You don’t want to be brandishing rotten eggs and squishy tomatoes – not while I’m around, you don’t. I may get testy.
Enough of all the supremely supercilious Sorkin-bashing. No more. Sunday’s season finale of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” managed to be the most timely – and one of the best – season finales of a television show I’ve ever seen (and, in my case, that “ever” covers a lot of chronological distance).
On this very evening, the Republicans are gathered in Tampa to see how much commandeering of the American journalistic agenda a storm called Isaac will allow. Two days earlier, “The Newsroom’s” finale led off with fictional journalistic crusader Will McEvoy leading off his news broadcast with a very real issue hotly debated (“defended” is the most apt word) just a few weeks ago: efforts to deny voting rights to those who have no photographic identification. In his semi-sufferable, self-righteous liberal juggernaut way, self-described Republican McEvoy explained that the “voter fraud” thereby prevented amounted to less than one-thousandth of 1 percent of votes cast. And that what is really prevented is having the poor – most of those without ID – who might not be inclined to vote Republican from being allowed to vote.
McEvoy’s (i.e. Sorkin’s) wildly plausible fictional specimen of that issue’s potential injustice was a nonagenarian named Dorothy Cooper, who had, quite legally, been voting for 75 years but who can no longer vote because she doesn’t drive (hence no need for a license) and doesn’t make summer jaunts to Europe or cover wars in Afghanistan (hence no passport).
Put it together with “The Newsroom’s” usual blowtorching of the Tea Party on the (also) plausible grounds that it represents extremism, not Republicanism, and you’ve got the most extraordinary timeliness ever recorded for a TV show in a presidential election year. And all this, mind you, from an HBO fantasy that, thus far, has had to restrict itself to actual events from 2010, when some of the writing was being done.
It is tempting to say that no mere TV show – not even a plump, juicy HBO plum – could possibly be planned that artfully. It must have been dumb luck.
I’m not so sure. At some point, brilliance, like stupidity, does catch up to reality. “The Newsroom” was long in the can when HBO decided its run dates. So was the general date of the Republican convention.
I think all those journalistic sluggards who bristle under the self-righteous (but inarguable) pasting the show gives them weekly are going to have to face up to a simple fact: In its first season, it was truly great television. One of the best shows in years.
It was absolutely up there with “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos.”
My theory all along, frankly, has been that at least 25 percent of the bumpy ride “The Newsroom” has had in the esteem of critics can be laid at the doorstep of Thomas Newman’s appallingly reverential theme music. It’s so full of pseudo-Aaron Copland modalities and folk pieties that it began the show every week with the very sound of sanctimony, leaving viewers with the feeling that they were attending Sunday evening services at the First Church of Broadcast Journalism, The Right Rev. Sorkin presiding.
While Newman’s “We love America, sea to shining sea” pastorale was being played, we saw a montage of all the Great White Fathers of TV journalism, pummeling us into worshipping their higher motives and putatively pristine practices.
You know – Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley.
Hold the phone.
Chet Huntley? And now a brief word from the actual history of broadcasting in the United States.
Huntley would have been the first to tell you that his background wasn’t in journalism – not like Murrow’s, Cronkite’s and Andy Rooney’s – but in broadcasting itself. He was a radio staff announcer who traveled to news iconhood on an upgrade.
He was a radio voice from Montana. It was the partner NBC’s news wizard Reuven Frank gave him – David Brinkley – who’d been a working journalist from the time he was, yes, in high school (working for the Wilmington Morning Star). It was Brinkley who began as a White House reporter; it was Brinkley who would have known how to actually work any story put in front of him with just a phone and a phone book.
Nevermind that Huntley had the unimpeachable manner of a newsman. That was just television. Essentially, Huntley became a newsman by playing one on TV.
This is not to say that Huntley’s professional integrity was less than anyone else’s. So insufferable has the journalistic surplus of self-righteousness about the profession become that it would be a travesty to contribute even a scintilla more to that toxin.
But it was that godawful combo platter of music and montage at the beginning of every “Newsroom” that smothered its audience weekly with the exact wrong context.
Let’s speculate that the show might have benefitted from a theme by Bob Mould (see “The Daily Show”) or especially Danny Elfman. Maybe, to get thoroughly outlandish, at least a dozen New York minimalist composers I can think of who’d have given the show the sound of nervous edge under pressure. Let’s also speculate that the opening montage of the Grand Old Days of TV Journalism had the kind of instantly passe marginality of Archie and Edith Bunker in a bygone era singing of “the songs Glenn Miller played” in an era where “everybody pulled his weight” and “gee our old LaSalle ran great.”
Sorkin should have been too smart to wax nostalgic about journalistic grand old days that never were. But he wasn’t.
It is to his credit that his show was so good that it triumphed over its creator’s own stupidity.
Ancestor worship should have been a dubious and debatable trait of the show’s fictional characters, not the show itself.
When a show is clever enough to have Ted Turner’s ex-wife – who happens to be a great American film actress as well as a former political troublemaker of some note – to play the owner of a cable news network, it shouldn’t have been stupid enough to present TV journalistic integrity as a vanished Arcadia.
It’s El Dorado, in reality, i.e. a land of myth.
In the terrific season finale of “The Newsroom” – complete with historically appropriate sideswipes at “Sex and the City” – Sorkin revealed what his theme music all along should have been: bad, scratchy old recordings of Broadway cast albums from “Camelot” and “Man of La Mancha.”
Now THAT would have been the proper introductory tone – smartass, ironic, dweeby, willing to get bruised while pushing boundaries rather than defending a bunch of Holy Prophets who were never anything of a sort.