In Defense of The Newsroom

Like most gods-fearing liberals out there, I’m a huge fan of HBO television. I’ve seen every episode of Six Feet Under, Oz, The Sopranos. I watch Game of Thrones, True Blood (so help me), and Boardwalk Empire. Worse than that, I’m an evangelist. I’ll tell friends who rave to me about shows I’ve only heard about that they should watch the series-du-jour that I’m obsessing about, and then go into a pretty strong sales pitch for it. I’ll go to the mat defending a lot of these shows, even when I know a lot of them go off the rails in their later seasons. The only thing keeping me from being a full-fledged HBO cultist is the fact that I’ve never seen an episode of The Wire. That’s a story for another time, and believe me, I’m working on it.

I’ve also been a big fan of Aaron Sorkin ever since I saw the amazing first season of The West Wing. That show was a liberal dream of what government could be, and it was wonderful, intellectually-stimulating comfort food for me in the darkness of Bush II. So when I heard that Sorkin was working on an HBO show(!) that offered a fast-paced behind-the-scenes look at a cable news show(!!), I was intrigued. As more and more information leaked about the show in the year leading up to its premiere, I got excited. And when The Newsroom finally premiered earlier this summer, I was delighted.

How do you fix a broken TV show?

Critics, as it turned out, weren’t so much. I’m not sure of the reasons The Newsroom took a beating when it premiered; maybe the cultural and political landscape had shifted too much from Sorkin’s salad days, or maybe we’ve just gotten wiser to his writing flaws. Maybe cable news and the way the media conducts itself is naturally more controversial. Whatever the reasons, I was genuinely surprised by the great national sniff at this new series, which was then promptly dismissed. The show has its issues, and a lot of the criticisms have some legitimate weight behind them. Even still, The Newsroom is really good television, and we should be talking about it (or certain aspects of it) a lot more than we are.

Sorkin makes no bones about what his show intends to do. He wants to portray newsmen who aspire to the ideals of journalists of old, with a responsibility to inform the public of the facts as best they’re understood. A lot of that, in this climate, includes calling out public figures who distort the facts or mislead their audience to serve another agenda. Will McAvoy, the anchor at the head of this fictional news program, finds himself at odds with just about everyone when he decides to go this route, and in those skirmishes we see just how far actual news is from upholding those ideals. It makes for engrossing television, but it also brings up important questions about the way our national discourse is being handled. Is the news actually informative at this point? Or is it merely another form of storytelling, spinning events to fit the narrative of the world we already have? Isn’t the news supposed to challenge us? When was the last time that happened?

The choice of the writer’s room (really, Sorkin and a host of assistants) to ground the show in the near-past is an inspired one. A lot of these big events are still fresh in our minds, and we remember the way they were reported. By showing us the kinds of reporting decisions that are made behind the scenes — and the way McAvoy’s colleagues in the news world react — we see how someone driving towards the truth of the situation handles the story and we can compare it to our memories of the news surrounding the event. We can then dissect the mistakes of the media, and possibly have another perspective on which were unavoidable and which were made in the service of other interests. It’s a great device that serves Sorkin’s premise well. McAvoy and crew don’t always get the story right, but the important thing is that they try. That shows through the reporting we see in the series, and we can use that as a contrast to the news we see all around us.

This isn’t an easy mission. Sorkin writes Will and his staff with a wide range of experiences and perspectives, and none of them have navigated the mythic terrain of ‘true news’ before. There’s a lot they get wrong. And while there’s a lot of bloviating and monologuing from these guys, they’re not so arrogant that they don’t recognize a mistake when they see one. A lot of The Newsroom, thus far, deals with the errors we make and how important it is to recognize them and fix them as best we can. In this age where admitting you’re mistaken and changing your mind is seen as some sort of cardinal sin, this is nothing short of amazing to see. I love that these guys are stumbling in their pursuit of their ideal, getting back up and finding better ways to reach it.

The consequences of their mistakes dog them through the episodes as well, so there’s never a sense that these screw-ups happen in a vacuum. Will’s arrogance at a New Year’s Eve party makes an enemy that dogs him through most of the first season; a relationship that his executive producer, MacKenzie, engages in results in an ethical dilemma that’s used to discredit them; the decision to go after several Tea Party candidates who go on to win their elections causes headaches for the news networks corporate owners who, in turn, cause headaches for Will and company. The folks there are going against the grain of the machine, and the machine is fighting back on all sides. There’s a siege mentality that forms, and the stress follows these guys around. It’s not easy, and it’s not immediately rewarding, but these guys dig in their heels, support each other and do whatever it takes in service to their ideals. It’s incredibly inspiring stuff.

What makes the high-mindedness of the premise easier to take is how these ideals affect the people who aspire to them, how it informs their relationships. Will’s saddled with MacKenzie after blowing up at a Northwestern student for a question he saw as inane (“What makes America the greatest country in the world?”), and his former EP jumps ship for the show airing at 10 PM. MacKenzie and Will have a history, of course — they’re exes who had a bad end to their relationship, and neither really expected to see the other again. Through the first half of the first season, their friction comes from this, and Sorkin spends a great deal of time justifying the work they do together. Even though they really shouldn’t be together considering the circumstances, MacKenzie believes that Will is capable of doing a legitimate news broadcast, and moreover that Will wants it. Over the first several episodes, he’s coaxed into admitting it and realizes that she’s the best person for the job.

