I have now been caught in the ninth circle of Hell. When the bad reviews came out about The Newsroom I couldn’t believe how harsh the critics, especially The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, had treated Sorkin. One even called for Sorkin’s Oscar to be revoked after watching the show. I quickly wrote up how the backlash was inevitable, how anxious journalists were to finally knock Sorkin down from his pedestal. But I was wrong. Nussbaum and others had a right to complain. Not only is the show clumsy, badly written, badly acted, self-righteous, and deserving of all of the complaints the critics lobbed upon it, but in the final analysis, it is so hateful to women it has altered my whole opinion of Sorkin as a writer and as a thinker. I never thought that would happen; I have followed his career with the same adoring eyes as Mackenzie has done for Will. I have called him the best writer in film. He could do no wrong with me. Until he finally did.
The first episode of The Newsroom wasn’t that bad. It was actually good. We were hearing things that had never been said about our dysfunctional relationship with corporate news as entertainment. No better person to tell those things to us than Mr. Sorkin, someone who seems, at first glance, to be of high moral ideals, especially when it comes to speaking the truth and doing the right thing. This is just one of the things about Sorkin that makes him such a great person. The dialogue seemed up to snuff, considering how good Sorkin is with creating the kind of memorable lines that elevated The Social Network — those lines have been brewing in my head since I first saw the film.
How could the reviews be right, I wondered. How could this Aaron Sorkin be the same Aaron Sorkin who wrote A Few Good Men and The West Wing and The Social Network? Even The American President had wonderful dialogue and a strong female character who was, okay fine, dating fodder, but she also was a lobbyist for the environment and someone who actually cared about her President being a standup guy. She was an accoutrement, perhaps, but she was at least a somewhat intelligent one. The West Wing and even Studio 60 had, for the most part, well written characters — females who were more than just boner fodder.
But The Newsroom is so bad that I too have begun to wonder whether his female characters were really well written or were they just played well by better actors who made them good? Would MacKenzie, for instance, be a better character if she were played by someone harder, someone whose tone and attitude didn’t match the syrupy dialogue? Is it Mortimer’s fault or Sorkin’s?
Does it even matter who’s fault it is? Badly written characters, whether they are male or female, bring the whole show down. Sorkin et al are asking us to admire people who don’t deserve to be admired. And it’s asking us to disregard those we do think matter. The men are not interesting enough to deserve the affections of interesting women. They are worse than not interesting enough, two of them are assholes outright. That the women are interested in them at all immediately lowers our opinion of those women. Therefore, there aren’t many characters to admire, defend or like in The Newsroom at all. We don’t care whether they get together or not. We only want someone to get a pie in the face, repeatedly, until their obnoxious, self-righteous behavior is toned down.
The first episode made me think, wow, what got stuck up critics’ collective asses? Here is Will as realized by Jeff Daniels, telling it like it is. We deserve to be put in our place because our country and the news machine it has birthed is beyond repugnant. Who better than Aaron Sorkin to right the wrongs in the media the way he righted the wrongs in the White House? But the key difference is that The West Wing wasn’t only about romantic entanglements with politics being a side issue. It took a while for those entanglements to emerge.
I was especially resistant to Nussbaum’s review because I thought it sounded too personal. But the critics had the advantage of being four episodes in. It turned out to be tremendous advantage because The Newsroom finally shits the bed on Episode 4. Maybe it gets better, maybe it doesn’t, but the critics, I must eat crow and say, were dead on.
I could forgive almost everything else — the bad dialogue, the needy high-schoolish romantic entanglements that feel much more like The Love Boat than a sharp Aaron Sorkin indictment of our news media. I could forgive, even, the lame notion that news people really are too caught up in their own dumb lives to focus on the news — and I could maybe even adjust to his rehashing actual recent events to show the news media how he, Aaron Sorkin, could have taken the same news and done it better. (Of course, he probably won’t show those moments when the news media did get it right — like during Hurricane Katrina, for instance).
But the aspect I can’t forgive really stuck its landing with the fourth episode. Aaron Sorkin is a misogynist. Maybe this is already old news in the feminist circles but to me, a die hard fan, it felt like a punch to the gut; the ultimate betrayal. ALL of the female characters on the show are objects of adoration or sex. None of them has anything interesting to say or do beyond what their relationships with the men allow. They are jealous, petty, shrill, small-minded and, yes — although they can handle the job they’ve been set up to do — they are FUCKABLE.
Let’s brush aside, for the moment, the side characters who are, again, put on screen to be bitches or obligatory romantic interests. Let’s pretend like every supporting female character wasn’t put on the show to prove Sorkin’s agenda, that women are out to ruin your life. ”This is my thing we’re talking about,” says Will, who is meant to be playing an asshole to women but somehow manages to be the hero among his throng of anxious cunts and whores. Let’s just set all of that aside and focus on the show’s biggest, most glaring and unforgivable problem: Emily Mortimer’s Mackenzie.
Why would the show set up the false notion that they hired the best executive producer in television only to have her act like an ex-wife or personal assistant or secretary? This was made most clear by the way the show comes to an unfortunate, agonizing close set to the tune of Coldplay’s Fix You (That’s Sorkin saying he’ll fix the news media he loves so well!). There is a moment we’re supposed to care about where the network has a choice to either go with the same news the other networks are following, that Gabrielle Giffords was shot dead, or whether to wait until they had a confirmed source. “I don’t feel comfortable with that,” Mackenzie says. But she is immediately shut down by a male exec — instead of fighting her own battle and making the call, telling Will what to say, Mackenzie does what no woman in her position of authority would EVER do: she shuts up when she is told to shut up.
