Correction: An earlier online version of this article mistakenly identified Mark Bittman as Michael Bittman.
Consider “The Newsroom” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” as old war buddies, having shed blood on the same cultural battlefield last summer. Both shows are back again this week, but only one seems unscathed and completely sure of itself.
When it debuted, Aaron Sorkin’s high-end and highly anticipated HBO drama was filled to bursting with seriousness and atonal verbiage, focused on the inner workings of a cable news network. This was the new, ace series that was supposed to give us so much to discuss on Monday mornings? Watching it take off was like sitting in the bleachers at a doomed air show; it quickly became the tragedy I didn’t want to talk about. “The Newsroom’s” problems, as aggregated from the drubbing it took: It was boring, it was smug, it was relentlessly preachy, it was weirdly sexist, it rang false, it was unfeeling.
“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” premiered six weeks later, and the reaction was even worse. Viewers, critics and idea-strapped pundits pounced on TLC’s reality series about Alana Thompson, a tyke pageant contestant from rural Georgia who lives with her parents, sisters and baby niece in what appears to be perfect “redneckognized” contentment.
Alana (a.k.a. “Honey Boo Boo”) and her family were treated like catfish in a rusty barrel, an irresistiblty easy target for not only critics of television but critics of modern American lifestyles. In the aggregate, the Thompson/Shannon family was slammed for being fat, stupid, slobbish, ill-mannered, too Southern and then not authentically Southern enough. (A typical online comment, from a Huffington Post reader: “What a sick country this is, physically and mentally.”) More than one person likened the show’s success to a harbinger for the apocalypse. While giving a lecture last fall about popular culture and the collapse of our zombie-fixated civilization, I, too, projected a slide of Alana, in one of her sassy poses, up on a giant screen to make my point. Big laughs.
As a critic, I took shots at both “The Newsroom” and “Honey Boo Boo,” but I also stuck around to see what developed. I wanted “The Newsroom” to get better, and I wanted “Honey Boo Boo” to play itself out.
A life spent parked in front of the television sometimes throws you a nice curve. The show you’re supposed to pay attention to has nothing to tell you, and the show that’s supposed to rot your brain actually turns it on. The show that’s supposed to be robust and sparky (in an NPR sort of way) just isn’t, and the show that gets everyone wagging their scoldy fingers (in an op-ed sort of way) is refreshingly jam-packed with opportunities for purposeful discussion.
For all its topicality, for all its credentials and high production values, for all its well-intentioned desire to be spot-on about modern politics and society, “The Newsroom” doesn’t work. As revealed by the first four episodes of the second season (beginning Sunday night), even a tweaked “Newsroom” is a still pretty much a bore. And then, for all its cheapness and apparent vacuity, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” (returning Wednesday night) gives us a million things to tell one another IN ALL CAPS.
In the long lead time it takes to deliver a season’s worth of an HBO series, Sorkin has processed some of the initial feedback to “The Newsroom,” with changes that are not radical but — to his and his writing staff’s credit — detectable. Plot is now a bit more important than agenda; dialogue transpires in sentences rather than paragraphs.
The show clings to its most fatal flaw, however: It is set in the recent past and chained to real events, with the added chore of flashback, building a narrative that toggles between late 2011 and early 2012. How thrilling to once more climb aboard Mitt Romney’s campaign bus. How fantastic to once again Occupy Wall Street. It’s not exactly nostalgia, and yet it’s not something one would call fresh. Sorkin has defended this backdrop as a topical necessity, at once contemporaneous but distant enough to empower his characters with their prescient noses for news analysis.
I find it all kind of facile and stale, but all right, okay, let us simply try to enjoy the interplay between characters — which is notably improved.
Having incurred the wrath of the right for comparing the tea party to the Taliban, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) returns from anchorman exile to ACN’s “News Night,” his reputation slightly dinged, his moderately Republican convictions leaning more left. Verging on election season, he is deemed by his boss (Sam Waterston as Charlie Skinner) as a bad choice to lead the network’s solemn, wall-to-wall coverage of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
His wounded pride appears to be the least of anyone’s worries: Dial forward several months into 2012, when the entire news team is facing some sort of legal fracas. The always excellent Marcia Gay Harden joins the cast as Rebecca Halliday, a hired-gun lawyer sent in to debrief Will and his staff about a bombshell story they reported — originating with a tip that American forces engaged in chemical warfare.
Through Rebecca’s pre-deposition discovery, the cast members begin walking us through the events that will form the season’s story arc: The secret attraction between Jim and Maggie (John Gallagher Jr. and Alison Pill) implodes, courtesy of a YouTube video; he sends himself on the Romney bus to escape his heartbreak; she heads on assignment to Africa. Will is still lecturing anyone who will listen on topics A-Z, and there’s still the problem of her — Emily Mortimer as executive producer MacKenzie McHale, who, as a character hasn’t progressed a stone.
