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The Pretentious Condescension of ‘The Newsroom’
Aaron Sorkin's new show is unpleasant, heavy-handed, and often inaccurate.
"He's not going to look like an elite Northeastern prick?" a cameraman asks MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a cable news executive producer, at the end of the first episode of The Newsroom. The "he" is Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a formerly bland anchor who has blown up his reputation with a rant that was circulated on YouTube. "He is," MacKenzie acknowledges. "Let's make that sexy again."
Therein lies the problem with The Newsroom, a new HBO show by West Wing and Social Network writer-director Aaron Sorkin, which premieres Sunday at 10 pm. A series with great self-confidence but no discernibly unique ideas, The Newsroom is determined to dress up old models as the future of journalism, even as it blithely skates over the realities of the news business and the real work of reporting.
The Newsroom appears to operate on a hierarchy of condescension. At the top is executive Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), who describes MacKenzie as if she's a fragile flower rather than an experienced war correspondent. He says, "She's mentally and physically exhausted…and she's been to way too many funerals for a girl her age. She wants to come home." Will, a notch below him, is unpleasant to everyone in sight, starting in the opening sequences, when he tells a college girl, "You are, without a doubt, the member of the worst period generation period ever period." (The show later validates Will's nastiness to her by making her seem spoiled and entitled: She sues her college for emotional distress.) Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will's soon-to-be-former executive producer, can't risk snarking on MacKenzie, his replacement, "She's like a sophomore poli-sci major at Sarah Lawrence." Jim, MacKenzie's deputy, snaps back: "She's exactly like that. I guess the only difference are her two Peabodies and the scar on her stomach from covering a Shiite protest in Islamabad."
Sorkin's characters are often accused of sounding alike. Here, what they have in common is a sense that they're superior to someone who hasn't submitted to their needs, wishes, and worldview.
At the bottom of this miserable totem pole is Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), formerly an intern, promoted only recently to be Will's assistant, who is condescended to by everyone. "He didn't promote you, honey. He thought you were his assistant," Don, her negging nebbish of a boyfriend tells her at the beginning of the episode. Will, trying to prove he's attentive to his staff, insists that her name is Ellen. MacKenzie declares that Maggie is "me, before I grew into myself and got hotter with age!" And when Maggie volunteers for a reporting task, both Don and Jim treat Maggie like an idiot. "Can you do this? You can't just look it up on Wikipedia," Don tells her. "It's true, Maggie," warns Jim.
It might be nice if this felt like some sort of critique of the way powerful men in journalism ignore and fail to mentor young women, or of the grinding, low-paid jobs that people of both genders increasingly have to accept if they hope for a long-term future in the field. Part of journalism's problem, after all, is a generational one: Young reporters are being asked to do more, with less supervision and training, and for lower salaries. But the only salary or housing situation that's mentioned in the pilot is Jim's. Maggie feels soggy, rather than stifled—she tells flimsy lies to her parents to cover for Don, who is too commitment-phobic to go to dinner with them after dating Maggie for four months. And the show is too invested in establishing MacKenzie and Jim as heroes to make them recognize that their treatment of Maggie is unkind rather than charming.
It would be easier to overlook this persistent unpleasantness if The Newsroom had hard truths to utter about the state of American political discourse or piercing insights into the workings of cable news. But Sorkin seems unaware or unwilling to admit that quite a lot of people like polarized cable news. Fox & Friends, the conspiracy-theory peddling morning show with a Stanford-educated anchor who regularly plays dumb, is the highest-rated morning show on cable television. People have their own facts, something Will bemoans, not simply because his fellow anchors have fed them those alternate worldviews, but because cable news has found it profitable to cater to conspiracies and angers already well-entrenched among Americans. Suggesting that an abrasive Keith Olbermann clone—and no matter how much Sorkin protests, Will resembles no one so much as Sorkin's prior muse for Sports Night—can show the people a great light is simultaneously naively optimistic in its assessment of American television viewers and a kind of blinkered gesture of noblesse oblige.
