"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Aaron Sorkin is why people hate liberals. He’s a smug, condescending know-it-all who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. His feints toward open-mindedness are transparently phony, he mistakes his opinion for common sense, and he’s preachy. Sorkin has spent years fueling the delusional self-regard of well-educated liberals. He might be more responsible than anyone else for the anti-democratic “everyone would agree with us if they weren’t all so stupid” attitude of the contemporary progressive movement. And age is not improving him.
Sorkin is … not as popular as he once was, when he was still just the creative mind behind the much-loved “Sports Night” and “The West Wing.” People are, broadly, sick of his shtick. But he’s also, undoubtedly, more professionally successful than ever, back in demand as a major film screenwriter (coming off an Oscar win followed by a nomination) and heading one of HBO’s trademark “prestige” dramas. He seems nonplussed by the negative responses to his new show, “The Newsroom,” and he has plenty of reason to be: To his mind, he’s the same hack he’s always been.
He has a limited bag of tricks. Even his sparkling banter is one-note. His characters always say exactly, precisely what they mean, at all times. There’s no subtext, no irony, nothing ever left unspoken in his dialogue. His characters don’t even get to be sarcastic without someone asking them if they’re being sarcastic. Everyone alternates between speechifying, quipping and dumbly setting up other people’s quips. It’s exhausting.
His work also gets things deeply, pointlessly wrong — no big deal in a purely fictional universe but dodgy when dealing with real events, or, in the case of “The Social Network,” engaging in the biography of a man still living. Sorkin fit the broad details of Mark Zuckerberg’s life and Facebook’s founding into the only sort of story he is interested in and able to tell. It’s well and good to say Sorkin’s sole responsibility is to entertain, but I think an obnoxious little Sorkin analogue character would probably look askance at some Hollywood screenwriter who took such liberties with the truth in the service of disposable entertainment. (On the other hand, the moral responsibilities of an artist dealing with real-world material is maybe the sort of question too thorny for Sorkin’s paper-thin characters to dispense with in a quick Act 3 speech.)
I have never been a fan. “Sports Night” had its moments — it helped that it was incredibly low-stakes, making its characters’ self-importance seem like character traits instead of extensions of the author’s self-importance — but I never cared for “The West Wing.” (I agree, more or less, with what Chris Lehmann wrote about it back in March 2001, especially his point that Bartlet’s administration was fixated on petty cultural inanities and “symbolic posturings.”) But I understand the appeal of “The West Wing.” I can acknowledge that it was good TV.
“The Newsroom” is phenomenally bad good TV. Sam Waterston and Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer are all terrific! So is the production, and the direction, and even the editing! The show looks great. (Sorkin’s always been gifted with incredibly talented directors to help paper over his limitations — not just Rob Reiner and David Fincher, but also his longtime television collaborator Thomas Schlamme, who brought to “Sports Night” — and then “The West Wing” — the single-camera Steadicam style he developed at the single best sitcom ever about television, “The Larry Sanders Show.” Only the “talk” part of the famous Sorkin “walk and talk” is actually Sorkin’s.) It’s just a shame that all these wonderful talents are being used to animate Sorkin’s increasingly curdled and miserable worldview.
The inciting incident of “The Newsroom” is an unreasonably statistic-laden improvised tirade that Jeff Daniels’ news anchor character gives in response to a bad question at a journalism school panel. A dumb girl (dumb girls are this show’s primary villains) asks what makes America the greatest country in the world, which is the sort of question asked only by Sean Hannity, and Daniels says that it’s not: not just because of our poor infant mortality rate but also (and much more importantly) because as a society we no longer revere “great men.” This is the same idiotic nostalgia that inspires your typical David Brooks column, but in this world the speech is a controversial and notable thing, because Will McAvoy — the “second-most-watched anchor on cable,” apparently — is not supposed to have opinions, for some reason.
(The show is so confused about what McAvoy is and who he works for. Is McAvoy supposed to be Wolf Blitzer? He seems to be Joe Scarborough hosting a network evening news broadcast on CNN. Except he’s also very obviously Keith Olbermann.)
And then his ex-girlfriend shows up to be his executive producer, and in order to create a more perfect news broadcast, they turn his show into “Countdown.” McAvoy begins yelling at Tea Party people, basically. The best part is that the entire thing takes place in the very recent past and uses real events, so that we learn how Sorkin thinks the major news events of 2010 should have been handled — and the answer is always that the equivalent of a week’s worth of research and reporting should have been accomplished in the two hours before that night’s show.
“You are a smart, talented guy who isn’t very nice,” says a chatacter to McAvoy, and while the show takes great pains to show us that McAvoy is an asshole with a heart of gold, it’s clear that at this date Sorkin thinks being smart and talented is a license to be not very nice. His style hasn’t changed, but a meanness has infected sunny Sorkinland, which is what I think his former fans find so off-putting about “The Newsroom.”
