Last night's viewing - The Newsroom, Sky Atlantic; Twenty-Twelve, BBC2
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Wednesday 11 July 2012
On YouTube, there's a video called "Sorkinisms", which at the time of writing has been watched well over half a million times. A home-edited string of clips from the work of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, it demonstrates just how often he recycles his own dialogue, re-using identical phrases from one film or TV show to the next.
If you've seen his 1995 romantic dramedy, The American President, you'll know it shares its setting and half its cast with The West Wing, first broadcast four years later. Turns out lines from The West Wing also crop up in Sorkin's next series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and even in his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network.
According to the notes below the "Sorkinisms" video, its creator intended his supercut not as a critique, but as "a playful excursion through Sorkin's wonderful world of words". However, it also sets the scene for the writer's latest primetime drama series, The Newsroom, which is nothing if not a stream of familiar Sorkin tics. Like Studio 60, and his other short-lived series, Sports Night, The Newsroom is set behind the scenes at a live TV show: in this case, an evening news programme called News Night. Sorkin's protagonist, and News Night's anchor, is Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels): affability itself on camera, cranky git off it – a reverse-Paxman.
The pilot opened at a university debate, where two politicos from either side of the ideological divide were arguing about Obama's policies across a bemused, silent McAvoy. Our hero, it implied, is the calm voice of reason in a nation gone mad, which may or may not be concomitant with Sorkin's own self-image. McAvoy, finally cracking under the strain of neutrality, delivered an angry tirade about America's flaws, mourning its former greatness: "We stood up for what was right," he cried, "We fought for moral reasons!" Slavery, the A-bomb and Vietnam went conveniently unmentioned, for The Newsroom is a show about nostalgia, conducted via hindsight.
Its opening credits feature archive footage of Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite over swelling piano music, and Sorkin plainly idolises the great news anchors of the past. McAvoy's boss, a bow-tie-sporting Sam Waterston, claimed, "In the old days, we did the news well… We just decided to." And simple as that, McAvoy and his team decided, between bouts of screwball banter, to do the news "well". The episode, it emerged, was set in 2010, and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had just exploded. Unlike the real-life news networks, News Night quickly spotted the corporate and governmental failures at the heart of the story, and aimed straight for them.
The final act's live broadcast sequence was as spine-tingling as the best Sorkin set-pieces. The Newsroom is wish fulfilment for news junkies, just as The West Wing was a comforting fantasy for liberals under the Bush administration. But if McAvoy and co hit the right notes every week as they report on the recent past – healthcare reform, the Tea Party, the economic crises – it will surely come off as smug, not to mention cheating. This is how a newsroom ought to work, not how a newsroom actually works. And, in the long run, the latter might have been more interesting.
Twenty-Twelve, by contrast, is a worst-case scenario. In the first of a new run of the Olympics mockumentary, the hapless Games organisers were – as usual – struggling to fix a series of semi-consequential problems with signature incompetence. It's the same jokes all over again, and, like the most worn-out Sorkinisms, they become less and less funny with each repetition. Still, in spite of myself, I chuckled at the Nathan Barley-esque names for the employees of PR company Perfect Curve: "Senior Trend Analyst, Coco Lomax; Information Architect, Barney Lumsden; and Viral Concept Designer, Karl Marx."
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