And the show makes what perhaps will be a fatal mistake in having its crusading journalists cover recent news events. Sorkin told New York magazine, "I have no political sophistication or media sophistication, so if I was talking to Howard Kurtz or you, you could easily dismantle whatever argument I'm going to make." But having his characters re-report existing stories means The Newsroom is inevitably offering a critique of the work done by real journalists.
This is particularly grating given how poorly The Newsroom handles its first such rewriting of history, the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Sorkin's version of history, Will's team breaks the whole story of the disaster wide open in a matter of hours. How? By caring where others don't, through personal connections to key sources, and because of magical knowledge the team's blogger gained through building an elementary school baking soda volcano. If the sequence is meant to suggest that publications could have moved faster by caring, it ignores that no one, anywhere, knew what caused the explosion for more than two days in part because the fires on the rig couldn't be extinguished, and that reporters were vigorously reporting out regulatory and corporate failures in the immediate aftermath of the story, but that it took time and Freedom of Information Act requests to break the stories. It's convenient, and partially true, to believe that failure of will and interest contributes to bad journalism in America. It's also wildly insulting to working journalists in all mediums to suggest that they don't want it enough.
And ultimately, Will's tone isn't very different from the ultra-liberal and the ultra-conservative who hissed and scratched and gave him a case of vertigo in the show's opening sequence. His producers praise him for aggression in interviews, regardless of what information he actually gets out of corporate flacks and beleaguered civil servants. Declaring, "You know why people don't like liberals? Because they lose" is not actually more insightful than a conservative commentator complaining about the National Endowment for the Arts because "I am not happy to pay for a painting I don't want to look at, poetry I don't want to read."
Will works at the Atlantis Cable Network, a name no doubt meant to suggest a lost remnant of a glorious age, or to underscore that in what Sorkin sees as a hopelessly blighted environment, a show of the kind Will and MacKenzie will build could only ever be a pleasant fiction. But if The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin's vision for the future of news, I'm content to let it rest below the waves.
The artificial intelligence of “The Newsroom”
Por Emily Nussbaum [The New Yorker, 24/6/12].
“I’m affable!” Will McAvoy yells in the pilot of “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series. McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) is an irascible anchor whose brand is likability, and it’s a good line, delivered well. It is also a rare moment of self-mockery—and one of the last sequences I was on board for in the series. In “The Newsroom,” clever people take turns admiring one another. They sing arias of facts. They aim to remake television news: “This is a new show, and there are new rules,” a maverick executive producer announces, several times, in several ways. Their outrage is so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema—only it makes the viewer itch.
This is not to say that “The Newsroom” doesn’t score points now and then, if you share its politics. It starts effectively enough, with an homage to “Network” ’s galvanizing “I’m mad as hell” rant, as McAvoy, a blandly uncontroversial cable big shot whom everyone tauntingly calls Leno, is trapped on a journalism-school panel. When the moderator needles him into answering a question about why America is the greatest country on earth, he goes volcanic, ticking off the ways in which America is no such thing, then closing with a statement of hope, about the way things used to be. This speech goes viral, and his boss (Sam Waterston) and his producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who’s also his ex-girlfriend, encourage him to create a purer news program, purged of any obsession with ratings and buzz.
Much of McAvoy’s diatribe is bona-fide baloney—false nostalgia for an America that never existed—but it is exciting to watch. And if you enjoyed “The West Wing,” Sorkin’s helpful counterprogramming to the Bush Administration, your ears will prick up. The pilot of “The Newsroom” is full of yelling and self-righteousness, but it’s got energy, just like “The West Wing,” Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” and his hit movie “The Social Network.” The second episode is more obviously stuffed with piety and syrup, although there’s one amusing segment, when McAvoy mocks some right-wing idiots. After that, “The Newsroom” gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping. The third episode is lousy (and devolves into lectures that are chopped into montages). The fourth episode is the worst. There are six to go.
Sorkin is often presented as one of the auteurs of modern television, an innovator and an original voice. But he’s more logically placed in a school of showrunners who favor patterspeak, point-counterpoint, and dialogue-driven tributes to the era of screwball romance. Some of this banter is intelligent; just as often, however, it’s artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter. Besides Sorkin, these creators include Shonda Rhimes (whose Washington melodrama, “Scandal,” employs cast members from “The West Wing”); Amy Sherman-Palladino, of “The Gilmore Girls” (and the appealing new “Bunheads”); and David E. Kelley, who created “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal.” Sorkin is supposed to be on a different level from his peers: longer words, worldlier topics. And many viewers clearly buy into this idea: years after Sorkin’s terrible, fascinating “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was cancelled, I still occasionally run into someone who insists that Americans were just too stupid to get it.
