To One Another (and To Dialogue) | The Digital Americana Wall

To One Another (and To Dialogue)

TV Review

“It struck me that such analyses had it backward. It’s the American public for whom the Iraq War is often no more real than a video game. Five years into this war, I am not always confident most Americans fully appreciate the caliber of the people fighting for them, the sacrifices they have made, and the sacrifices they continue to make. After the Vietnam War ended, the onus of shame largely fell on the veterans. This time around, if shame is to be had when the Iraq conflict ends – and all indications are there will be plenty of it – the veterans are the last people in America to deserve it. When it comes to apportioning shame my vote goes to the American people who sent them to war in a surge of emotion but quickly lost the will to either win it or end it. The young troops I profiled in Generation Kill, as well as the other men and women in uniform I’ve encountered in combat zones throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, are among the finest people of their generation. We misuse them at our own peril.”

Evan Wright, Generation Kill

“America, I discovered, is a country that feels badly about itself, and when it is motivated to participate in politics, it does so mainly out of hatred and contempt for the guy on the other side, not inspiration or idealism.”

Matt Taibbi, Spanking The Donkey

BARTLETT: Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They have rhythm, and pitch, and timbre, and volume. These are the properties of music, and music has the ability to find us and move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meanings can’t. Do you see?

ABBEY: You are an oratorical snob.

BARTLETT: Yes, I am. And God loves me for it. They stop and face each other.

ABBEY: You said he was sending you to hell.

BARTLETT: For other stuff, not for this. You can’t just trod out Ephesians, which he blew, by the way, it has nothing with husbands and wives, it’s all of us. Saint Paul begins the passage: “Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ.” “Be subject to one another.” In this day and age of 24-hour cable crap, devoted to feeding the voyeuristic gluttony of the American public, hooked on a bad soap opera that’s passing itself off as important, don’t you think you might be able to find some relevance in verse 21? How do end the cycle? Be subject to one another!

ABBEY: So… This is about you.

BARTLETT: No, it’s not about me! Well, yes, it is about me, but tomorrow it’ll be about somebody else.

-The West Wing

This week, The Newsroom did just about what a long-form TV drama is supposed to do at this point in the season: they moved the ball forward, but the journey was nice to watch. The most important thing to note up at the tope here is that Aaron Sorkin has taken The Newsroom from a self-conscious place into the confident stretch of solid writing, directing, and performance that we all want to see from a club on its way to the postseason. It’s bucked the criticism and established itself, officially (for me, at least), as The West Wing with swearing. There were no shockers this week, but the writing held the line in terms of quality (high) and the show continued to avoid the pits and pockmarks that bothered everyone so much about the last season. I’m of the opinion—still—that such evasive maneuvers are unnecessary and that the first season was also awesome, but it’s easy to run out of breath listing the ways in which I am an old softie, so let’s just get into the show.

This week started off with another line from Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) that could get his show and network into trouble. We begin with what should be a more infamous moment in American history: the post-9/11, Tea Party-infused flag tattoo that is (or was) the Republican primary electorate, loudly booing an active duty soldier for asking if the GOP’s presidential candidates would do anything to reverse the effects of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during a debate. It was one of the most embarrassing moments in live television history, and McAvoy’s level of outrage is appropriate and well-executed.

From there, we move to a discussion between Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterson) and Will about the coverage and about the future of their baby, “News Night.” These two actors are incredible together and were born for Sorkin the way Patrick Stewart was born for Shakespeare. (That’s the second time I’ve compared the two playwrights in as many weeks; I’m sorry if it offends you but I saw The Tempest this week and the only non-law book I have with me for my summer internship is the Norton Collected Works of Shakespeare, so its been on the brain lately.) Charlie and Will have an amazing exchange that seems to have walked out of the Sorkin Hall of Fame, and we get to see Waterson’s greatness, the qualities that keep his place at the top of Law & Order’s leading men. “God didn’t give her humanity; that’s why she’s a gossip columnist.” We also get an impassioned call-to-reasonableness from Will that crosses ideological lines and implores the audience to behave like adults. “Snark is the idiot’s version of wit” and “the bitchiness has to stop” and oh, if only we could be “one inch nicer” and/or “decent” to one another. This is an old theme dating back to The West Wing’s sermon on how to “be subject to one another”, and comes wrapped in some more great volleys about Don Quixote.

My favorite aspect of this week’s episode is the extent to which the storyline that follows Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) has improved and taken a place as one of the show’s leading editorial thrusts. Jim is “embedded” with the Romney campaign and we get to watch him boil to an overflow, even as his fellow reporters begin to share his frustration with the campaign’s utter lack of substance. Calling someone on a campaign bus getting two turkey sandwiches a day for free an “embedded reporter” feels insulting to both reporters and beds, and again Sorkin/Jim’s level of anger is appropriate. The commentary throughout the episode related to the role and robotic sound-biting of campaign press secretaries is really something to see here. At one point, Jim frustrates a Romney spokesman by parroting the press aide’s answer on Romney’s “plan” to reboot the economy, quoted directly from the campaign website, and we get this:

            Spokesman: “I get it.”

            Jim: “Do you?”

            Spokesman: “Yeah.”

            Jim: “I don’t think you do, because while those are… sentences and everything, they’re not a plan.”

Jim’s storyline also picks up speed in his interactions with a female reporter, Hallie Shea (Grace Gummer), assigned to the same beat who seems to want to thwart every attempt he makes at turning the campaign into a real news story:

            Hallie: “Learn how this works, because you’re driving the rest of us crazy.”

            Jim: “You can’t blame me for trying.”

            Hallie: “I am—I’m blaming you for trying.”

While there is much to like about this episode, it isn’t free of moments that frustrate me. While executive producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and new producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) have a nice thread going with the soon-to-ruin-the-network Genoa story, there was a moment this week that just got under my skin. Mackenzie hears a soldier describe an event that involved AH-1 helicopters, and finds it necessary to interrupt and tell Dantana that “AH-1’s are Cobras.” This is kind of an inside-baseball critique, I know, but here it is: I get that you have to explain jargon if you want it to work. I also get wanting to display Mack’s military knowledge, a decision I applaud. But giving her a line that simply notes the popular name for a military helicopter (1) doesn’t teach the audience anything, because if you don’t know what an AH-1 is you probably won’t know what a “Cobra” is either. And (2) if you know what both of them are, pointing out the vehicle’s popular name is a stupid comment to make during that discussion and undercuts rather than supports a thematic statement of Mackenzie’s intelligence. Also thorning my side this week is the inexplicable return of Nina Howard (Hope Davis), but Sorkin gives her a scene with mimosas, showing that he is a man after more organs than my own heart and there’s a cool Heathers namecheck in there, too.

I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of this show, and I meant what I said at the top: fans of Sorkin’s earlier work should see this as The West Wing with swearing—at least at this point in the narrative. There are plenty of episodes left to screw it up, but I’ve loved what I’ve seen so far and the show shows no signs of slowing down.

-Jacob Drum


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