Hamish Linklater (“The New Adventures of Old Christine”) joins the cast as Jerry, a Washington bureau producer summoned to New York, but also summoned from a contraption that spits out young Sorkinesque male characters. A viewer might notice that everything that’s good about “The Newsroom” transpires one level down from its lead characters, so I welcome him to the fold. If HBO was really in the mood for an extreme makeover, it would rebuild the entire show around supporting character Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), the network’s money honey, and make it an up-and-down, smart-but-silly epic of a Savannah Guthrie-like career ascent. In all the contrived chaos of “The Newsroom’s” newsroom, I find myself simply waiting for Sloan to come back into the camera’s view. She’s the only character who feels like she ought to be on TV.
Once you allow for the contrivances and manipulation seen in “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” (or almost any show in the reality genre) and then consider the bizarre notions of relevance that preoccupy “The Newsroom,” it’s not difficult to imagine the two are actually drifting alongside each other in a nebulous television dimension where everything is almost true and not completely false.
Though I was as horrified as anyone by much of what we initially saw in “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” (the “sketti” sauce made with ketchup and dollops of margarine from a Country Crock tub; the ceaseless hollerin’; the nose-pickin’) I was eager to return to McIntyre, Ga., for a second season. I reached a point where I stopped worrying about how much of the show is a put-on for the camera’s benefit.
Even if it were entirely scripted, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” feels as real to me as the Great Depression images shot by the WPA photographers. Okie refugees of the 1930s appear so stoic in sepia photographs because we can’t hear them fight about a spilled jar of puffed cheese balls. Hard as this might be for “Honey Boo Boo’s” detractors to stomach, I think the show is a fitting document for our times, good or bad.
Mostly (oddly) good. Like Spanky McFarland of the old “Our Gang” serials, Alana has swiftly aged out of a precocious toddler pageant persona that TLC discovered and settled into a chubbier, wiser pre-tween. She’s an aunt at 7, and at one point, she shushes one of her older sisters and says — counter to every stereotype with which she’s been burdened — “Be quiet, I’m gonna read my book!” It’s a fleeting moment, but it is as revealing as if we’d caught her working a quadratic formula on a dry-erase board. Honey Boo Boo likes to read.
Anyhow, it’s not really Alana’s show anymore. The real find was June Shannon, Alana’s 33-year-old mother. Although she has been mocked far and wide, there is pleasure in encountering someone so comfortable being herself. At its heart, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is a show about a family that enjoys being with one another.
Crammed into a simple but tidy three-bedroom house hard against the train tracks, the Thompson/Shannon family shares everything: Father-figure Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson works in the nearby chalk mines. The oldest daughter has a baby girl. As one of those ingenious coupon clippers (another TLC fascination), June manages to feed the family the sort of processed, carb-heavy diet that sends the Mark Bittmans and Michelle Obamas of the world into paroxysms of concern, yet nevertheless led to an entertaining series of brief cooking demonstration videos by June on TLC’s Web site.
At one point on Wednesday’s double episode, a wild hog that was struck and killed on the road becomes a bounty. After the cleaning and butchering, June cooks up a massive dish of pork jowls and feet with baked beans. Viewers are meant to stare agape in disgust, but if a hipster with a twirly mustache was selling the same thing from a food truck at Farragut Square, you’d be reading a rave review of it on a local culinary blog.
When people launch into one of their tirades against “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” I listen and then ask them to think about the show’s solid — if unorthodox — family values. The father is employed. The mother works hard, in spite of difficulties that include legal blindness, and remains remarkably good-humored, eager to describe her life and share what she has with strangers. A gay relative, “Uncle Poodle,” is accepted with a refreshing, egalitarian joy. The more we hang around the Boo Boo clan, the less they seem like ogres and the more they serve as a fascinating entree into America’s most pressing concerns: economy, employment, equality, health, community.
“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’s” producers have a keen eye for the class indicators that smart observers love to deconstruct. The camera is continually glancing at anything it considers a cultural cue — passing trains, litter, rust, copulating animals, a chicken perched on a pile of laundry, a shack selling “peches.” The show lives for opportunities to follow June and her brood deeper into redneck-land (a go-kart track, a pro-am wrestling match), but finds its best material in the warm, sectional-sofa center of home.
“There’s not a better feeling than to feel loved,” Sugar Bear says on his 41st birthday, after a day of go-karts, hoping this will be the rare night that June will acquiesce to nookie. (“Just be quick,” she finally says.)
Meanwhile, back on “The Newsroom,” it will soon enough be the summer of 2012 in Will McAvoy’s world, and he may very well find a way to derisively drop a Honey Boo Boo reference into one of his monologues, perhaps while mansplaining journalistic and documentary ethics to that hot gossip columnist (played by Hope Davis) he can’t stay away from.
I can only hope she’ll tell him it’s her favorite show of all time and spend the rest of the episode talking and talking and talking about it, until Will finally leaps through a window.
(one hour) returns Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.
(one hour) returns Wednesday at 9 p.m. on TLC.