Once Will buys in (after an ultimatum from MacKenzie, of course), their commitment to this shared ideal goes a long way towards untangling the messiness of their past. This being what it is, the ultimate resolution won’t come for a little while yet, but part of their ethical stance is making sure they face the consequences of their personal mistakes and find some way to make peace with them. It’s not easy, but it makes them better people, and watching them fumble towards it is another fascinating part of the process.

Will’s relationship and reputation with the rest of his staff also bear a good hard look, and that re-examination yields great results. He realizes what his personality does to other people, he hates it, and he works to change it. This means going easier on his former personal assistant Maggie, no longer ignoring or scoffing at the assistant who controls his online presence, and compromising with other points of view. Neil, the writer of his blog, is especially interesting given Sorkin’s well-known disdain for the internet. The character started as a thinly-veiled imagining of the typical internet denizen (he’s an adamant Bigfoot believer), but as the episodes tick on and he gets rounded out, he presents a better face, an idea of how powerful the Internet can be and the good it can do.

So, in a show about personal and professional reinvention, about striving to be the best person you can possibly be, what’s not to like? Well, according to Sorkin’s detractors, an awful lot. I’m not sure where this got started, but he’s developed a reputation of being a…problematic writer for women, to put it most gently. In the early episodes, the female characters received a lot of attention for how ditzy they are — even when there’s a lot of big talk about how they excel in their respective fields.

MacKenzie, for example, is introduced as a hard-hitting producer who just came back from covering the war in Afghanistan. She’s tough, determined, incredibly smart and one of the best in her field. At the start of the series, though, she spends most of her time sorting out her feelings for Will in the Bridget Jones-iest of ways and one plot point pivots on her not being able to figure out her company’s email system. She actually sends a private email to the entire corporation, which is a double-whammy of shamefulness. First of all, who uses that plotline past 1995? Secondly, you’re telling me an award-winning, brilliant journalist would be that…careless?

Sloan and Maggie are both messes in different ways; Sloan is probably displayed as the most competent, professionally, but her personal life and read of other people is a total trainwreck. Maggie, on the flip side, is just terrible. Her romantic entanglement with a boyfriend who doesn’t treat her all that well and her saintly, easygoing boss is easily the least-entertaining plot of the series, and it’s mostly because so much is sacrificed in the name of holding it up. An ongoing plot where MacKenzie takes the inexperienced Maggie under her wing to teach her the ropes of the business would be an elegant way to elevate both characters and address concerns about hapless women being constantly rescued by gruff and confident men, but far too often it’s MacKenzie’s assistant Jim who covers for her.

Still, for the legitimate criticism, I feel that Sorkin deserves a bit of a break. The first episode to actually pass the famous Bechdel Test is episode four, where Sloan and MacKenzie actually talk to each other about an economics panel MacKenzie will be speaking on. It’s only a couple of minutes, but it’s two women, speaking about a topic other than a man. Usually the dialogue begins about the work and ends up wandering over to relationships. Here’s the thing, though; those scenes play out the same way regardless of the gender of the characters. Will speaks to his boss about MacKenzie, MacKenzie will talk to Sloan about Will, Maggie and Jim will talk about her relationship with her boyfriend Don, so on and so forth. This is a show fairly obsessed about romantic entanglements, often to its detriment. Yes, women appear boy-crazy on the show but I’d counter that all the men are fairly woman-crazy. With a couple of exceptions — I’m looking at you, Sam Waterston.

While the women are hapless and most of their storylines are imbued with comic relief, the men carry the heavy issues on their broad shoulders. Will McAvoy is Sorkin’s most frequent mouthpiece, railing against the evils of the Internet, the petty meanness of our tabloid culture, the ideological cliff that the right is driving towards. People see Will and they see a pompous, self-righteous man arrogantly assuming that he knows the way towards civilization if only people would stop talking and listen to him in awed silence. And you know what? They’re right.

But here’s the thing: Will slowly realizes what an intimidating, unlikable blowhard he is once MacKenzie forces him to look beyond his own nose. Once he sees the effect he has on people, he tries to change. The change comes slowly, in small increments, in gestures and words said and not said. Instead of admiring Will’s flaws and good intentions in one whole package, I think we’re supposed to deconstruct him. We aren’t supposed to agree with how he goes about things, because that would make us just as bloated and off-putting as he is. Here we see a genuinely unlikable person, incredibly smart, wake up and realize that his intelligence makes him right more often than not, but it also makes him very difficult. And Will has to decide what to do about that — can he have it both ways? Can he have standards and expectations while still being a reasonably decent man?

Sorkin wants us to think so. And I believe that’s true. There’s a tendency in our culture to believe that having high standards is a marker of arrogance, that striving to be better, even brilliant, is somehow putting yourself on a pedestal. What The Newsroom aims to do is combat that mentality. In order to be a great person, you have to do great things. It’s not something that’s handed to you, that you should expect of yourself. You have to go out and earn it, however you want.

The Newsroom definitely has issues that need to be addressed in season two. Maggie needs to be better written so that her flaws don’t make her so fundamentally broken. The women of the series really ought to become stronger, more powerful characters in their own right. And Will needs to stop talking the talk quite so much; it would be awesome to see him define his own ideal of what it means to be an upstanding conservative and act through those ideals. Oh, you didn’t know he was Republican? I don’t think he is — he just says it to get a rise out of people.

Still, despite the work that needs to be done, The Newsroom is still pretty good. And I think Sorkin knows exactly what the show needs now in order to be great. All of this shouting from the Internet has got to have reached his old, Luddite ears by now. I’m looking forward to the progress that’s bound to be made, and I’m enjoying the experience of watching this imperfect little enterprise lurch towards its full measure.

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