For over a decade HBO used to be the network to turn to for outstanding original programming, whether it was cutting edge comedy or ground-breaking drama. Well, with a couple of noted exceptions, the comedies aren’t really that funny, and ever since Big Love ended it’s run, the dramas have been particularly stagnant, either being overly graphic showcases of sex and violence (True Blood, Games of Thrones, and, sad to say Boardwalk Empire) or lectures on the wretchedness of America, such as David Simon’s waterlogged Treme and Aaron Sorkin’s overblown The Newsroom.
There was a time when Aaron Sorkin was the king of the walk-and-talk drama, where characters strolled down corridors and spoke in a rapid-fire dialogue that entertained even when it sermonized. But those skills are rarely in evidence in Sorkin’s recent dramedy. There are moments of genuine wit in this series, but most of them are hidden among endless lectures about the futility of the press, the weakness of today’s politics, and the cowardice of the media. As a climax to the first season, Will Macevoy (Jeff Daniels) called the Tea Party ‘the American Taliban’ , and while I’m sure that was supposed to be considered a triumph, it sounded like Sorkin preaching. Now the series is taking place in the immediate aftermath, and while we’re supposed to be upset when Will is condemned on the House floor, or when Jim is berated by spokespeople for the Romney campaign, it’s hard to see this as anything but ham-handed. They have made some genuine attempts at being fair— there have been more than a couple of remarks raging against the Obama White House for issuing drone strikes, and an ongoing story on how utterly pathetic the Occupy Wall Street movement was— but they don’t seem realistic because the characters, with few exceptions seem like cutouts.
And then there’s the love (triangle? quadrangle?) that seems to be going on between the staff. If anything, this seems even more heavy handed then the headlines. After an incident in which climaxed the relationship where (Allison Pill) launched into a rant against Sex & The City, which climaxed with her and Jim kissing, this sequence has now ended up on Youtube, and as a result every relationship in the series has collapsed. (I’m no fan of Sex & The City, but I feel that the whole sequence was just some way of Sorkin biting the hand that feeds him rather than have any humor or power). Don left Sara, her best friend has fundamentally disowned her, and Jim left for the Romney campaign rather than deal with it. Now Sara has focused on going to a news story in Africa, which we know won’t end well (more on that in a minute) rather than deal with her problems. The entire affair seems just more proof that Sorkin can’t write a story about a real romantic relationship to save his life, and while his characters can talk a mile a minute, they don’t want to talk about their feelings. (For those who bring up Donna & Josh, or CJ and Danny on The West Wing, I would remind them that those relationships coalesced only after Sorkin left the show. I honestly think if he’d stayed the full seven seasons, neither couple would’ve gotten together.) Meanwhile, Will, after spending almost all of last season in utter contempt to gossip columnist Nina Howard (Hope Davis), just had them begin an affair. I rest my case.
The characters have also been pursuing a story about a possible war crime called Operation Genoa, and has already flashed forward to them meeting with an attorney (Marcia Gay Harden, barely used) in which we will learn that ACN aired the story before they learned it wasn’t true. Some would say this is Sorkin’s demonstrating his skill from The Social Network; I would argue this is him channeling David E. Kelley. We’ve got enough stories in the real world to lecture on; do we really have to spend the entire season dealing with a fictional one?
There are some good things about this series. Olivia Munn is generally enjoyable as a brilliant economist who has all but failed human relationships. And Sam Waterston is very good as head of the news division Charlie, trying to hold this fragile position together against the powers that be. And every so often, there will be a moment where all the clichés fall away– like when we see Will’s coverage of 9/11— that the series hits the right notes. But they’re all too few and far between. They say that this is a series that gains part of its audience its audience because of people who ‘hate watch’ it. I say, there have got to be better ways of spending your time then mocking what doesn’t work. How I wish Breaking Bad would hurry up and get here.
Rating: 2 stars