Culture Warrior

Two nights ago, Aaron Sorkin’s heavily-anticipated and rather polarizing new show The Newsroom aired its debut on HBO. With the pilot’s central focus on the BP oilrig explosion, the premium cable network has established itself (alongside with their recent TV movies) as the primary venue for dramatizing recent political history.

However, other contemporary television shows have addressed political issues well beyond the headlines of the past few years. In this election year, it seems that TV comedies and dramas from several networks have a surprising amount to say about the political process in a way that resonates with this uncertain, often frustrating moment.

Here’s how The Newsroom stacks up against a triumvirate of other TV shows with overtly political themes…

The Newsroom (HBO)

The Newsroom

Sorkin’s new show (which you can see the pilot episode of here) seems stuck between two worlds. On the one hand, The Newsroom provides talented actors delivering paragraphs of dialogue with the zeal and magnitude that we’ve come to expect from Sorkin. On the other hand, while the delivery of Sorkin’s signature monologues and rat-a-tat chatter-in-motion (instead of The West Wing’s hallways, here we’re given a giant open office) certainly makes for engaging, in-the-moment drama (at least for the pilot – several critics state that subsequent episodes offer diminishing returns), the substance of that style leaves something to be desired.

As you probably already know from HBO’s promos of the show, the pilot episode begins with neutral and jejune news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) breaking character to deliver an acerbic and exhaustively-cited speech to an audience of college students about why America is no longer the “greatest country in the world.” The Newsroom starts off with a “personal breakdown” moment culled from Sidney Lumet and (the comparably verbose) Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (Sorkin also channeled Howard Beale for the pilot of the cancelled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), except Sorkin infuses his righteous truth-teller with sweeping optimism rather than Chayefskyan cynicism, if Thomas Newman’s gratingly rosey-eyed score didn’t already make that perfectly clear.

Sorkin’s relentless endorsement of the “great man” myth won’t silence any criticisms of the layers of sexism implicitly present in his work (nor will the fact that he chose a stereotypical sorority blonde to ask the ignorant question that inspires McAvoy’s transcendent ire). But perhaps Sorkin’s greatest mistake with this particular formula is his assertion that the necessary medicine for partisan pontification is bipartisan pontification. What Sorkin and McAvoy don’t realize is that every angry-sounding news pundit – no matter how calculated, performed, and selective their outrage – also thinks of her/himself as a 21st century Edward R. Murrow or Howard Beale revealing the Next Great Truth. But as Beale showed us, after the first divine outburst becomes a televised hit, there are few places a responsible journalist can go.

Emily Mortimer gives us the show’s thesis statement directly: “America isn’t great, but it can be.” However, in resurrecting Cronkite/Murrow/Beale and spending much of its 72 minutes deriding the 140-character-driven circulation of information, the pilot of The Newsroom seems far too charmed by the past to think about the future.

But what The Newsroom does offer (and, as Sorkin himself acknowledges) is wonderfully entertaining fantasy channeling what every blue-dog Democrat wishes the cable news media looked like, what Americans entering retirement think it used to look like, and what anyone under thirty knows it will never look like. The tone of The Newsroom looks a lot like the cable news we actually have today, shouting matches and such, but these decibel-elevation contests are supported by a near-impossible recollection of relevant facts and figures attended by quick wit that has rarely existed with regularity in unrehearsed conversation. Adventures in Sorkinland can lead to some truly satisfying and incredible (both meanings) moments of television, but Sorkin’s fictions function better as a brief, idealistic respite from an unfortunate reality than a useful instruction manual for how current political discourse can be improved.

