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.
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.
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.
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.