As Dan Rather might put it, that dog won’t hunt. Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV. The shows’ air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what’s inside—all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, “The Newsroom” treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid. Characters describe events we’ve just witnessed. When a cast member gets a shtick (like an obsession with Bigfoot), he delivers it over and over. In episode four, there’s a flashback to episode three. In a recent interview, Sorkin spoke patronizingly of cop shows, but his Socratic flirtations are frequently just as formulaic, right down to the magical “Ask twice!” technique.
There’s no denying that Sorkin’s shows can be addictive: I couldn’t stop watching “Studio 60,” which was about the making of a “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch show, no matter how hard I tried. That thing was alive! It was lit up with payback, as well as with portraits of Sorkin’s exes so glowing that they were radioactive. The show’s deliriously preening heroes were so memorable that they inspired a set of fictional Twitter feeds, in which the characters live on, making remarks like “Deciding if the satire I’m about to write should be scathing or whip-smart.”
“The Newsroom” sounded more promising, journalism being a natural habitat for blowhards. But so far the series lacks the squirmy vigor of “Studio 60,” particularly since Sorkin saps the drama with an odd structural choice. Rather than invent fictional crises, he’s set the show in “the recent past,” so that the plot is literally old news: the BP oil spill, the Tea Party, the Arizona immigration law. That sounds like an innovative concept, but it turns the characters into back-seat drivers, telling us how the news should have been delivered. (Instead of “Broadcast News,” it’s like a sanctimonious “Zelig.”) Naturally, McAvoy slices through crises by “speaking truth to stupid,” in McHale’s words. But he also seizes credit for “breaking stories”—like the political shenanigans of the Koch brothers—that were broken by actual journalists, all of them working in print or online. In the fourth episode, the show injects a real-life tragedy into the mix, pouring a pop ballad over the montage, just the way “E.R.” used to do whenever a busload of massacred toddlers came crashing through the door.
HBO’s ‘Newsroom’ as a Map for CNN
Por David Carr [The New York Times, 25/6/12]
CNN, which has long struggled to locate an anchor for its 8 p.m. hour, may have finally found him.
Will McAvoy is handsome, forthright and authoritative, with just enough irascibility and skepticism to seem provocative. He believes in the primacy of news, that truth is not the hole in the middle of the doughnut and that good information will help the body politic find the angels of its better nature.
He is also a figment of Aaron Sorkin’s imagination, a confected, perfected news anchor in “The Newsroom,” a show that began Sunday night on HBO, which, like CNN, is owned by Time Warner. Speaking at the premiere in a screening room at the company’s headquarters last week, Mr. Sorkin described “The Newsroom” as “a valentine” to the news industry and boy, could CNN use one.
HBO has been on a bit of a run, connecting with “Game of Thrones” and “Girls,” shows about the battle for survival in very different realms. CNN has been on a run as well, but it’s the kind a toboggan makes on a snowy hill. Once the leader in cable news, CNN clocked its lowest rating in a decade in April. It has been flanked and then overrun, first by Fox News from the right and then by MSNBC on the left.
CNN has stuck with, well, a version of the news, and gotten clobbered in the process. Its tenuous plight as the honest tradesman of the TV news business is reflected in the scripts of “The Newsroom” — Will McAvoy works for Atlantis World Media, named after a lost kingdom, and there are liberal sprinklings of “Man of La Mancha,” with arguments over who is being more quixotic.
The studios Will roams through are very much a mirror of CNN’s, part of a vast empire with many holdings that outperform news. To tie the allegory all together, Jane Fonda — a k a the former Mrs. Ted Turner — is cast as the boss of all bosses, listening closely for a few episodes and then landing with a vengeance.
