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Aaron Sorkin's Female Trouble: The Women of 'The Newsroom'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire July 3, 2012 at 5:34PM

Aaron Sorkin is once again under fire for his writing of female characters. Following the blowback surrounding his portrayal of women in his script for "The Social Network" (one I didn't actually agree with), he's back attracting talk of sexism thanks to his new (and recently renewed) HBO drama "The Newsroom" as well as a cringe-worthy interview with Sarah Nicole Prickett at the Globe and Mail which starts with him asking the young reporter if she watched his series pilot twice "because you liked it so much the first time, or because you didn't understand it the first time?"
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"The Newsroom" version of this dynamic is between newly energized cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his former love and supposed ace executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), and it's even more off balance than the relationship between exes Matt and Harriet on "Studio 60," colored as it was by its parallels to a certain real-life TV writer and a performer he used to date. Mac, we learn in the first episode, is the one who shook Will out of his complacent stupor by offering him inspirational prompts on notebook paper from the audience of a live talk (he thinks he imagined her there). She broke his heart by cheating on him, and he's still obviously in love with her, and so he punishes her for coming back by arranging her contract so that he has the option of firing her at the end of every week and, in next week's episode, having his dates meet him at the office where she can see.

As we've moved from "Sports Night" up through to "The Newsroom," the men in these relationships have tended more and more toward being right all the time, while increasingly the women should have known better -- either than to have once walked away or to be waiting for something to happen instead of making a move. Mac has been so far the worst off of the bunch, alternating between being Will's conscience and his emotional punching bag, between providing him inspirational speeches ("Be the moral center of this show, be the integrity!" she urges toward the end of this past Sunday's "News Night 2.0") and humiliating both of them by accidentally emailing the entire company the reason they broke up. Mac's ditziness gets amplified in the character of assistant-turned-associate producer Maggie (Alison Pill), in whom Mac tellingly sees a younger version of herself and who, in the same episode, also ends having a sexual misadventure aired to her coworkers. That's not an issue -- the issue is that it comes out after Maggie neglects to reveal her past relationship with someone with whom she's been assigned to do a pre-interview in preparation for air, itself a serious professional mishap even before she messes it up and costs the show an exclusive.

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"The Newsroom" is a workplace drama in which the female characters all seem anxious to be schooled, to be secondary, from the knocks Mac seems to seek out to the manipulative and toxic on-and-off relationship Maggie keeps returning to (blind to the noble, adoring Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) pining away) to the hiring of financial analyst Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn). Several journalist have called out the moment when Mac makes Sloan a job offer to report on the economy every night. Sloan reponds "There are people are more qualified than I am -- I can put you in touch with some of the professors I studied under," to which Mac says "They're not going to have your legs." The legs comment is, whatever, easy TV cynicism -- it's that Sloan would suggest other potential candidates for the dream gig she's just been told about is appalling. Is it meant to be a sign of modesty? Is it intended to be more likable for someone who's just talked about her qualifications and why she doesn't want to do morning shows to then defer when actually presented with a prime job and chance to shine? Why would an ambitious professional journalist ever act like that?

We're only two episodes into "The Newsroom," and it's got enough raw potential to be something much better -- Mortimer and Pill are proven gifted actresses, and Munn's shown significant comedic spark on screen before in otherwise unremarkable dreck like "I Don't Know How She Does It." They deserve deeper roles than this -- especially in a series that starts off with Will lecturing a college girl and seems to have never quite escaped that vein. I still enjoy Sorkin's dialogue, even the extra-sanctimonious variety seen too often in this series, and his faith in work as a haven remains moving even as the depictions of the relationships on which that work is built have curdled. This doesn't need to be and shouldn't be a show about great men and the women who appreciate them -- for the benefit of the people watching and for those on screen, we could all use something richer.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, HBO , Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom