i Need Media
Everybody’s talking at me: The therapeutic freight-train banter of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom
Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is like sports talk radio. Certainly not in its inanity: Say what you will about the screenwriter-producer’s half-vaunted, half-reviled wordsmithery, but it’s rarely dumb — definitely not as dumb as the speculative hyperbole spouted by the Jim Romes of the world, anyway. If anything, it strains too hard to come off as smart. I’m talking more about the way I process it. For some reason, when I’m in my car these days, more often than not I have the radio tuned to an AM sports station. It’s not because I find it informative, funny or even basely entertaining. There’s just something oddly comforting to me about human voices yammering on incessantly, allowing practically no space for silent introspection. It’s like primal scream therapy, except you’re not the one screaming.
It is that compulsion which, more than anything else, has kept me watching Sorkin’s new HBO series, The Newsroom, through its first four episodes. So far, it’s not a great show. Set behind the scenes of a cable news program, it stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, a curmudgeonly anchor known as the Jay Leno of broadcast journalism, popular because he’s unthreatening. Back into his life walks the executive producer (Emily Mortimer) who once inflamed his personal and professional life, and she eventually convinces him to rebrand his show with the stamp of Murrowian integrity, ratings be damned.
Like all Sorkin vehicles, from The West Wing to The Social Network, the show is preachy and sanctimonious, but in this case, it’s also infected with a virulent strain of boomer nostalgia. It’s overarching theme — articulated none too subtly by Daniels in the first episode’s opening scene — is a longing for a return to the kinder, fairer, better-informed America of old, the country that allegedly existed before the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle turned the populace dumb, polarized and exceedingly mean. He’s talking about a country that less than 50 years ago fought against giving blacks the right to vote, treated women as subordinates and clandestinely staged government coups in sovereign nations. That kinder, smarter America of yore the show expressly lectures us about? It’s always been a fiction.
But, oh, the dialogue. It’s not really the words being said. It’s more about the visceral pleasure of hearing the words rapidly Ping-Ponged back and forth, usually at high volumes. As Bret Easton Ellis referred to it on Twitter, it’s like “Neil Simon on crack,” with an emphasis on “crack.” It’s equal parts grating and addicting, like chewing ice or listening to two yahoos blather on about Joe Paterno’s legacy. There are things I like about The Newsroom — Daniels is great in the role; the rush of breaking news is palpable; and it’s got Sam Waterston drinking bourbon in every other scene and threatening to beat the shit out of people — but the main reason I’ll continue tuning in is the brain-bashing, high-velocity chatter. Airing on Sundays, it’s just the kind of therapeutic bludgeoning I need to get through the work week.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column. Matthew Singer watches everything from PBS documentaries to Community and Showtime’s Gigolos, but mostly he’s just happy Breaking Bad is back. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.