August 2, 2012
“My first question starts, ‘I watched the pilot twice …’ But I don’t get to the question part because Sorkin looks as if he wants to say something. I invite him to do so, and he asks, ‘Because you liked it so much the first time, or because you didn’t understand it the first time?’” —from Sarah Nicole Prickett’s “How to get under Aaron Sorkin’s skin (and also, how to high-five properly)” from The Globe and Mail
I’ll confess that I too watched the pilot of The Newsroom twice. In fact, I did the same for each of the following episodes—partly because it’s good critical practice, partly because the summertime is slow and I’m rotten with time. And yeah, partly because I didn’t understand it the first time.
Don’t overestimate the intelligence of this show (or, like Sorkin, underestimate the intelligence of its more critical viewing public). Most of its message reads quite clearly, and at first blush, the show seems to follow the same basic winning formula as Sorkin’s previous work. The Newsroom begins with a windy opening salvo, a “mad as hell” speech delivered by the beleaguered Great White Male, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels): things today are terrible; they were better back in the old days; we will make them better with our wits and elbow grease. The Newsroom is a top-to-bottom nostalgia-fest, a fairytale re-casting of the past posing as a vision for the future. In another, kinder world, Sorkin suggests, this is how the news would be, if only the producers didn’t talk to the ratings people, or if anchors weren’t so afraid of being disliked. Sorkinland runs on wistful “if onlys,” ruled by the conviction that the ideal is easy—he is, after all, pointing the way—we just haven’t tried hard enough. Yet this formula, which worked so well for cozy fantasies like The West Wing, fails for The Newsroom.
It’s partly because this show isn’t all fantasy, each episode ripping its plot from a 2010 headline and walking us through how its fictional network’s dream team would have reported it. Coming from a writer who bemoans our generation’s lack of rigor, this approach is profoundly lazy. To lecture on how the BP oil spill should have been reported—if only the senior producer were related to a Halliburton executive—is to make a pratfall over the line between idealism and self-righteousness. The Newsroom bears no resemblance to the reality of reporting. And unfortunately, it doesn’t just skip over the boring parts of the job for the sake of entertainment—it glosses over its challenges for the sake of its ideology. This Monday night quarterbacking bears an uncanny resemblance to the Internet hackery that Sorkin, whether in interviews or through his characters, has always dismissed as lazy and ill-informed.
But The Newsroom also disappoints because of the weakness of its female characters, representing both a failure of storytelling and of Sorkin’s supposed liberal moral authority.
Sorkin’s treatment of his women characters circa The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip belongs to the “Behind Every Great Man…” school of thought. As Jed Bartlett gets his Abby so too does every staffer get his secretary. These women are indispensable—they’re also permanently stuck as supporting players, built to enable the big (read: masculine) personalities to do the real work. The men, brilliant but difficult, have women around to pull papers, organize reports, and answer phones. Going up a pay grade, women are sounding boards for banter or appreciative ears for condescending speeches. And at the very top, they can be the pretty faces who present the words, or the ones who clean up the crises caused by their men’s outbursts. These characters’ greatest source of power tends to be the pressure they may exert on the men, which is a stunningly regressive view of women’s political empowerment—a direct descendent of the notion that the wife got educated so she could tell her husband how to vote. Though Sorkin’s shows seem to exude benevolent liberalism, they’re also chummily paternalistic.
Sorkin went in a different direction for The Social Network. Its heavily-fictionalized account of the Zuckerberg story offers up an account which attributed Facebook’s founding to a broken heart and insufficient social graces to mend it. Women are the set pieces who decorate nightclubs and final clubs, their attentions a class marker only slightly less weighty than membership on an Ivy League crew team. Bookending his journey are two key interactions with intelligent, self-possessed, word-wielding women: his ex-girlfriend, who calls him an asshole; a lawyer, who tells him he isn’t one. Even these supposedly three-dimensional women are props. And, the movie suggests, it’s the unattainability of such women that necessitates the creation of a mediating site like Facebook in the first place. There is a third way for women in Sorkin’s world, exemplified when Eduardo Saverin’s girlfriend sets fire to his possessions in an unhinged attempt to get his attention. Behind every great man, there is a great woman; on the other hand, there are also the crazies.
