The Newsroom and the collapse of civilization
I just watched what was, I believe, the fourth episode of The Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin-created HBO series in which Jeff Daniels plays anchorman Will McAvoy, who with his boss Sam Waterston and producer Emily Mortimer decides to revive the Ed Murrow/Walter Cronkhite tradition on cable news in 2010. The best moments of the show are the actual broadcasts, which move quickly and entertainingly. The content is dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and McAvoy has spent the last few episodes taking on the Tea Party and Fox News. Tonight we saw Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann repeating an unsourced lie about the cost of a presidential trip to India, one piece of right wing claptrap that I had missed. Yet the show is, alas, part of the problem as well as part of the solution, and thus proof, I am sorry to say, that the general approach and values it claims to be promoting are going nowhere anytime soon, and maybe not for decades or even centuries.
The show, oddly, enough, reminds me of Marx Brothers movies. Nearly all of them--the exception being the funniest one, Duck Soup--featured a crooning, star-crossed young couple whose problems had nothing to do with the plot and who contributed nothing to the humor. Groucho, Chico and Harpo apparently resented them, but the studio said they helped at the box office, and they came back again and again. Even then, appealing to the young demographic was important--and it's even more important now. So, each week about 20 minutes are devoted to the love lives of the producers and assistant producers of the newscast. Not only that, the role of Margaret Dumont is played by Emily Mortimer, who we have learned was the great love of Will's life some years ago before she cheated on him, and their non-relationship is taking up even more air time, as are their other love interests. I know there was some of this on West Wing, which I never watched religiously, but it seems to me it was kept far more tightly under control then. In short, HBO does not trust the drama of reporting the news to carry the series. The irony cannot be lost on Sorkin and the rest of his staff, since one of tonight's running jokes was about the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Their own show could be subtitled Real Singles of New York.
It occurs to me that HBO has run two of the greatest series in the history of television, The Sopranos and The Wire, without pandering to convention in this way. Breaking Bad on AMC, which in some ways has been the best of all, has seen no reason to do so either. (Jesse, played brilliantly by Aaron Paul, is a twenty-something, but his relationships have hardly been designed to appeal to a mass audience, to put it mildly.) Those shows, perhaps, relied on the threat of violence to hold the viewers' interest in a way that a retrospective news show cannot. The iconic images of Murrow and Cronkhite at the beginning of The Newsroom are, alas, an artifact of another time. Will McAvoy says he's on a "civilizing mission," an apt phrase indeed, but he isn't allowed to spend a whole hour on it. Sorkin has gone as far as he could, apparently, to be serious. It isn't nearly far enough.