Veep (HBO)

Veep HBO

Where The Newsroom attempts to pave to road toward the right thing as the path (back) toward political responsibility, Veep depicts a Washington that lost any chance at redemption long ago. This half hour comedy (the dirty other side of Sorkin’s golden coin) finds The Thick of It and In the Loop creator Armando Ianucci relocating his brand of government office dick-measuring to Washington, DC, where the curse-riddled jokes somehow seem more crass and less intelligent with an American accent despite the fact that they’re almost exactly the same on paper. Like Sorkin’s stand-ins, Ianucci’s characters all seem to speak a shared high-velocity cadence.

What’s both hilarious and depressing about Veep is that no matter the issue (a petty personal rivalry or the congressional negotiation over a bill that could effect the lives of millions of citizens), the schoolyard bickering is always the same. As David Plotz of Slate pointed out, the Office of the Vice President is a fundamentally comic position; the office is ostensibly near power but remains completely devoid of it. Veep plays this scenario to the hilt: The President himself is never seen nor named and VP Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) is constantly put in humbling scenarios following any attempt she makes at actual politicking.

Veep is surprisingly apolitical given its subject matter. Though Meyer is hinted as a Democrat with her push for energy reform, she does not seem motivated at all by policy or a responsibility for public service. She, like all the characters in the show, is only interested in elevating her name and finding ways to climb Washington’s ladder of power (oh, and everybody wants to hang out with Prez). Only Washington insiders would know for sure, but Veep may (sadly) not, in fact, be satire at all. But I’ll laugh more comfortably pretending that it is.

–~~~~~~~~~~~~–

Game of Thrones (HBO)

Game of Thrones

No, HBO’s hugely popular fantasy series doesn’t interrogate pressing political controversies à la Newsroom, but like (and, in many more ways, unlike) Veep, this exhaustively constructed fantasy narrative does examine the power struggles and special interests that arise in the process of governing. What separates Game of Thrones from other fantasy series is its reluctance to put major characters in the position of being wholly good or definitively evil (except Joffrey – what an asshole). Each character and storyline manifests some tension between the burden of tradition and the everyday politics of governing as well as the interest of the immediate few in conflict with the greater interest of the masses. Most importantly, Game of Thrones illustrates the arbitrary nature of who achieves power and who is granted the status of greatness.

The families and houses vying for the Iron Throne may paint one another as sworn enemies depending on where the winds of governance may blow, but seeing every character up close makes clear that such stark distinctions are difficult to come by. Most characters have their share of legitimate and selfish reasons for doing what they do, a character’s actions in public and private do not always make their intent transparent. And in painting one’s political opponent as a mortal enemy, the real threats become obfuscated. The Baratheons, Lannisters, Targaryens and Starks might as well be modern-day political parties.

Parks and Recreation (NBC)

The most potent fictional reflection of our current political moment is not on premium cable. This past season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, depicting Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) run for city council against incumbent Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), offered a satire of grassroots campaigning and relentless political gamesmanship that was sincere, hilarious and never ham-fisted.

Amazingly, Parks, which takes place in a fictional Indiana town, managed to depict a largely informed, easily swayed electorate without reducing its townspeople to regional stereotypes for easy laughs. With the show’s depiction of Newport’s cutthroat but apolitical campaign manager Jennifer Barkley (Kathryn Hahn), Parks and Recreation illustrated that even the smallest of elections are potentially compromised by big money, special interests, and negative campaigning. Knope plays the game to win it, but without losing her soul. Season 4 argued that democracy and merit-based elections can still reign triumphant in the end, but the show depicts this process without a hint of sentimental naïvete.

Perhaps most importantly, Parks and Recreation shows common ground across political differences and ideologies. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), a staunch libertarian working to obstruct government interference by making the Parks Dept. accomplish as little as possible, has nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for Knope and her effective use of government to serve public needs. The show never pronounces this friendship as somehow transcendent across potentially insurmountable difference, but instead depicts this friendship as natural, layered, thoughtful, and human. In the world of Parks and Recreation, the democratic process may often seem like a joke, but the escalation of political differences that have supposedly created the greatest partisan divide since the Civil War on the macro scale may not be so evident on the micro scale.

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