HBO’s smart, snappy new drama and a comedy about cows

Men at Work, Thursdays at 10 PM / 9 PM Central on TBS

By Santiago Ramos

You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig. You can call the protagonists of this new TBS sitcom “men,” and you can even make an opening-credits sequence composed of vintage sepia images of blue collar, Victorian-era, industrial workers, but they will still remain boys. I realize that this complaint makes me sound like the soccer mom president of the local chapter of Concerned Women of America, but my moral disgust with this show stems not from culture-war outrage but from the fact that I purport, or strive, or desire to live up to that essence which this show exploits for commercial gain: “Man.” Manliness is a trending topic now, and TBS knows it.

For thousands of years, philosophers have attempted to carve out the definition of that essence – Manliness – and even though they’ve come up with sundry and diverse formulations of it, I doubt that any of those definitions would be applicable to the characters of Milo (Danny Masterson), Gibbs (James Lesure), Tyler (Michael Cassidy) and Neal (Adam Busch). These quasi-hipsterish, fit, and surprisingly employed young men (they work for a men’s interest magazine called Full Steam, kind of like GQ or Esquire) are always funny but never witty, always chilling but never cool, and always pining for women but never in love. Their stories always take one of two basic forms: Being 90 percent satisfied with life and going for that extra 10 percent, or being 110 percent satisfied with life and trying to find a way to take it down a notch. An example of the latter we find in the pilot episode, in which Neal (the slightly nerdy one of the bunch) has a problem with his girlfriend. The problem? She wants to have too much sex with him, like, all the time. How awesome is that, dude? As the TBS promo (aired before the pilot episode premiere) said: “You will want to live vicariously through these guys.”

Except, that… I don’t. “Consider the cattle,” the great Nietzsche tells us in his Untimely Meditations, “grazing as you pass by; they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they move about, they eat, rest, digest, move about again, and so from morning until night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored.” Would you rather be a cow? We all envy the cow’s relative happiness, its satisfaction and lack of burdensome longing, at least a little. Why would you rather be a man, and not a cow?

Yes, I know this is a sitcom. But every sitcom has two goals: To make you laugh, and to take a little bit of your money. When the second thing becomes more important than the first, the show’s writers begin to make compromises. In Men at Work, they have made more than compromises. They have banked on the fact that, in our weakest moments, we all envy the cows, and would rather become a cow, rather than face life with all its ambiguities and ironies and sadnesses. A good comedian can make us laugh in the face of those things – how else did Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, or Louis CK make their millions? A bad comedian – one that only wants our money – would have us turn away, reject manhood, reject humanity, graze like cattle, and chew. This is a show about cattle. It is cud.

Aaron Sorkin has accomplished something that perhaps no other TV writer has ever done: He has developed a recognizable, signature style. Whether it’s The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, or in movies like Charlie Wilson’s War and The Social Network, we all know a Sorkin dialogue when we hear one: Smart, snappy, intricately braided for maximum wittiness, always punctuated by the charming naiveté of a young brilliant idealist. It’s this quality that is most indicative of his style, even more than the themes he always returns to: Bureaucracy, creativity, American ingenuity and “stick-to-itiveness,” etc.

Sorkin’s latest offering, The Newsroom, attempts to recreate the life of a primetime news show, as it would exist if the show’s producers nixed all commercial and corporate interests, and followed a pure desire to make intelligent, incisive journalism. The pilot opens with a famous news anchor named Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), having a breakdown in front of a live audience at Northwestern University, and going on a rant about what he really thinks is the state of our nation. No, he tells his audience, America is not the greatest nation in the world. “We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income…” America is not the greatest nation in the world, he tells his audience, but it could be.

Sorkin’s goal is to make the greatest news show in the world. After his rant, McAvoy takes a two-week vacation, and upon his return, he finds himself alone: the vast majority of his staff has chosen to abandon ship, and find work under an anchorman who has not disgraced himself in front of the entire nation. McAvoy’s network is forced to hire a new Executive Producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who has spent the last two years as an embedded reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who is an old flame of McAvoy’s. She brings a new staff, and the ambition to make a new type of news show, one that nixes all commercial and corporate interests, and only goes for intelligent, incisive journalism.

Reluctantly, McAvoy lets her try to make this happen, and in the pilot, they are able to cover the breaking story of the 2010 BP oil spill in the way Sorkin imagines should have been done. They press the Halliburton rep on the air; they force BP to clarify its press release. They dig deep and ask tough questions.

As is to be expected from Sorkin, The Newsroom is well-crafted, intelligent, and addictive. It’s his style that gets me hooked; it’s his themes that get me thinking.

Santiago Ramos writes from Boston, Mass.



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October 23, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph