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Newsroom Therapy

September 25, 2012

Shelley and I are up in Rhode Island recently visiting friends, and one night we end up channel surfing. I recall that a patient of mine, who’s long worked in TV news, has recently come in raving about The Newsroom.

“I saw the first episode, stood up on my couch, and cheered! They nail it!” he said.

So we find the HBO On Demand station, and watch the first episode.

One hour later, the four of us sit there, stunned.

WHAT was that?!

This off of HBO’s website…

“From the mind of Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and screenwriter of The Social Network and Moneyball, comes The Newsroom, a behind-the-scenes look at the people who make a nightly cable-news program… The series tracks their quixotic mission to do the news well in the face of corporate and commercial obstacles-not to mention their own personal entanglements.”

So yes — Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a veteran news anchor. He’s gruff, completely out of touch with his staff as well as himself, and he’s riveting. But it’s the TV standby Sam Waterston (Law and Order, etc.) who steals the show. This 72 year old actor, who evokes more emotion-per-moment than anyone else I see on the screen, plays Charlie Skinner, the president of the news division. Old school to the core, Charlie’s dream is to restore TV news to its old glory.

In the first episode, McAvoy, who got where he is as a TV news anchor by never offending anyone, is about to lose it. We watch as he participates in a panel presentation at Northwestern University. One young coed asks the panel, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” McAvoy gives a bland answer, but the panel moderator presses him. “I want a human moment from you.” Because of all the pain he’s been carrying around (which we find out about later) McAvoy eventually bursts…

“There’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement we’re the greatest country in the world.”

Soon a dozen students are whipping out their smartphones and taping him. 

“We’re 7th in literacy; 27th in math; 22nd in science; 49th in life expectancy; 178th in infant mortality;  3rd in median household income; #4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita; number of adults who believe angels are real, and #1 in defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies…So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!”

Silence.

“It sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed…We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances; cured diseases. We cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars.  We acted like men. And we didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election. And we didn’t scare so easily.”

And then he states the real theme of the show:

“We were able to be and do all these things because we were informed. So America’s not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

And the episode, and show, take off from there. There are a couple of romantic storylines as well, along with some levity. In each episode, the major events of the past two years (the BP oil rig disaster; the Arab Spring; the killing of Osama bin Ladin) are recast from the perspective of what occurs inside a newsroom.

These are the events that add drama and adrenalin to our lives, whether we want them to or not.

We skate on such thin ice, don’t we? With a frigid world just below we could crack into any moment.  We coast along with a relative calm while knowing that those four words – We interrupt this program — could rip us from the everyday at any time and stop our world cold. And even sometimes split our lives forever into a Before and After.

But just as I’m about to get lost in this TV drama (as if I don’t dramatize my life enough as it is) Shelley and I happen on another day to stumble into another find, there, on the other side of reality.

Originally an actual webcast, Showtime’s Web Therapy is Lisa Kudrow’s (of Friends) wet dream. If she were simply a narcissist who dreamt up a show where she could get to be on camera literally every second, the show would still be tolerable because she’s a total hoot. The fact that she plays a narcissist (Fiona Wallice) who shocks, scolds, alienates and in some cases destroys her patients as well as everyone around her while she remains completely oblivious makes for some sly and savvy television.

The first sitcom done exclusively in Skypovision, the entire show is done split screen, showing two webcam images of Fiona and whomever she’s speaking to.

Playing a therapist “with little patience for her patients”, the show boast a few additional dimensions that make it completely entertaining:

1)     Celebrities: Appearing as patients and sometimes as themselves, are Meryl Streep; Lily Tomlin (who plays her mother); Minnie Driver; Rosie O’Donnel; Conan O’Brien — who plays himself, seeking therapy…

“As you can see, I’m Conan O’Brien.”

“I’m sorry, who? As in Conan the Barbarian?”

“No. The Conan O’Brien. The talk show host; the comedian.”

“When is your show on?”

“Eleven o’clock.”

“Oh right, so I wouldn’t have seen it. I don’t need sleep aids.”

2)     The whole thing is completely improvised. At least that’s what they claim on the show’s actual website. Who knows.

In  season two, Fiona’s husband, a Republican, is running for Congress. But the campaign had to first send him to a “camp” to cure him of that pesky condition most common (and fatal) to Republican politicians – homosexuality. (Streep plays the wife of the man who runs the camp, almost losing her husband to Fiona’s in the process).

Fiona also has a longstanding problem with fat people, who she says should pay a surtax on food, “especially baked goods”. She gets her husband’s campaign in trouble because she decides to make a citizen’s arrest of someone for obesity, and takes the person – who happens to be four years old — down to the police station.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Fiona’s sister (and therapist): “I keep telling you what you feel, and you keep arguing with me! You’re in denial!”

These two shows are at polar opposites, but each make our world a little better in their own way. The Newsroom by educating and moving us, Web Therapy by making us giggle. At the end of a long day playing a therapist myself, I come home and find it therapeutic to lose myself for a while in one or the other of these two great shows.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 25, 2012 9:59 am

    I agree, Charley, The Newsroom is a really fantastic show. They have some jokes embedded in the episodes too- for instance when they have a whiteboard full of story ideas they’re slashing “War on Drugs” was one of the items quickly crossed off and skipped because, well, it’ll still be here tomorrow. Especially so as a drug policy geek, and avid TV critic, I appreciate the subtle commentary on our news media this show makes.

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