It’s never been clear that Sorkin has much respect for his audience (never forget the post-9/11 “West Wing” episode in which the kindly president and his brilliant, hard-working staff, led by Sorkin stand-in character Josh Lyman, literally explain the roots of terrorism to teenagers), but he at least used to give lip service to the idea that people who aren’t brilliant middle-aged white men deserve some measure of respect.
The hero, now, is a man who calls a date a “bitch” for caring about reality-TV stars, and his creator is a man who said this to a newspaper reporter: “‘Listen here, Internet girl,’ he says, getting up. ‘It wouldn’t kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in a while.’”
That’s what Sorkin thinks of basically every woman and every person under 50. He hates everything frivolous — “frivolous” is womanly things like gossip and fashion and television not created by Aaron Sorkin but explicitly not, say, sports — and McAvoy’s war on frivolity extends to what Jane Fonda’s network owner refers to as “human interest” material on, say, obesity. (Which is obviously, in our reality, a very real and complex problem, but whatever.) The villain of episode 4 is a lady gossip columnist (well, her and the lady owner of the network). This is a pretty fundamental misreading of the purpose and history of “the news,” which is not actually wise men sternly lecturing you about what you need to know even if you don’t care about it. In episode 2, Mortimer kills the outgoing producer’s “The Day in YouTube” segment — it’s not NEWS!! — as if comics, crosswords and box scores didn’t sell newspapers during the couple decades of objective mass news reporting we now look back on as a golden age.
Things get sillier when the network brass begins getting upset: Apparently humiliating Tea Party freaks in live debate is … horrible for ratings, for some reason? And this makes network owner Jane Fonda threaten to fire McAvoy. “He humiliated congressional candidates on my network,” she says at Sam Waterston, as if that were a thing someone who owned a cable news network would be mad about. Oh no, people might turn off this news channel that has politicians being humiliated, routinely, by the world’s smartest asshole! (Then, hilariously, the Koch brothers are invoked. “Do not come down on the Kochs without checking upstairs,” Fonda orders — because, again, this show is hitting the same notes as MSNBC’s primetime programming in 2010.)
While I certainly agree with him on many of the particulars, Sorkin’s overall critique of contemporary journalism makes no sense, at all. The news started sucking because of ratings and also because no one any longer had enough “guts” to report the news properly. McAvoy’s big episode 3 “apology” (for not being a GREAT NEWSMAN over the last couple of years) blames ratings chasing, and ratings chasing alone, for the supposed decline in the quality of televised news. McAvoy suggests that the evening news should be done as a public service, required by Congress to be aired without advertising as a condition of using the public airwaves, which sounds very nice at first, like most of Sorkin’s characters’ common-sense ideas. But think about it for 10 minutes and it falls apart. The networks use the revenue from ads to invest in the reporting of news, which is expensive, and if they had to do it for free, it’s reasonable to assume they wouldn’t spend much on the product. The evening news would be an intern reading the newspaper aloud.
Sorkin has no interest in the process of news gathering, though. We hear much cred-establishing talk about new producer MacKenzie McHale’s time covering war zones, but “News Night,” chasing after the same Tea Party bullshit as every other show was that summer, never does foreign news. The one moment of reporting on display in the show’s first episodes involves a scoop falling, unbidden, into the lap of a producer — so Sorkin’s ideal news show is just a show that presents the commentary he wants to hear. And most Americans already have a show, or shows, that present the commentary they want to hear.
The thing with “The West Wing” is that the fantasy was legitimately better than the reality — these were smarter, better people than their real-life counterparts, working together at a better White House than the one we had. The problem with “The Newsroom” — and it was also the problem with “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” Sorkin’s truly bizarre show about brilliant heroic men creating an epically unfunny and preachy version of “Saturday Night Live” — is that the supposed better alternative it presents is patently inferior to the real thing. The revamped “News Night” is a mess, hosted by a man who combines an exaggerated version of Olbermann’s self-importance with Scarborough’s smugness. And he spends a lot of time shouting at Republican candidates and, for some reason, talking about Sarah Palin. (So I guess it’s “Hardball”?)
Sorkin will not take my critique particularly seriously, because it is on a computer screen instead of being sternly said by a white man with a television show (though the fact that I am a man means I’m probably much more likely to get through to him, Internet hack or no), but hilariously enough, HBO is paying him millions to dramatize blog posts from two years ago. This is what his show is: The totally correct opinions he would have had about various things, back in 2010, spoken aloud by some of America’s finest working actors, grafted onto a workplace rom-com about incredibly unpleasant men. The fantasy fulfillment that Sorkin has made his artistic aim is revealing an increasingly grim fantasy.
Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @pareeneMore Alex Pareene.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)