Books: Play All — Sweet Faces Speak Poetry |
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Sweet Faces Speak Poetry

IF SORKIN, IN The West Wing, was racing on the crown of the asphalt, in his later ventures Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom he has spent a lot of time on the grass. In motor racing terminology “on the grass” means you have mistimed the corner and are bouncing and skidding along in one of the run-off areas at the side of the track, hoping not to get stuck in a gravel trap. The metaphor is perhaps a bit too strict to be used in the appreciation of Sorkin’s later shows. My elder daughter Claerwen has done a dedicated Sorkinista’s job of making me watch them several times each until enough virtues emerge to make me less confident about pointing out their vices. But I still think that Studio 60, in particular, is a misapplication of the body of expertise that Sorkin built up while in charge of those first four seasons of The West Wing. Wanting more of the same, we perhaps had the wrong expectations of him when he moved on; but it seems equally likely that he had the wrong expectations of himself. He thought he could transfer the same density and complexity of treatment from the world of politics to the world of comedy. But the world of comedy can’t take the weight, because it is full of people who, far from fighting against their own histrionic tendencies, give in to them. It’s serious, but not in a serious way: and is thus a lot harder to treat dramatically. I worked in the field of television comedy for twenty years myself, and I’d be the first to say that the day is full of vital decisions, but they’re not the same as deciding whether to send in the Marines, or even deciding whether to pardon a turkey.

The inside story of the Studio 60 comedy show might as well be the inside story of Saturday Night Live transferred from New York to Los Angeles. The on-screen show-runners, Danny and Matt, played by Bradley Whitford from The West Wing and Matthew Perry from Friends (impossible not to think of their origins in each case), are essentially Lorne Michaels split into two, so that he can argue with himself. Their arguments fizz and snap all around the building, but the basic Thomas Schlamme directorial device of The West Wing—a Steadicam dialogue conducted while the protagonists walk at high speed down the corridor—works less well when there are no corridors. (In The Newsroom the anomaly is even worse, because the walking talks happen in an open-plan office, with everybody else pretending not to listen, like those other people drinking coffee in Friends.) This technical handicap would have mattered less, however, had the supposedly comic players in the show actually been funny. None of them is, except perhaps Alex Dwyer (Simon Helberg), who does appropriately crazed imitations of Tom Cruise and Nicolas Cage. Fatally, Harriet Hayes, the key character of the enchantingly stately young woman who is also enchantingly amusing—i.e., the Gilda Radner persona in the Saturday Night Live lineup—is, as played by Sarah Paulson (trapped in the role, I fear), more winsome than stately, and no more amusing than Ivana Trump. Matt’s thwarted love for her has driven him to drugs, but Danny has done much better with his boss Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), although in true Sorkin style it takes Danny almost a whole season of twenty-two episodes to find out where his heart lies. (One of the many true lessons from classic Hollywood that Sorkin took in with his mother’s milk is that we must first love the lovers before they love each other.) Indeed Amanda Peet is the one who delivers the Gilda Radner thrill, partly because her refined glamour is multiplied by her character’s position of power, thereby putting her on the pedestal which Sorkin obviously thinks is the appropriate position for any heroine in whom one of his smart heroes is interested. But by the time we have figured that out, the casting of the show-within-the-show has ceased to matter. One wonders only briefly why the show’s supposedly cute and cuddly small male Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry) is given no proof of humor beyond his capacity to dress up as a bee. Or was it an ant? What matters about him is that his brother is captured in Afghanistan, thereby giving Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip an opportunity to do what it has been longing to from the start: turn back into The West Wing. Immediately the studio green room turns into the White House situation room; there is a high-ranking military attaché ordering the resident beautiful female lawyer (played by the pitilessly arousing Kari Matchett) to cease negotiating for the hostage’s release; the clock is ticking in a deadly countdown; and all that remains to happen is for President Bartlet to come charging in and take over.

Actually, all that remained to happen was for the show to die. After so blatant an unveiling of its true yearnings, it could barely stay credible until the unmourned close of its only season. It was a worthy effort, with a lot of clever talk; and both my daughters still like to go through it in search of its many minor pleasures; but there were too few major ones, and Sorkin never really got the show on the road. He looked as if he might be on the grass for keeps.

