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.


  1. Well, I think we must gently remove Mad Men from your thesis, given that it's set in the Sixties, when such conversations were still possible...

    But aren't you ignoring the fact that these are dramas? They are not real life, but a staging of real life, with speeches which reflect thoughts as much as conversations. Do we really think that Othello, or Hamlet, would have actually SAID all that they convey to us in speech?

  2. All true. I'd also observe another feature of popular drama ie soaps, eg Coronation St, in which neighbourhood there are more murders than there are conversations about football, last nights TV, music or politics. And this in a city with more music and football than you can shake a stick at...

  3. Let's face it, if TV drama workplaces were a true reflection of how most workplaces are, I'd be the first to switch off!

  4. The internet and email killed the interesting, the difficult, combative and inclusive creative environment. At Beer Davies we loved the fact that we could turn an idea (however ridiculous) into something that was on a radio station in a matter of hours. Once email arrived and people (in the media) stopped answering their phones the game, and the fun was all over. The (literally) deadly hush that descended on our office was beyond painful. People hiding behind their computer screens (and this was before Facebook and Twitter) looking busy. The joy of trying to sell you and Mark Ellen on the merits or otherwise of getting Tom Hibbert to do a "Who Do The Hell..." on Viz could only have been done on the phone or in person.

    I really mourn the demise of (The) Word Magazine.

    The world will be a less intelligent place when The Word is no longer here.

    With love from a big fan of both you and Mark and the rest of the team.

    Eugen Beer
    New York

  5. And to correct myself - I meant Q Magazine's terrific " Who The Hell..."