Earlier, Alison Pill is told to shut up and she also complies. Any woman who challenges the male characters is disregarded. Those are the kind of women allowed in Sorkin’s world. The ones who get to speak up briefly so we can watch them get shot down. Women, you know, are ruining the world. So I’ll say what Hope Davis says, even while being painted with the bitch brush, fuck you, Aaron Sorkin.
Thomas Sadoski who plays the show’s former producer is the one who gets to say the best line — that doctors pronounce people dead, not news anchors. Sure, as was smartly pointed out to me by Kris Tapley, it’s important that his character have an arc — so by all means, throw the show’s new producer under the bus because fuck it, women can’t make important decisions like that. But let’s just try to imagine anyone stepping over Holly Hunter like that in Broadcast News. This is what might have happened to them if they had:
There was a love triangle in Broadcast News and Holly Hunter has to make a decision between two men. She ends up choosing neither. But when she turns down William Hurt it’s because he represents everything she fights against. Can you imagine such a choice being written for MacKenzie?
By the show’s end, three men putting on the news stand in a room looking like the founding fathers making the “big decisions” while the women stand around and chortle, ruin the media with their gossip rags, fuck anyone they’re told to fuck, send dumb emails, throw jealous fits and so on.
At first, I was fraught with fear, worried that the show wouldn’t he good, worried FOR Aaron Sorkin. But after last night’s episode I too wonder what is the point of this? Where Girls is a show about girls talking about boys (and disappointing in that way) it is far more interesting, better written, with better characters — even if they did nothing else but talk about their fat thighs and which tampon is the best. The Newsroom is more than a waste of time. It is a throwback to a time when men were men and women were nothing. How disappointing. How unforgivable.
So this commentary IS personal. It isn’t that all television has to be politically correct. It isn’t that all women are good and all men are bad. And it isn’t that it’s necessary to only put forth progressive images of women. Sorkin is required to write good drama. He has failed here. He has failed because his show is guilty of everything the critics accused it of, as Nussbaum writes:
There are plenty of terrific actors on this show, but they can’t do much with roles that amount to familiar Sorkinian archetypes. There is the Great Man, who is theoretically flawed, but really a primal truth-teller whom everyone should follow (or date). There are brilliant, accomplished women who are also irrational, high-strung lunatics—the dames and muses who pop their eyes and throw jealous fits when not urging the Great Man on. There are attractively suited young men, from cynical sharpies to idealistic sharpies, who glare and bond and say things like “This right here is always the swan song of the obsolete when they’re staring the future paradigm in the face.”
The show features three people of color. The most prominent is an Indian staffer named Neal Sampat, played by Dev Patel. The dialogue makes fun of McAvoy for calling him Punjab and referring to him as “the Indian stereotype of an I.T. guy,” but the show treats Neal with precisely that type of condescension. Neal is a WikiLeaks fan who writes the show’s blog, but he’s a cheerful cipher, a nerd who speaks nerd talk. There are also two African-American producers, who are introduced to the audience when McAvoy —- who is publicly memorizing the names of his staff, having been accused of not remembering them —- says, “Gary. Kendra. Gary’s a smart black guy who is not afraid to criticize Obama. Kendra got double 800s on her S.A.T.s, makes Gary crazy. I studied.”
Nobody reacts, and I suspect we’re supposed to find his behavior charmingly blunt or un-P.C. But, again, neither Gary nor Kendra is at all developed, or given any role in the show’s wince-worthy set of love triangles. It gave me flashbacks to one of the worst plots on “Studio 60,” in which the comic played by D. L. Hughley -— the “smart black guy” who was always reading the newspaper — went to a comedy club to anoint the one true young black comic among the hacks and mediocrities. Sorkin’s shows overflow with liberal verities about diversity, but they reproduce a universe in which the Great Man is the natural object of worship, as martyred by gossips as any Philip Roth protagonist.
Despite a few bad bets, HBO is on a truly interesting run right now. It has built a solid Sunday lineup, with “Game of Thrones,” the excellent “Girls,” and “Veep,” a political sitcom that just ended its funny, prickly, but also rather dead-hearted début season. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays the title role, is a skilled comedienne, and the cast knows how to sling the writer Armando Iannucci’s nasty zingers. And yet the series was so cynical that it somehow felt naïve. When Louis-Dreyfus’s character got pregnant, she promptly miscarried, and then had no meaningful reaction to either condition. This was disappointing, but I still have hope for the second season, when many sitcoms find their feet, as did NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” the one excellent political series on TV.
“The Newsroom” is the inverse of “Veep”: it’s so naïve it’s cynical. Sorkin’s fantasy is of a cabal of proud, disdainful brainiacs, a “media élite” who swallow accusations of arrogance and shoot them back as lava. But if the storytelling were more confident, it could take a breath and deliver drama, not just talking points. Instead, the deck stays stacked. Whenever McAvoy delivers a speech or slices up a right-winger, the ensemble beams at him, their eyes glowing as if they were cultists. The series turns Will McAvoy into the equivalent of the character Karen Cartwright, on “Smash,” the performer who the show keeps insisting is God’s gift to Broadway. Can you blame me for rooting for McAvoy’s enemies, all those flyover morons, venal bean-counters, sorority girls, and gun-toting bimbos? Like a political party, a TV show is nothing without a loyal opposition.
But what I take personally is the show comes at a time when women have to fight hard for equality in the media — only one of the nine films up for Best Picture last year was even about women at all. Women have to fight every day for validity. It is as important as the causes Sorkin fights so hard for on this show. What gets me the most, what hits me the hardest is that he doesn’t see that — or worse, doesn’t care.
“He got the better of that exchange.” Mackenzie says after talking to Will. He always does.