IMAGE: The Newsroom (HBO)
For a writer who specialises in drawing inspiration from the details of real life – who employs the known facts of recent history, utilises sharp biographical research, and explores the machinations of complex, identifiable institutions as source material – Aaron Sorkin somehow manages to write truly beautiful dreams.
In The West Wing Sorkin presented an image of a sitting American administration filled with honourable, hardworking, ferociously intelligent people, all fuelled by a longing to leave the future world a better place than the one into which they were elected. His fictional government was overstuffed – on both sides of the partisan divide – with people who faithfully believed in serving their constituents to the best of their ability; people who used integrity, compromise, and reasoned debate as the cornerstones of their decision making process. In The Social Network, a screenplay for which he won an academy award, he made even the most emotionally stunted and narcissistic characters ring true with identifiable (if not always admirable) aspirations and motivations. In A Few Good Men he celebrated military service and the tenacity of truth (even if you couldn’t handle it!) in a culture that at times necessitated secrecy. In Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip he…
Well, to be honest, I really don’t know. Although, as a television narrative set behind the scenes of a late night sketch comedy show (one that screened on NBC), he seemed to be laying the metatextual groundwork for his hilarious ‘walk-and-talk’ appearance with Liz Lemon, years after his own show’s cancellation, on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock – the show that did in fact successfully carry the premise Studio 60 was loosely built around to its fruition.
In truth, I’ve enjoyed Sorkin’s work in the past – found it worthy and intriguing, been struck by its loquacious elegance – but previously I’ve not been swept up in the raptures reported by many of his fans. It’s certainly not that I don’t care for his work – merely an acknowledgment that although there are many people whose opinions I greatly admire that have told me of their adoration for Sports Night (which I have not seen at all), or of their fervent belief that The West Wing (into which I have only dipped) is the best show ever made for television, so far I have not joined this enamoured throng.
But then I watched the first season of The Newsroom – the series he created and wrote for HBO – and okay. Okay, I see it now.
Sure, I can happily leave aside all the tortured will-they-won’t-they back-and-forth of the ensemble’s principle younglings, Jim and Maggie, who have circled each other all season in a progressively tedious square dance (particularly when, by the last few episodes, the gravity of their emotional cowardice has now pulled Don, and bystanders like Lisa and Sloan into the well…) I can overlook some of the more fantastical beats (for example: anything Bigfoot; confusing Georgia the state and Georgia the country; the general slapstick) that, in an effort to enliven the mood, can risk tipping into comic contrivance. And I can even forgive the moments when characters inch perhaps a little too close to sermonising. I can ignore all of that, because at the heart of this narrative, underneath all that might superficially appear to be political and social commentary, is a celebration and defence of language that is utterly inspiring.
Yes, as is often noted of his work, Sorkin’s dialogue is rapid and rhythmic. It skips along like a Frank Capra film; playful and lively, with characters leapfrogging each other’s verbal play with snappy rejoinders and witty retorts. These figures speak like you wish human beings could – sparring and riffing and speckled with playful snark.
More than that, however, Sorkin argues over the application of language, of the beauty of rhetoric and its potential abuse, of the influence this misappropriation can have upon the validity of discourse. He explores the misuses of grammar: he ponders the difference between ‘whom’ and ‘which’; over the worrying semantic blur in defining corporations as individuals; over arbitrary definitions, such as referring to all undocumented immigrants with convenient, blanket terms like ‘illegals’. Sorkin implores the viewer to be mindful of the expressive potential of our language, and the semantic shift that can swiftly occur when one is not observant of its casual misuse.
And oh, those speeches…
Pleas for a return to intelligent discourse in political debate (no matter what your affiliation), for meticulousness and determination in journalism. Petitions for an audience hungry for comprehensive information and reasoned analysis amongst the frantic, hyperbolic cacophony of the twenty-four hour news cycle. Appeals for a moment of digested respite amongst the daily pursuit of the sensational for ratings, and each network’s desperation to break news first, no matter how ill-informed, specious or riddled with speculation. A battle cry to discard the farcical pageantry of journalism – from Fox News and its slavish devotion to pundit talking points, to CNN and its addiction to techno-porn like electronic graph salads and holograms. Sorkin’s characters rail against the vulgarity of giving soapboxes to the most extreme, unsubstantiated viewpoints simply because it makes for explosive (and trivialised) entertainment.