In Mr. Sorkin’s series, and out there in the big, bad world of television, there is a battle for the souls and eyeballs of the American viewing public, and CNN finds itself in a competitive business where simply delivering the news is no longer sufficient.
Mr. Sorkin rejects that mandate. In “The Newsroom,” Mr. McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, is asked what he actually believes in, in front of a crowd of earnest journalism students, and he answers truthfully: America, and journalism, have gone off the rails. Stirred by his own speech and by his new executive producer, an old flame played by Emily Mortimer, they decide to forgo fluff and, radically enough, cover the news.
In an on-air apology that follows, the McAvoy character acknowledges that “we took a dive for our ratings” and vows to produce a show that reflects importance, not heat. At the end of his mission statement, he asks, “Who are we to make these decisions?” (Long pause.) “We are the media elite.”
The conceit is that if cable networks did a good job of cooking informational broccoli, we would line up for second helpings. Too bad it happens not to be true — not when coverage of a dolphin that has lost its way can generate more empathy than ethnic minorities being wiped out in far-flung places.
The chicken-and-egg debate over which got dumb first — the viewing masses or the news — seems less important than that cold fact that both are true. The truth is that aspirations rarely leap off the screen and into the American consciousness, and the more noble television tries to make them the more detached from reality they seem.
Mr. Sorkin, however, doesn’t mind bucking the tide. “I think the reason it’s been reviewed as far-fetched is that it’s far-fetched,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Every bit as far-fetched as a Democratic administration that gets stuff done,” he added, referring to the accomplished — and entirely fictional — Bartlet administration in “The West Wing,” which he also wrote.
Then he added, “I don’t know anything about ratings (and I’ve had the ratings to back that up) but if I were the president of CNN I would put the smartest news people I know in a room and ask, ‘What would a utopian news show look like?’ and then I’d ask ‘What’s stopping us from doing that?’ ”
Mr. Sorkin says he knows there is no collective time machine to take us back to the era of Murrow and Cronkite.
“Part of the emotion and romance of the show is being reminded of the role that great journalism’s played in our past and that the possibility exists that we could lift ourselves up by coming back to that church,” he said.
For certain, there would be a few empty pews. Much of the audience expects to be infotained when they turn on the news, so every wiggle and wobble of the Tot Mom becomes freighted with meaning. But there is also a sizable audience that tunes in for updates on actual news and sees talking heads arguing over Bristol Palin as if she were a head of state, and drug-fueled cannibalism discussed as a growing trend. There are others like me, fans of news, who feel less enlightened than implicated when we do tune in.
As viewers, we hew toward picking sides in news programming because it creates the illusion not just of import and drama, but that someone is at fault and things can be fixed. The world we live in hews much closer to “Network” than “The Newsroom.” (Even Mr. Sorkin cheats on his own premise, tilting piously left in his choice of targets: the Koch brothers, the gun lobby, the Tea Party and Wall Street bankers, even though Will McAvoy is nominally a Republican.)
Mr. Sorkin wants to believe that giving people what they need to know instead of what they want to know is a worthy way to run a news network. And as someone steeped in the world of entertainment, he knows it would probably never work.
“I think the Will McAvoy that existed the minute before the show begins would be very successful,” he said. “The Will McAvoy that starts to come into focus by the third episode wouldn’t stand a chance.”
My idea? CNN still makes $600 million a year and should be happy that it gets a premium on cable systems because its global news resources are still seen as essential. Leave the Tot Mom to others and stick to coming up with a well-cooked, nutritious news diet. Why not ride through the news cycle with some dignity and feed a loyal, reliable audience, standing by for when the world threatens to blow apart and ratings skyrocket?
Newsmen in Wonderland: Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom Is What Never Was, or at Least What Never Will Be
Por Charles P. Pierce [Esquire, 21/6/12].
When I saw The Social Network, in which practically everybody was an amoral, cynical, cutthroat dweeb — seriously, it was like watching Wall Street if it had been put together by the folks at Nova — I thought that this collection of money-grubbing dorks might just be the saving of Aaron Sorkin. Nobody was noble. Nobody thought they were saving anything worth saving. Nobody, god help us, sang any Gilbert and Sullivan. (There are two ways to know that a Sorkin vehicle is about to go off the rails: one, Joshua Malina shows up, and, two, somebody breaks into a chorus from Penzance.) Sorkin's Zuckerberg and friends were so utterly arrogant and, at the same time, so totally grasping, that I thought they just might shove his writing in the general direction of the far outskirts of the fringes of the suburbs of Mametland, which I thought would be all to the good.
