Film and Television Features

Girls vs. The Newsroom - What's wrong with critics?

On Girls:
“In the first three half-hour episodes (of a 10 episode season), Dunham manages to convey real female friendships, the angst of emerging adulthood, nuanced relationships, sexuality, self-esteem, body image, intimacy in a tech-savvy world that promotes distance, the bloodlust of surviving New York on very little money and the modern parenting of entitled children, among many other things – all laced together with humor and poignancy"
                            - Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter

"This is typical of the show’s realism, which is key to its quality."
                            - David Haglund, Slate

On The Newsroom:

The Newsroom can be read as Sorkin's attempt to cure what's ailing the news industry, but he's misdiagnosing the patient. Of course in reality, the problem with cable news isn't that anchors are too timid, or loath to offend for fear of losing viewers. It's the exact opposite. Most modern cable news hosts are actually quite eager to stir the pot, believing that opinion and controversy are the things that drive higher ratings.
                            - Joe Muto, Slate

As The Newsroom starts to energize around the story, the show takes its biggest dive off the cliff of plausibility. In Sorkin's world, the plague of cable newsrooms is laziness. News people don't want to know the news, they don't want to wear out their shoe-leather getting incremental advances on developing news stories; they just want what's easy, what's prepackaged for them.
                            - Glynnis MacNicol, Capital New York

I'm getting a sense for what makes establishment critics jizz in their pants these days and I don't like it one bit. I should have seen it coming with the widespread circle jerk over the mumblecore movement whose aim is to make movies even more boring and uneventful than real life. Lena Dunham, the genius behind HBO's Girls, contributed her own masterpiece to this pointless genre with Tiny Furniture, which tried its damnedest to be tedious and succeeded marvelously. Somehow, the critics, who have supposedly read a bunch of great literature and seen a mess of classic films, thought Dunham's lack of plot, character development, narrative arc, drama, or smart dialogue, was the wave of the future. Some even called it funny. No, really, they did. If you don't believe that, I'm here to tell you they're saying the same thing about Girls. Sure, you've seen the show, never laughed once, perhaps watched in morbid fascination as Dunham sexually humiliates herself, "bravely", and then you thought, "Why am I watching this, I hate these people." Well, you're not a brilliant critic, so what do you know? If it helps, I happen to be on your side. Of course, no one is paying me to write this so it doesn't really count, but I take succor in the fact that you are out there and maybe you can do the same. The critical glee has reached embarrassing levels, the height of which is's assigning a bunch of gals and a bunch of guys to sit around talking about how much they all love the show and poring over every yawning detail. I know how hard it is to find a decent gig as a writer in these benighted times, but I wonder how many of those dude's resumes went flying out the door the week of the premiere.  

On the other hand, HBO also just unveiled Aaron Sorkin's (West Wing, The Social Network) new series called The Newsroom, starring Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer. In contrast to Girls, this show has the best writer of snappy dialogue this side of David Mamet, a couple of great actors, tension, drama and social commentary. Consequently, the critics hate it.  Sure, the show's not perfect, with some over-the-top preachiness of the "no kidding" variety. But on the whole, it's smart, quick, well acted and edited and rests on the right side of the angels. What's going on?

The criticism reprinted above is representative and get's to the heart of the matter. Girls is wonderful because it's real, and The Newsroom is awful because it's not. The previous generation of critics, well let's say ALL previous generations of critics, never had a problem with art that didn't faithfully replicate reality; it wouldn't have occurred to them. Art was supposed to be more than reality, heightened reality, perhaps even sur-real. Picasso said art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth. Eh, what did Picasso know about art? Now it's fashionable to admire art that exactly imitates the rhythms, the tedium of life at its blandest moments. So wit is mostly dispensed with since who can be expected to say clever things on the spur of the moment? It rings false. The conventions of drama, dating back to Sophocles, are to be avoided since "things don't really happen that way". This is Sorkin's fatal flaw as he borrows heavily from Aristotle's unities of place and time, condensing the key events surrounding the BP oil spill into the course of one day, one news cycle. He compounds this error by giving his characters the kind of sharp dialogue you might expect to hear in the classic screwball comedies of the forties like His Girl Friday, which also takes place in a newsroom and is certainly due for a critical reevaluation by the new, improved standards.

I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't hypothesize a reason for this recent trend. It smells to me like a variation on good, old-fashioned narcissism. I don't know, but I'd guess that most critics are rather ordinary people, and like ordinary people they are distrustful of others who are more clever than they are. Yet they also consider themselves to be above the rabble. The rabble is so insecure it needs people to look down upon, feel better than. This is where reality TV comes into the picture. Critics think they are above such plebeian preoccupations. They reside in a middle region, between the gutter world of the Kardashians and the increasingly rarefied air of the brilliant artist, who is more comfortably seen as a smart ass, ripe for a take down at the nearest opportunity. That's why Dunham is such an appealing character, because she is such a middling talent. The kind of person who knows just enough about pop culture to be cleverly ironic about everything that happens, but not in possession of any real wit that would make the intelligent person think twice about preconceived notions. She makes jokes the critics would have made in graduate school, lounging around the dorm, watching Pulp Fiction for the hundredth time. Sorkin on the other hand is quick, sometimes too quick to follow the first time around. He writes dialogue the critics couldn't have written themselves, and hence he is ripe for vehement denunciation when he slips up with something obvious or overly pedantic. "Aha!", the critic exclaims, reaffirming his superiority, and Sorkin is promptly brought down to earth. When these cultural authorities watch Girls, they are watching themselves, and if Dunham is a genius then so are they.  

Me, I enjoy reading books or watching movies by people who are smarter than I am. It fills me with wonder to be in the presence of superhuman talent. As Harold Bloom advises, the way to approach Shakespeare is never to assume you are smarter than he is. Any true appreciation begins with the realization that he is several steps ahead of you at any moment, and hence you can read him over and over again and never catch up. The experience should be thrilling, not an excuse for resentment. Sorkin continues to thrill me, and I'll spend my evenings trying to catch up to him, rather than sitting comfortably with Dunham, reveling in my own blandness.