The first scene of the series literally depicts the central character, Will, sandwiched between one such barrage of reductive rhetoric at a university forum. He sits between two extreme caricatures of the bipolar spectrum in American politics – the vapid liberal and the belligerent conservative; each feeding off the other’s spite to validate their own indignation – and as he hears them rail against each other in their predictable, bullet-point oversimplifications, his head is buzzing.
Finally, irked by all this impotent rage masquerading as political debate, and goaded by the host into picking a side, Will eventually erupts, unleashing an impassioned screed. He rails against such self-perpetuating victimhood, and the fruitless divisiveness it cultivates, even berating a student who had naively asked – in the midst of all this petty squabbling – what makes America the greatest country in the world. It is that presumption that so infuriates Will, it seems, that willingness to just leap to a presumptive surety before even bothering to consider the facts.
Indeed, in the final moments of the first episode it is revealed that despite his proffered excuse that he had suffered an adverse chemical reaction, Will had not in fact taken any vertigo medication before his meltdown – he had simply overdosed on all this mindless vitriol. In truth, his mind, like the media discourse at large, had been in slow process of atrophy, numbed by the arbitrary maelstrom in which he was being buffeted. The clichéd cycle of needlessly bipartisan oratory, the thoughtless phrasing of redundant questions that invite only pabulum regurgitation as response – his mind was choking in a haze of apathy, and it responded instinctively, purging the air in a flourish of Sorkin’s signature resplendent verbiage.
It is likewise fitting that this episode – and therefore the whole fiction of The Newsroom – starts with a momentary eruption of truth that was caught and distributed virally (captured by a hall filled with mobile phones, streamed through YouTube, dispersed through Twitter, disseminated in blogs; all mediums that are referenced in some way or another in the first episode). After all, never before has the world been so inundated with platforms through which society can express itself with immediacy and freedom (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing this very spiel in blog form), yet at the same time, it has never felt so acutely that the voices at the centre of that maelstrom – those traditionally tasked with the pursuit and curation of objective truth beneath all the empty rhetoric – have completely abdicated their role as the watchdogs of social discourse.
Between reporters so desperate to break stories ‘first’ (even if only microseconds before their competitors) that they risk spewing inaccurate speculation onto the air (to use but one example, after the tragic massacre in a Colorado cinema last year, ABC journalist Brian Ross named an innocent man as a suspect for the crime); or commentators blithely spinning fabrication to suit their narratives (again, to use but one example, conservative pundit’s ludicrous parroting that President Obama’s trip to India cost upwards of 200 million dollars a day, and involved a 3000 person strong entourage with a third of the navy along for the ride – a nonsense addressed directly in The Newsroom); or where celebrity scandals saturate screen time daily while ongoing foreign tragedy or social inequity at home gets comparatively peripheral attention. In a world where it seemed to take satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart screwing around with a Super PAC in the run up to the election for many in the media to start concentrating upon how repugnantly and uncomfortably intermingled such unpoliced attack groups can become with candidates pursuing higher office.
Amongst all of this speculative, subjective noise, The Newsroom, and its central protagonists, pleads for a moment of introspective calm – a cherishing of objective truth, and an interrogation of fact, in order to allow for rational debate. As the executive producer of the fictional News Night program MacKenzie McHale states:
‘That studio is a courtroom. And we only call expert witnesses. Will is the attorney for both sides. He examines the witness and reveals facts.’
It is a pursuit in search of – and offering a defence for – context. They refresh the grammar amongst the hyperbole, theoretically allowing for a space in which debate, stemming from impartial truth, can prosper.
The recurring textual touchstone of the series, referenced repeatedly throughout the season’s run and cited at the inception of the new News Night journalistic mission statement, is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. At first, Will is inspired to reclaim his journalistic integrity through an appeal to this ironic heroic quest; later he will proudly declare Don Quixote’s mission as his mantra.
