This question has come up more than once. In fairness, it sometimes comes from people who can’t imagine spending so many words writing about anything (and heaven knows I run on sometimes), let alone TV. And the question comes as often as not from people who watch a lot of TV themselves but can’t imagine digging into the glowy stuff instead of just enjoying the high. It’s a fair question. Does popular culture–filmed and broadcast popular culture, no less–matter enough to be worth the time and effort it takes to think?
Perhaps the answer came tonight during MSNBC’s coverage of Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Talking about his experience standing in Invesco Field and hearing the speech live, NBC’s Brian Williams said,
I’m thinking of two guys. I’m thinking of Tim Russert, our brother, for obvious reason. Because of the spectacle of it, because he’d love watching this, and because Mike Murphy might have been right tonight that this is going to be in large part perhaps a generational campaign. I’m also thinking of Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter, the legendary writer and creator of The West Wing on NBC, but also the screenwriter behind the film The American President. The line from this speech, ‘that’s a debate I’d like to have,’ is a one-off, direct lift from President Andrew Shepherd. This is part of the new cadence, and the new tone and the new language of American politics. It was personal that way. It was conversational. There were parallel constructions in this speech that come right out of the Sorkin playbook. And it’s kind of the pen and the style of Barack Obama.
Andrea Mitchell later said,
You guys also focused on the echo of Aaron Sorkin from that great movie with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, and this [the convention speech] was the American president laying down the challenge to the older, established, very tough, popular in New Hampshire, in fact, the senator from New Hampshire [sic] Republican opponent.
A prominent American journalist just claimed that the guy who wrote Sports Night, The West Wing, and the much-maligned Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip created the new language of American politics. Another one just anointed a candidate the president based on that writer’s style and words. The TV Bacon crew’s obsession (unplugging the phone on Wednesday nights type of obsession) with The West Wing far predates TV Bacon itself, and that obsession was rooted in many ways in wishing American political life and discourse were more like what we were seeing on TV. We were seduced by the poetry and elegance of that new cadence, but also by the possibility that real ideas could be clothed in a cadence so glorious and invigorating that it was meaningful in and of itself. And MSNBC journalists essentially said tonight that the magic mirror of popular culture has tranformed into just a mirror, a real one. Maybe they’re overstating it (they’re perhaps pundits instead of journalists, which means overstating things is kind of their job). But if they’re even a little bit right, thinking about TV is worth the time and effort because the good stuff, the really, truly special stuff, creates new paradigms, new visions, new language. And those things create new worlds.