He did better with The Newsroom, which, instead of being about theater, is really about news, and therefore is practically about politics, the field which best answers Sorkin’s theatrical instincts. My whole family has binge-watched all three seasons at least once each, and Claerwen finds it an honorable development in Sorkinism. So, after a long pondering, do I, but I still think that the key man is the weak link. It isn’t the fault of the actor, Jeff Daniels, that he gives a matinee idol’s improbably distinguished profile to Will McAvoy, the anchorman he is impersonating; but it is the fault of the writing, directing, and the whole shebang that McAvoy is given the ennobled importance (it’s that royal thing again) which America has traditionally awarded to news anchors from Huntley, Brinkley, and Cronkite onward, with all of them revered as if they were Ed Murrow reborn. Since Sorkin’s truest gift is for analytical idealism, not satire, there is no point faulting The Newsroom for making its protagonists so concerned with keeping the news clean. But we could have used more indication that there have been striking instances in the real world of the American newsrooms deliberately getting the news wrong. McAvoy might have at least referred, in his off-screen banter, to the way that CBS News, with the great Dan Rather fully implicated, cooked the facts about George W. Bush’s avoidance of war service in Vietnam. CBS was swindled with a falsified document, but it stuck with the swindle, and Rather kept plugging the lie right until the end, which turned out to be his. Those of us who had never thought him to be all that impressive anyway—he never seemed to realize how phony he looked in a flak jacket—managed to hold back our tears when he finally headed off to a well-paid marginalization on cable, but wry thoughts of William Hurt’s actorish anchor in James Brooks’s excellent movie Broadcast News were hard to quell.

Sorkin quelled them. The plotline of The Newsroom’s second season deals throughout with how the team talks itself into transmitting false news about the Marines using Sarin gas, but the false news is an honest mistake. The question of ambitious wrongdoing scarcely comes up. McAvoy and his roomful of clever colleagues spend hours on end agonizing in true West Wing style about how their goodness failed, without even raising the possibility that there might be such a thing as evil. Finally it hits them in the face when a newly hired colleague is revealed as the perfidious culprit. He has to be an interloper; and of course he can’t possibly be the man behind the onscreen desk. We can’t expect McAvoy to find within himself any possibility that he might warp the truth to his advantage: he’s not the type. But McAvoy is meant to have a brain as well as a personality, and human faults are meant to be within his mental grasp. Instead he is the last to suspect instead of the first; and at no point in any of the show’s twenty-five episodes does he even begin to consider that the on-air language of even the most honest anchor might be spurious anyway, since the demands of the twenty-four-hour news cycle are that everything must be made to sound important even when it isn’t. The Newsroom thus finds itself in the anomalous position of frittering away the main advantage that a long-form TV show has over a movie: room to search souls. Broadcast News managed to nail an issue in a couple of hours that The Newsroom barely scratched in a whole season. What if the anchor is a fraud?

Since the show ended, a national news anchor has been caught shyly boasting the same sort of action-packed back-story that Hillary Clinton cooked up for herself after landing in Sarajevo “under sniper fire.” To improve the facts is a human temptation that a worker in news must suppress, not be without. When not occupied with putting himself into profile, McAvoy unstoppably speaks speeches, of such fluency that we must struggle to notice how he is a robot calibrated to operate only at the speed of the news cycle, and never less: when condescending to listen to the opinion of reverent underlings, he still rewards them with chunks of the Constitution compressed into epigrams. Luckily for us, he is surrounded by characters who bear a stronger resemblance to human beings, although even they show signs of having been assembled from standard components. McAvoy’s boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) is a tower of scotch-pickled wisdom until he finally drops dead, perhaps so that the actor can get back to Law and Order and continue being a tower of wisdom there. Charlie is a television perennial, the wise one that you can find wearing pointed ears in reruns of Star Trek and will find again under the name of Saul Berenson in Homeland. (Glowering knowledgeably behind them all is Ben Bradlee, as played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men, a performance so riveting that Bradlee is rumored to have copied it in real life afterward.) Charlie didn’t need Obi Wan Kenobi to be inspired by: the guru figure has been cropping up since the earliest days of Hollywood, where every studio chief looked with favor on the idea of a veteran male screen character who embodied the sum of human wisdom. Scott Fitzgerald thought the wise man might be Irving Thalberg, and wrote a hagiographical text about him, The Last Tycoon.

