Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Breaking the Fourth Wall

I watched Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom all the way through the first season, and by and large I enjoyed it as long as I kept in mind that I was watching TV and not a Ken Burns documentary.

Mr. Sorkin is a very good playwright and he has an amazing talent for writing dialogue and interwoven plot lines. For me the best parts of the show was where he was writing for the grown-ups: Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterston. Jeff Daniels is one of America’s most underrated actors (I’ve been following his career for almost thirty years, going back to his days at Circle Rep in New York), and I will pay to watch Sam Waterston read the directions on the back of a bag of microwave popcorn. As for the goopy soap opera love interests between the kids, enh. His cast is attractive, appropriately diverse (although where are the openly gay characters?), but their antics are annoying to the point of wondering how the hell they got such good jobs working for a big cable news operation while still acting like horny teenagers.

Mr. Sorkin obviously has a political agenda, and he does as good a job as any agit-prop playwright of folding real events into a dramatic through-line. The only problem with that is that real-life events have the shelf life of a bottle of milk; in revival they become period pieces. But he’s writing this for TV, not Broadway, and in The Newsroom there are occasions when he does something that goes beyond the constraints of his make-believe world of ACN and talks directly to the audience. In theatre we call that “breaking the fourth wall.”