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Monday, June 25, 2012

We don't talk anymore but TV drama never stops

In the opening scene of Aaron Sorkin's new drama The Newsroom the hero Jeff Daniels is asked by a college student why America is the greatest country in the world. In the course of launching into an attack on the assumptions implicit in her question and pointing out, in great statistical detail, all the many ways in which America no longer fits the bill, he almost makes her cry.

Obviously it's fiction. I'm starting to wonder if it's also something more. The popular TV writers of today, exemplified by Sorkin in his way and Armando Iannucci in his, always put torrents of words into their characters' mouths. Their dramas are all words. They have so many words to get through that they have to bustle down corridors in flying-V formations as they debate complex moral points. They often stand in open offices directing open abuse to each other. They say what they mean at the top of their voice. They demand that everyone listens to them.

That's not how life is today. In the real 2012 anything that matters is confined to an email or a text. In business meetings people avoid saying what they think, often because they aren't entirely sure what they think and they're terrified at the prospect of getting out of step with the group.

Many of these shows, such as The Good Wife and Mad Men, are set in workplaces, which seem to offer endless scope for drama - the board meeting, the problem in reception, the late night heart to hearts over the bottle of Scotch in the filing cabinet.

In fact places of work have never been quieter or more decorous than they are today. There's very little drinking or fornication going on in today's office. There are less open arguments than there were in the 70s. People steer clear of anything personal because they know that a free and frank exchange of views might land them in a disciplinary procedure. When they use expletives it's usually in an affectionate way.

Maybe the oratorical flights of President Jed Bartlett in The West Wing and the gothic abuse dished out by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It are compensation for the tongue-tied timidity we see around us every day. They're a form of wish fulfilment, doing for middle aged men of leftish views what Harry Potter does for ten year old boys, allowing them to believe that if they could only come up with the right zinger they could make the world do their bidding.

There's nothing essentially wrong with that as long as they understand that it's no more authentic an account of human behaviour than The Ring Cycle.

You can see some of the Newsroom scene here.