with cool newish procedural crap like red yarn and a cowboy code of etiquette. It was a premise that felt nearly fresh, it was the height of the anti-hero craze. They nearly outed him in the second season, which was all about investigation into his murders (a penultimate-season plot if I’ve ever heard one). And then he quickly became a sappy, emotion-filled yutz, loving and caring for people left and right, I fear because Showtime was literally too afraid to take the show in its logical trajectory which is dark dark dark. Which is what the people would have respected and sympathized with. Not to mention endlessly recycled plots (so pre-9/11), how many times can Dexter be found out by someone and make them his sidekick, or his sister become entangled in a dysfunctional relationship?! It’s so amusing to me to watch the final season of Dexter, which I’ve been watching for 8 YEARS, and the final season of BB, which I’ve been watching for 5 years, and be utterly bored and uninvested, even actively annoyed by the former. BB ends in two weeks and I’ll be heartbroken, Dexter ends in one and I couldn’t give less of a shit. But then again I feel pretty bad for any show that has had to stack up against BB.

    • Yeah, when stacking most shows up against BB you have to go a little easy on the opponent. But I couldn’t agree more with what you said here. Had I stuck around Dexter past Season 5, I could respond better, but at the point I quit, it seemed kind of obvious that the magic was totally gone. Dexter was amazing in the beginning BECAUSE it seemed like we’d be subjected to really dark, shitty stuff without flinching. His sociopathic lack of empathy made him such an original character, and you’re spot on – such a jumping off point would have made for a disturbing, depressing, and fearless journey that would have at least impressed audiences with its gall. It’s worth noting that the original showrunner Clyde Phillips departed after Season 4, which for me was the last time I enjoyed it at all. That’s why I love BB – Gilligan just loves to poop all over us. He loves killing our dreams. Because he RESPECTS HIS VIEWERS enough to try and really AFFECT them. Side note, I enjoy your use of the word “yutz.”

      By the way, can you explain what is up with the Deb/Dex incest secret love thing? How did that pan out?

      • lmao since this is a spoiler safe zone… It literally doesn’t pan out at all. It’s weirdly suggested to her by a therapist, and suddenly she realizes she IS in love with her brother! out of nowhere! and she gets all giddy and she’s going to tell him and then (another spoiler) literally at that moment, she finds out dexter’s secrets. And it’s an end-of-season cliffhanger. next season comes back, and then after all the hubbub fallout from her discovery is over, she’s like “dex you know I was coming over here to tell you that I’m in LOVE with you you sick bastard” and he responds “Uh- What?” and with that, it’s pretty much squashed. it completely disappears and they almost immediately get new lovers. pretty much the most insane, hamfisted, confusing plot development in the course of the show. Grasping blindly for an audience’s approval, wanting to shock us and not knowing how!

  2. Yeah, no. I don’t agree with any review that immediately goes straight to the premise that “the Newsroom sucks” with no debate, as if every person in the world automatically agrees. Is it a perfect show? No. I haven’t seen any show that is. But I would rather watch a show like the Newsroom that I enjoy, one that gave me a finale that left me happy, rather than a show that just shocks me just because it can, or grosses me out just because it can… Whatever. Don’t like it, don’t watch, but don’t assume those of us that do enjoy it are f*cking morons. I like “character redemption and trite one-liners”, thanks so much.

    PS. My parents mainlined all of season 1 in about 5 days, as did my husband and I, and I’d hardly call any of us unintelligent.

    PPS. I hate Breaking Bad. Can’t watch it. So I don’t! What a concept.

    • When did the author ever imply that anyone who watches Newsroom is automatically unintelligent? What are you even talking about?

      I scoured her piece for any judgment on people who watch Newsroom. There was none. She even said herself that she watches Real Housewives, for fuck’s sake. Clearly she understands the concept of being entertained or enjoying things even if they may be, in her opinion, flawed.

      She never said shows should shock or gross you out “just because they can,” and I’m fairly positive that if a show DID do that without any depth or art to it, she would attack it just the same. Breaking Bad does not do anything simply “because it can,” and if you watched it, you’d know. But you don’t, and that’s ok. But don’t talk about it like you know. Note how the author watched Newsroom before writing this. Informed opinions are pretty cool.

      Funny how the first thing you critique is the fact that she attacked Newsroom “with no debate.” Her whole article was a lengthy reasoning of why she doesn’t like it. What the hell is your comment? I could barely take it seriously because of the comic overreaction.

      Get a grip. Disagree? Go over her points, think about them critically, and come back with an actual reply. Or make a fool of yourself – that works too.

  3. The season finale of the Newsroom may actually have the simply the finale. Hence so many neatly wrapped happy endings. Maybe Sorkin doesn’t like the heat from professional critics or bloggers like you or me, and most of those who will read your posts, or mine. So possibly he’s taking his senior staff and leaving for good.

    But I never thought The Newsroom was cool. I preferred to think of the trite one -liners as sometimes being smart rather than just cool. Yes it is pop culture and we are okay to like or disike..

    I didn’t see a whole lot of character redemption in the finale either. What I saw was Will and Mack agreeing to label their uncertain future as ‘engaged’. Jim Harper re-opened a door with Maggie, who reopened a door with Lisa. Who….after being written out of the show for virtually all of Season 2 – managed to re-appear for the last 20 minutes of the season.

    Charlie saw the light rather having his character redeemed.

    Sloan was made to look foolish for almost all of this season, but never more so than in this episode. Yes, she solved the Sidney Falco puzzle, but only because she was in Don;s office rather than her own, and if that Falco business wasn’t a) a pop cultural reference, and b) Sorkin showing off – then I wouldn’t know how to describe it.

    So Will smoked, and Mack liked to have a pop now and then, as did Charlie – so what. Are these really points to stress about or utilize for reasons to dislike the show?

    Mack was technically clownish when Sorkin needed her to be so. But she was the Exec Producer and that must mean something. Maggie Jordan lost her drive and her stability. I think that had anyone had similar or the same experiences that Maggie had in Africa, they’d come home with issues too. I mean Maggie Jordan is not the first recorded case of post traumatic syndrome.

    I think there was one character that did grow and change and that would be Don. He wan’t someone who turned the page in the finale. He did it all year. The other person who came back from a severe case of being one dimensional was Taylor played by Ms Zimmer.

    I’d love to see more of her in Season Three, if there is one. and Marcia Gay Harden’s Rebecca Halliday is another character I’d like to see again.

    My last thought is that Sorkin’s formula of Fact plus Fiction equals Entertainment is flawed. Yes the show was and can be quite entertaining, but by grafting the entertainment onto events that we already how they played out robbed the show of stress or tension.

    Which is why the Genoa story helped anchor this season. But Sorkin will always be Sorkin, and he went with his formula. And yes, I ‘d watch the entire Season Three in one sitting if I could. Maybe Netflix agrees to it, if HBO doesn;t want the show anymore, or is unwilling to accommodate Sorkin’s wish list

    Would you?

  4. Pingback: The End of an Era: A Guide to Mad Men’s Final Season | pop mitzvah!

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