A NEWSROOM SERIOUSLY RUN AMOK
By Bob Vickrey
After watching a recent episode of the entertaining, but often maddening HBO series, “The Newsroom,” I decided that someone on that staff needs to empty the office fridge of its 5-Hour Energy drinks and brew up a big pot of decaf. No, make that several pots of decaf!
The friends I hang out with simply do not converse in the rapid-fire staccato cadence that the characters on this show engage in. Either start that decaf brewing soon, or have the producers of the show provide me with some helpful subtitles at the bottom of the screen.
Creator Aaron Sorkin’s smart, but smugly self-congratulatory series is presently airing in its second season. As with his previous work, he’s captured a big audience and considerable acclaim. The series chronicles the behind-the-scenes events of the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel. Sorkin’s characters seem to be constantly reminding us of how smart, witty, and acerbic news people are. When the show slows to a comprehensible pace, it becomes one of the most compelling and thoughtful series on television. But the tiring dialogue, infused by its forced frenzy, gives it a staged and choreographed appearance.
At the show’s core, we get an inside glimpse of how news programming is packaged and witness the often flawed final product with all its human frailties involved. Peeking behind the scenes is much like the old adage about the making of sausage—you really don’t want to know what’s inside.You may have noticed that although hardly a nan-o-second lapses between actors lines, no one ever seems to interrupt another until they finish their sentence—a scenario which seems totally implausible for these tightly-wound manic characters. The responses are so quick and snarky, the pace of the story becomes unnerving, improbable, and borders on the hysterical.
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my career around extremely smart people in newsrooms and publishing offices—and they simply didn’t communicate like this. The depiction of fast-talking intellectuals also likely reinforces the public’s skepticism and overall image of a modern-day elite media.
Sorkin has traditionally employed the use of fast-paced dialogue, but it had never become a total distraction to the storyline until this particular series. In his award-winning “The West Wing,” one of the most memorable features was its characters who were in constant motion as their entourage moved briskly through the busy offices and corridors of the White House. It appeared that someone had removed every chair from the entire West Wing and there was nowhere to sit. The non-stop walking frenzy created a sense of impending national emergency based on each and every decision made. I remember feeling completely worn out by the end of each show and felt like I’d just finished running a marathon. The viewing of an episode generally required a long nap afterward.
In contrasting styles of dialogue delivery, writer/director David Mamet is famous for his signature quirkiness, employing short and punchy lines where one character usually finishes another’s sentence. Director Robert Altman’s films produced an amusing, almost comedic touch in his take on how people communicate. Everyone on camera appeared to be speaking at once with hardly anyone ever listening to one another. The result was chaotic, but considerably more life-like than Sorkin’s manic presentation where characters’ lines hardly ever overlap in conversation.
Admittedly, the youthful staff of “The Newsroom” is part of a younger generation that seems to have forever altered the conventional structure of diction and articulation in their speech patterns, and simply rely on some implied conversational code with one another. Modern-day linguists who study the unspoken rules of conversation would likely be taken aback by their rapid-fire dialogue.
We get little reprieve from the rapid tempo with the appearance of the show’s more mature leading characters, anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer.) Both deliver their lines as if they’re under pressure to bring the show in under its one-hour time frame. If the entire ensemble cast actually spoke at real-life human pace, “The Newsroom” might easily double its running time and be forced to become a mini-series.
Only the appearance of veteran actor Sam Waterston, who portrays News Division President Charlie Skinner, lends a slight respite and offers us a rare moment of tranquility to the show’s hyper-ventilated pace. Waterston holds the show together by injecting his thoughtful wisdom at a rate of believability and comprehension.
In its initial season, early critics cried foul when the show’s characters engaged in long rants extolling their political ideology, instead of simply focusing on news gathering priorities. Sorkin reshuffled his writing team at the end of that season, and the annoying practice of political pontification has all but ceased this year. So, perhaps there’s still some hope of tweaking the warp-speed presentation as the series continues to evolve—lest I dare to dream.
The heart of the message of “The Newsroom” is sincere and the emotional connections between the characters seem genuine, but Sorkin’s window-dressing feels forced and orchestrated. When he sticks to storytelling and moves the story forward, there’s hardly anyone better in the business, but his less-than-believable human interaction distracts from his enormous talents as a writer. Often, I find reaching the ultimate payoff simply feels like way too much work.
Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns have appeared in the Houston Chronicle and Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.