In the original novel, a nobleman named Alonso Quijano falls in love with the tales of chivalry and justice he has spent years absorbing. He becomes besotted by a nostalgic fiction, a ‘Golden Age’ of man that he longs to preserve. It is a highly self-reflexive work – a metatextual self-inspection of fantasy and Romanticism* – one that inspires Quijano, emboldened by the tales of valour and virtue in Romantic fiction, to change his name to Don Quixote, and set out upon a misguided attempt to ‘civilise’ the world – a knight errant believing he can restore a corrupted social disorder.
… But he was mad.
The piercing ironic comedy of this work comes from the realisation that Don Quixote, stirred into action by beautiful fantasies, heads out into a world filled with dangers he neither understands nor can recognise, blind to the debasement that stares him in the eye. And so, on his journey, he is routinely physically and psychological beaten down. Most famously, he ’tilts’ at windmills; literally mistaking windmills as giants, he attacks them in a self-destructive charge that risks devastating himself on what it revealed to be an utterly foolish errand.**
The Newsroom too embraces this kind of romantic sensibility. The show name-checks Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, remembering them fondly as exemplars of an age in which the news was a bastion of reason and independence. And again, perhaps that’s the great appeal of Sorkin’s writing. His work (and in this particular text, his characters) are enflamed by nostalgia, by a longing for a better time, perhaps remembered more vividly and idealistically than it ever truly was. They take that nostalgic impulse and hone it to a razor’s edge on the millstone of their hope; defying the odds, arguably flying in the face of present reality, they yearn to recapture the best of what we believed ourselves to be.
There is a recurring gag in The Newsroom whenever someone cites Don Quixote. Frequently when Cervantes’ character is mentioned, it is noted that he was never wholly alone in his quest. People refer to themselves as his companion and aide Sancho Panza, or even his fantasised lady love, Dulcinea – but no one, ultimately, is willing to be his horse (or donkey, rather.***)
But I want to be the horse.
(Or donkey. …Whatever.****)
Damn looking silly. Damn tilting at windmills. I’ll be the horse. To carry such a noble madman? To be filled with such wondrous hopeful intent? It would enrich us all; would prove the dream of reasoned argument and an end to empty rhetoric a glorious reality. Or at the very least, something worth trudging toward.
Now, in the interests of living up to this narrative’s own demand for responsible counterargument, one might respond to Sorkin’s pleas for an obstinate impartiality by observing that he himself, in the service of creating an engaging fiction, utilises highly persuasive rhetorical techniques. There are times when the dialogue borders on diatribe, and the prescience these characters exhibit over the unfolding events in which they are embroiled might read as a form of narrative sanctimony. One might observe that these flourishes in his writing are themselves manipulative stylistic choices that give a rather ironic dramatic flourish to his calls for objective judiciousness… However, as a tremendous fan of hyperbole myself, I would respond to such criticism by saying, respectfully, um… shut up.
It is a beautiful dream. One worth passionately defending as Sorkin – through his fictional band of tenacious believers – does. And as an alternative to the undigested parroting of fear-mongering, scapegoating, obfuscation and accusation that too often passes as discussion in modern broadcasting, it presents a much needed respite from the daily erosion of our analytical soul.
As Jack McCoy says (okay, I know his name is Charlie Skinner, but Waterson will always be the astonishing McCoy to me):
We can do better.
All of us. We just have to decide to. And Sorkin’s The Newsroom is the beautiful dream that proves we still long to do better – even if we currently fall short of the goal.
And personally, I would rather be moved by a dream, to yearn for something better, than to wallow in the cynicism of a reductive bipolarity that too often masquerades as news. Thankfully, Sorkin’s is a fiction that proves there is still hope for rational intelligent discourse, even if only in our fantasies.
IMAGE: Don Quixote Fighting A Windmill by Gustave Dore (1863)
* A textual self-reflexivity that the extraordinary writer Jorge Luis Borges would later explode outward even further in his prose with the short fiction ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote‘.
** Don Quixote, Part I, Chapter VIII.
***And no: this is not a Democrat reference, by the way).
**** For the record: it’s a horse, named Rocinante.