Neither model is particularly appealing, but in The Newsroom, they strike an unholy alliance which runs the show aground. The Newsroom’s women oscillate wildly between the twin poles of their presumed greatness and their inherent craziness. MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), the executive producer, is supposed to have a background as a war correspondent, yet exhibits none of the qualities one would reasonably expect from an intrepid reporter, including calm and basic technical competence. Over the course of a single episode she manages to have a public meltdown about her personal life and accidentally send an embarrassing personal email to the entire staff—twice. In Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), the new associate producer, these extremes are even more pronounced: she is perpetually agitated, her hair mussed, hands waving frantically, and voice ratcheting up through the registers. She manages to derail an entire broadcast by offending a government official who happens to be an old flame. In another script, these seemingly opposite qualities might be called complexity. Yet nothing in this show signals awareness that these qualities contradict at all. It’s simply an accepted truth that women, however intelligent, are fragile, often hysterical. Sorkin’s assurances that these women are elite professionals feels more than faintly patronizing as we watch their male counterparts rescue them every Sunday night.
Standing apart from the two is the show’s financial correspondent, Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), who provides Sorkin with the opportunity to demonstrate his understanding of gender politics in the workplace. He had attempted this before in Studio 60, when a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist advises a younger woman, the president of a major network, that, “You can be a woman, look like you do, have all the power, but not all at the same time.” The exec accepts this pretty nonsensical statement with a smile and a sigh, and reciprocates with some advice of her own: the writer should unbutton her shirt to manipulate her interviewees. Sorkin’s vision of how women interact with and support each other has not gotten more sophisticated over time. Mackenzie explains that she’s hiring Sloan over a tenured professor because, “None of them have your legs”—Americans will only listen to an economics lecture by a telegenic woman. Such a compromise may be a sobering reality of the industry—and in fact, this moment seems to be the lone note of “realism” in the show—but if so, neither character deems it worthy of comment. This sad state of affairs does not provoke a single word of indignation. This, in a show so frequently bloated with outrage, represents a glaring omission. Where is the epic aria about gender imbalance in the Fourth Estate?
What we get instead is chauvinism disguised as camaraderie. The Newsroom is larded with patronizing speeches and the casual dismissal of feminist objections as reactionary. Will McAvoy delivers his America speech to a college student he addresses offhand as “sorority girl,” and Maggie is instructed by not one but two male co-workers not to rely on Wikipedia for sourcing. But should a woman venture to suggest that she isn’t being taken seriously, her concern is brushed away offhand. “I do take you seriously,” Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) insists earnestly, fixing her with kind of bright, sedating gaze that I imagine is quite effective on spooked horses.
Such overweening confidence in his own progressivism extends to Sorkin’s treatment of race. In The Newsroom, he endows his heroes with arrogant jocularity. In his world, offensive generalizations are a kind of jokey hazing ritual, a pleasurable shock meant to be laughed off and warmly accepted. His protagonists are good guys who just don’t see race, so they can be excused for assuming that their Indian web producer is just the tech guy—especially if later, they dazzle everyone by educating said web producer, Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) on the provenance of his own surname. “I didn’t know that that,” Neal says, delighted. “I did,” Will replies, “I took the time. I care.”
Sorkin has not earned the liberal laurels which he, and his work, rest on. His dramas about the professional elite seem equally disinterested in idealism—minorities’ full, unquestioned inclusion in the old boys’ club—or realism—exploring why disparities exist. And unfortunately, The Newsroom fails another test, one which Sorkin defined for himself when, on The Colbert Report, he called his show a “swashbuckling romantic comedy”: we must be made to believe in, and care about, the people he’s imagined. When key characters are fatally underdeveloped, it wrecks the whole enterprise. It’s not exactly a revelation that sexism can make pop culture difficult or uncomfortable for us to enjoy. Sorkin’s problem is more specific and more pronounced: sexism cripples his ability to spin a decent yarn.
The Newsroom made headlines last week when the majority of its writing staff was fired, to be replaced for season two. Apparently, Sorkin hadn’t made much use of them in the first place. But perhaps hiring new blood means that maybe—just maybe—Sorkin will realized that his neglect of his female characters has undermined his credibility as a storyteller and as the Great White Hope.
More as the story develops.
Sophia Nguyen is a junior at Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.