Television has become one of the best story telling mediums. And I love a great story. Television is in a golden age and this food blog is going to go off topic to talk about some of the great and not so great television available for us to watch.
HBO has reenergized their slate of dramas and comedies this spring. Two of these new shows exist in a very similar neighbourhood but their execution and tone are completely different. Both writers have made their reputations with sharp dialogue and workplace dramas.
First is Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom which casts Jeff Daniels and a very solid ensemble cast as the newsroom behind a cable news broadcast. Second is Armando Iannuci’s Veep, a scathing satire of political spin doctors and sycophants.
The Newsroom on the surface looks, sounds and feels like an Aaron Sorkin project. It’s sanctimonious, it’s characterizations are dishonest within the reality of the story, and the portrayal of a newsroom falls so far behind the the portrayal that The Wire’s fifth season that it’s kind of embarrassing. With that said it’s not a bad show just yet. It has a very good cast, the show has been engaging and entertaining and the dynamics between the characters are so far done quite well. The dialogue flies by at break neck speed and it sounds great. I love Alison Pill, I love Emily Mortimer, I love Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterston* is a revelation.
Though the cast does some really good things, we also see big holes in these characters. Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy was characterized as cable news’ Jay Leno. But we never see him at any point as likeable. Emily Mortimer’s character Mackenzie is made out to be this balls to the wall war journalist who is burned out and wants to be back in a newsroom. We do not see that, we see Will’s respect for her and we see he ability to manipulate the staff, but we also see that she is a social klutz who can’t operate her email properly**. None of these things really scream that original assessment of her character. This is a TV show, not a movie. There will hopefully be hours of this show, and lots of time for Sorkin to show us who there characters are and were. Why the rush to just get though who there characters were? Why do we get all the exposition about characters and then none of that exposition really comes through as being accurate because we are too busy rushing through a half baked story about the BP Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill.
My biggest problem with the show is that it isn’t nearly as intelligent as it pretends to be. It actually plays a very sneaky game in which the show takes place in the near past and involves real events. This allows Sorkin’s writing to feel prophetic, that these characters are so good at their jobs that they can break the entire BP Oil Spill story in a day. When in reality the facts about the spill trickled out over about a month. Sorkin seems to elude that had a news agency just put aside their quest for ratings than they would be able to break news faster, more accurately and more in-depth. I agree with that, just like I agree with most of what he has to say with this show. But just because I agree with it doesn’t mean it’s something that should happen in the first episode. Which is another problem.
The Newsroom tells me everything I want to hear. I agree with pretty much every political opinion expressed on the show. It then wraps it all up in a bow, out of one side of it’s mouth it preaches the complexity of the profession but in the way it shows us the profession is without nuance. The problem with this is that I have already heard these stories that this show tells, and if there stories were fictional I would still come down on Sorkin’s side more often than not. The show doesn’t challenge me. Conservatives are cartoons, and liberals are smarter than everyone else but don’t have any guts. This is not a revelation, it’s hackneyed.
My fear for the newsroom is that it’s going to become what Sports Night became. An overblown way for Aaron Sorkin to write long passages of exposition about why the world is not what it can be.
Armando Iannucci is a relative unknown in north america but in the UK that is another story. A writer and producer on the BBC’s The Day Today and Alan Partridge series, and more recently The Thick Of It. Iannucci is also the writer/director of the Academy Award Nominated film In The Loop which was based on the world he created in The Thick Of It.
Veep is Iannucci’s first foray into American television and though I feel like there were some hiccups during it’s first season was a success. Unlike Sorkin’s ability to make every one of his characters charming and intelligent, Iannucci has a skill at making his characters unlikeable yet endearing. It’s world view is nihilistic and it’s characters are so cynical and self serving that you shouldn’t like them…but you do.
Veep follows the Vice President of The United States, Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her staff. As she fruitlessly tries to make her mark on the American political landscape, in her position of Veep. The cast features Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, and Reid Scott. A cast which carries much less weight than The Newsroom, but at times gels much better. Instead of charming, driven, passionate characters we get self aggrandizing, apathetic, and self serving, characters who only really care about their own careers for the determent of the group as a whole.
Over the course of the season, Selina’s dreams of a “clean jobs bill” and filibuster reform begin as noble and necessary causes. But as the political posturing, compromise, conflict and scandal begins to mount, Meyer and her staff see that in Washington nothing really changes because the game is rigged by both sides.
Veep I feel takes a fake vice presidential office, and fictional issues and uses them as a backdrop for the characters to run a mock. Back stabbing, insulting, and threatening each other and ultimately the office in which they work. The institutional disfunction and the political bafoonery, is the conflict and the entertainment of the show. While in The Newsroom we see the characters, “rise above” those disfunctions without actually offering an insight as to why they exist.
What makes the two shows so interesting when put beside each other is that The Newsroom and Veep essentially take about the same world. It’s just that one aspires to right the aimless and dysfunctional ship of TV Journalism while it pretends to be nobel and dramatic. Though the fact is that the best and most noble parts of The Newsroom is it’s biggest logical leap. Veep embraces the fact that politicians live in another world which is insulated from the actual problems of people. Their world exists as a series of double talk laden meetings, media spin, back room deal making and endless cocktail parties where the wit is laced with arsenic. I will take the latter before I take the former.*** What about you?
*And his eyebrows.
**I find that Sorkin doesn’t write women well. They fall into a few archetypes which are somewhere between silly and insulting. Mackenzie is a tough career woman who men respect but at the same time is kind of a ditz who says things at the wrong time. Maggie is a doe eye youngster who has all the potential in the world but her loyalty and her inappropriate relationship limit her career though everyone seems to like her and not resent her.
***Technically I will take both for now. But The Newsroom is on very thin ice.