Sorkin is saturated by a heritage of stock characters, which he transports to the level of originality by making them articulate. Jane Fonda as the proprietress Leona Lansing plays the Nancy Marchand role from Lou Grant. Furnished with aphoristic dialogue worthy of Congreve, she makes a plausible exemplar of the proposition that somebody with enough money could be ready to subsidize the truth, as if it were an art museum: irony-prone onlookers have suggested that she might have borrowed her altruism from her ex-husband Ted Turner. I personally, in all my own altruism, think the show caught a lucky break when it couldn’t get Marisa Tomei to play executive producer MacKenzie McHale and got Emily Mortimer instead. McAvoy needs a Cambridge-educated antelope to fall for, and Marisa Tomei would have been (here I cough discreetly) too sexy. Speaking of sex, Olivia Munn as the ultrabright economics anchor Sloan Sabbith is two different kinds of dynamite, and from the visual angle would be enough all by herself to raise the perennially vexed question about eye candy, which I hereby propose to treat, although very briefly. After all, I am pledged to run these remarks past the women of my family, and they still want to know why I, at my age, and in my depleted state of health, sobbed aloud when Zoe Barnes got pushed under the train.

Sloan Sabbith has two Ph.D.’s and the face of a wicked angel. Sorkin, a romantic idealist, has always been glad to present us with a female character whose beauty is rivaled only by her brains. In The American President Annette Bening completed her enslavement of Michael Douglas when she unexpectedly spoke French to the French ambassador: a dollop of cream for the key lime pie. If a female character is meant to be enticing even against her will, the combination of oomph and smarts is an enabling device for the character’s creator: Sloan’s two Ph.D.s legitimize her bewitching eyes and her figure fit for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. But we can’t mention any of that stuff, because this is America, whose culture insists that the love object not be objectified, and that love, a thing of the spirit, must transcend lust, a thing of the mere body. Nietzsche thought that sexuality influenced the whole human personality all the way to the top of the mind, but Nietzsche was a German fruitcake. The matter could be debated endlessly, but the debate tends to reach the screen only in the form of casting. In Britain the BBC leads the way toward satisfying the supposed demands of antisexist justice by filling the police station with ordinary-looking female cops and making sure that the only female cop who is supposed to look like a heartbreaker gets defenestrated in the second episode. As a result, the ITV cop shows have a better chance in the export market: Helen Mirren as Detective Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect spent seven years being a hit all over the world. She’s a fine actress, even better than Queen Elizabeth II at holding regal sway, but anyone who didn’t think Mirren’s timeless sexual appeal was part of her impact would be dreaming. In Britain, though, such casting now counts as a rare event, and even as a retrograde step.

The Americans, despite agonies of ideological guilt—they are under constant pressure to believe that pulchritude is a social construct, instead of a divine caprice—still find themselves obliged to obey the ancient and perhaps accursed Hollywood rule of putting attractive females on screen wherever possible, and especially if the character is supposed to be one. Alas for all enemies of sexism, that rule entails a further rule, which is that the eye candy, once in position on screen, should not be casually dispensed with. I myself am living proof of the fact that a male viewer can be well past the age of misbehavior and still lose his heart to a pretty face, at least to the point of missing her when the plot wipes her out. Quite apart from Kate Mara’s collision with the Washington Metrorail system, I found it hard to take when Krysten Ritter disappeared from Breaking Bad. (Luckily she popped up again a few weeks later as a frenemy of the headliner in Veronica Mars: in my dotage I find that the screen stories, as I shuffle the boxes in which they are contained, tend to blend together, like a Cowes regatta sucked into the Sargasso.) But Sorkin has never needed to be convinced that a pretty face should catch our imagination even before it starts unspooling aphorisms from La Rochefoucauld. His high place in the long-form television world looked like proof in itself that a screen story depends on an ample supply of courtly love. But it only looked like it, because in The Wire romance was dead from the start.