Thursday, June 28, 2012

Aaron Sorkin's Preachy Newsroom

THIS PAST SUNDAY AARON SORKIN re-entered the world of television with his usual erudite splendor. For those of us familiar with Sorkin’s work, we welcome his return to television.

We’ve missed shows like West Wing and SportsNight (at least some of us did); we were tired of clinging to lifeboats strung together by AMC and HBO. We wondered just how many CSIs, Criminal Minds, and Law and Orders we would have to sift through to find a show that engaged our minds instead of numbing them. We longed for witty repartee between brilliantly written characters engaged in eternal struggles between good and evil, all while talking as they walked, of course.

So onto the scene strides Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a lead character whose eloquence and intellect already rivals such luminary Sorkin characters as President Josiah Bartlet or Mark Zuckerberg. In his opening scene Will sits on a panel with other media people, talking to students at Northwestern. The moderator asks them all questions, and we quickly understand that Will’s seat in the middle is not coincidental. He is the moderate on the panel, sitting in between a man from the right and a woman from the left. He is the “Jay Leno” of the media world, because he doesn’t offend anyone. When asked questions, he either evades them with a quip about the New York Jets,or completely ignores the question altogether. Then Jenny, a pretty sophomore, comes forward to ask, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?”

After attempting to dodge yet another question, Will finally erupts. He launches into a harangue in which he explains America’s numerous flaws. He eviscerates not only those whom he finds to be fanatical on both sides of the political spectrum, but also the girl who asked the question. He contends that, while America is not the greatest country in the world, it used to be. And with that sentiment ringing in our head, the show begins.

After the credits roll, we are made to understand that there has been a significant amount of backlash from Will’s comments. When he comes back to his office from a two-week (forced?) vacation, he finds out that most of his staff has abandoned him to go work on another show. The head of the network proceeds to inform Will that his new executive producer will be a woman named Mackenzie MacHale with whom he had a failed romance, years earlier. After some very typical first act romantic comedy scenes, we find that Mackenzie and Will are able to put their differences aside and do a show that Will can be proud of. It allows them to make good on the promise of Will’s declaration at Northwestern that America and her people can be great again, while showcasing Will’s brilliance and eloquence.

Some of you may have read the reviews of the show, reading about how “preachy” it is or that it is “typical Aaron Sorkin.” Both of these claims are true. The pilot did come off as preachy. It took an hour and twelve minutes to show us what has gone wrong with our news, our media, and ourselves. It reminded me of many rabbis in America in the early 20th century who would stand at their pulpit wagging their fingers at their congregants delineating the reasons that they were wrong or not good enough(I’m sure there are still rabbis who do this, but I hope that they have become the exception, rather than the rule.).

I don’t know how the show is going to handle the conflict between the “good ol’ days” and today, but I do know that it is a crucial conversation for Jews in America. What are we to do with a tradition that is thousands of years old that prescribes a lifestyle and choices not lived by most Jews today? What are we to do with a population that has no desire to be coerced or cajoled into practicing, but are nonetheless dying for inspiration? This is a conversation that every rabbi, every synagogue and every serious Jew has nearly every day.

As rabbis, we know that wagging our fingers doesn’t work anymore if, indeed, it ever did work. We know that there is a reason that more Jews feel the pull to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day than Shavuot. It is not because people are bad Jews. It is because Judaism has been bad at showing people why it is still relevant. At its core, Judaism, just like Valentine’s Day is about relationships. Relationships between God, each other and ourselves are what inspire us to perpetuate the tradition of our ancestors. The concept of mitzvot, of being commanded, only works within the context of a relationship with God. For many of us, when we perform a mitzvah or participate in a community, we are not doing so out of fear of some divine retribution. We are participating in Jewish society and mitzvot because we seek to have a relationship with God and the Jewish people.

Newsroom is a preachy show, but it’s a show that only Aaron Sorkin can give to us. We are OK with the derivative characters and the preachy sentiment; we put up with them, because we know that we will be provoked and entertained as we watch these characters struggle through the vicissitudes of daily life, while speaking with an eloquence that journalists, and politicians (and rabbis) can only hope to achieve. We cannot fear engaging with more personal or communal questions that might sound preachy. Like Sorkin, we need to embrace these questions for their important role in our development, and we need to be ready for the answers we get in return.

Rabbi Ben Goldstein is a rabbi in New Jersey. Become a fan of his on Facebook.