Here is the line that convinced me to give up every reservation I had about the much-awaited new season of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” which begins at 10 tonight on HBO.
It comes at the beginning of the fourth episode. The young journalist played by Alison Pill is giving a legal deposition to a lawyer hired by her all-news network. The lawyer is played by that wonderful actress Marcia Gay Harden.
The lawyer prides herself on being a bit of a jokester in depositions. To loosen up her young deposee, she engages her in a jocular little discussion of a popular Manhattan topic – Real Estate Porn, where ordinary apartment dwellers bandy info about the obscene costs of apartments for sale.
There’s an apartment she’s looking at, says the wisecracking lawyer to the struggling TV reporter, that’s just been knocked down to “11 million.”
The journalist – just back from Africa for an assignment whose tragic drama we won’t fully know until the episode’s end – replies quickly, “I looked at the same place, but I need a bigger ballroom.”
A truly great Aaron Sorkin line.
That was it for me. Game. Set. Match. I’m back on Sorkin’s side again for the duration of the new season of “The Newsroom” – no matter what.
I must confess the first two episodes of the show’s return did not make it easy. They’re not “The Newsroom” at its absolute best. But, even though you may not remember it, that was true of the first two epsides of the show’s first season too.
Oh sure, there are certainly splendid Sorkinesque moments in the first two episodes. In one, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the brutally sarcastic and wickedly funny intellectual brawler who seems to live to see how much slicing and dicing his sharp tongue can do, recalls for us, the great moment last season when, on the air, he called the Tea Party “the American Taliban.”
What happened then? someone asks.
“The Taliban resented it,” he answers.
But a good many plot threads of the returning “Newsroom” need plot set-ups in those episodes that are, to be frank, a wee bit on the laborious side. And there’s simply no getting around the fact that the young folks’ love triangle that sets so much else in motion is almost a total crashing bore.
We know why it’s there, for pity’s sake. The major worry about a premium cable TV show that takes journalism so seriously in an Internet era of miniaturized information is that it’s a bit of a demographic white elephant. So, by God, let’s stuff the show with younger folks having romantic dilemmas and breakups, by all means at the top of their lungs while on the “Sex and the City” Manhattan tour bus, if necessary.
Let’s admit that when Sorkin does it, it’s definitely a more upscale bit of demographic pandering than it is on, say, “The Bachelor” or “Big Brother.” But it’s still blatant pandering to a younger audience, and there are times on those first two episodes when that pandering stops the proceedings dead.
And that’s despite the fact that Sorkin is probably the great living master of badinage at the allegro vivace tempo of screwball comedy in the ’30s. All the verbal and performance brio in the world, though, can’t disguise a writer caught in the act of making the suits happy.
Sorkin obviously listened to a lot of people in his new season of “The Newsroom.” Johnny Klimek’s version of Thomas Newman’s opening theme, for instance, is no longer in the business of trying to sell us on the idea that TV journalism is on the essential bedrock American level of an Aaron Copland ballet. Klimek’s new version of the theme has a minimalist pulse; it has the jangling nervousness of deadline life inside real newsrooms.
Nevertheless, the new season of “The Newsroom” is going to be just as vulnerable to the major charges against Sorkin as the old: the unabashed, uncut liberal wonkery of so much of his plotting, the bludgeoning pomp of his intellectual self-righteousness.
When you put a show on the air whose credo seems to have been “speaking truth to stupid,” you’re virtually requiring that the audience never think of itself as “stupid.”
And that’s a problem – the most fascinating of all for Sorkin, I think.
It has always seemed to me that Sorkin’s essential subject, whether on “The West Wing” or “The Newsroom” or the script for “The Social Network” – is intelligence, often at its most brilliant extremes.
His pols are smarter and better than real pols; his journalists are smarter and better than real journalists. His Facebook-creating hero in “The Social Network” is always the smartest guy in the room.
My trouble with that couldn’t be simpler. I’ve always thought that there is, in fact, no subject in the world that requires more intelligence than stupidity. That’s why it’s never dealt with better than it is by the greatest geniuses of Western civilization – Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Beckett, Cervantes. Mere intelligence, not even in Sorkin’s quantity, simply isn’t equal to it.
That’s why he doesn’t deal with it head-on. He merely uses it as a punching bag rather than something to be understood. At best, it is something to speak the truth to – and, with luck, KO in the process.
The trouble is we’re all a little stupid sometimes.
It goes without saying that we’re all ignorant of all manner of things – the proper way to perform brain surgery, the top five poets in Urdu and Farsi, the agreed-upon hierarchy of distilleries in Scotland, thousands of subjects. One’s person’s expertise is quite likely another’s ignorance. It’s ridiculous to be sensitive about it.
Stupidity, though, is a different thing from mere ignorance. Stupidity is the condition of preferring ignorance over knowledge.
Even there, though, all of us are capable of immense stupidity. We all like to think we’re ready to learn new things at a moment’s notice, but it’s not true. If you show up in front of us with a blackboard and start trying to teach us the grammar of Farsi and Urdu, a lot of us are simply going to adjourn for lunch.
Truly toxic stupidity, it seems to me, is not only when ignorance is preferred to knowledge it’s when the very idea of knowledge itself is actively resented.
And that’s where Sorkin will always get into trouble with some people. He seems, in his own way, to actively resent any knowledge about stupidity and how it actually works in the world. As a consequence, huge sections of his audience – including, for “The Newsroom,” actual journalists and pols – actively resent him pointing out just how truly stupid they can be.
The third episode of the series is an absolutely devastating and hilarious critique of pack journalism aboard the Romney campaign bus. It’s another moment where it’s hard not to be thankful that Aaron Sorkin exists.
But the amazing thing about Sorkin, for all his brilliance, is something you can see in this new season of “The Newsroom”: He’s only brilliant enough to understand intelligence and brilliance. He’s not brilliant enough to have any grasp at all of stupidity, except as the Enemy.
He’s always writing at the top of his game. You watch his work and you know that’s it. That’s as high as he can go. He’s always as smart as he can be, no matter what.
But he’s never going to get any smarter.
There are times when it seems to me he’s eternal proof of the famous apothegm of Jean Giraudoux: “Only the mediocre are always at their best.”
Ah, but such mediocrity. It’s good to have it back.