Now, though, we have The Newsroom. And while it has some undeniable virtues, which we'll get to in a moment, and which will keep me coming back, it generally sinks once again up to its wheel wells into the kind of morass that has plagued Sorkin ever since people started talking about The West Wing as though he had reinvented television drama. (That would be David Simon, by the way.) Sorkin is television's last great nostalgic, forever pining through his characters for a Golden Age that never was. Occasionally, this leads him straight into a moral quagmire; in A Few Good Men, people were so busy memorizing Jack Nicholson's big speech from the dock that hardly anyone noticed Sorkin had nuanced himself right past what can be gracefully called The William Calley Question, which had been raised only briefly, and just as briefly dismissed, in a hallway argument between Tom Cruise and Kevin Pollak. In The West Wing, there was so much of the Good People Trying To Do Good Things going on that Sorkin's Washington became the only place in the world where you could find actual moderate Republicans with the power to get anything done. (A moderate Republican saves Leo McGarry from being embarrassed before a congressional committee. And a moderate Republican saves — ! — the estate tax from being repealed. This latter was not nostalgia. It was science fiction.) And, in The Newsroom, Sorkin softens the edges of everything he got from Paddy Chayefsky's groundbreaking Network with an unwieldy hankering for the days when giants walked the networks.
"Murrow had an opinion, and that was the end of McCarthy," says the grizzled old veteran Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston, to Will McAvoy, the troubled anchor portrayed by Jeff Daniels. "Cronkite had an opinion, and that was the end of Vietnam."
And, up in Rhode Island, when I was a kid, ol' Salty Brine had an opinion — "Brush Your Teeth And Say Your Prayers" — and that was the end of tooth decay in New England.
Cronkite did his famous "We are mired in a stalemate" in 1968, which was about six years at least after said stalemate was obvious to people like Neil Sheehan. A year after Cronkite's broadcast, a solid plurality of Americans polled were still in favor of "total military victory," whatever the hell that meant, and the war groaned on for four more years, more than 20,000 more dead Americans, and god alone knows how many more dead Asian peasants. Murrow certainly contributed to Joseph McCarthy's downfall, but not as much as Joseph Welch did, and Murrow did it while still hosting a show where he had to ask Liberace when he was planning to get married. Sorkin is so attached to his own personal Great Man theory that he applies it retroactively to events most of his audience is old enough to have lived through, and, at those moments, he seems to be relying on the general American historical amnesia so many of his characters spend so much time decrying.
Things fade in on a panel at Northwestern University, although it's hard at first to determine whether or not it's an episode of Real Time. A liberal and a conservative are yapping at each other like angry Muppets and McAvoy is sitting between them, obviously uncomfortable. He is, it appears, famous for not making waves. People call him "Leno." Anyway, in an answer to a student's question about why America is the greatest country in the world, he goes off on a rant about how it's not, really. Daniels gets to do some discreet scenery-chewing here, and he clearly enjoys it. He gets to wax lyrical about how the country "once went to war for moral reasons, and once struck down laws for moral reasons," thereby confusing the hell out of everyone who ever took an American history class in college. It's what Howard Beale would have said, had he been a professor of American studies, and not a network anchor. Daniels is mad as hell and he's going to throw his BlackBerry across the room.
Soon, he realizes that his speech not only both cost him almost his entire staff, but also has energized his former lover, MacKenzie McHale, perhaps the most clumsily named character on television since Captain Wilton Parmenter. She's returned from war-zone duty in west Asia and wants to reinvent television news — specifically, cable television news, so, yeah, good luck with that — into what Sorkin imagines it once was. Emily Mortimer is one of those things I mentioned earlier that will keep me coming back to this show; she's smart and funny and it's not her fault that, at least once an episode, she has to push one of those Sorkinized sermons up a dirt road. If Gilbert and Sullivan rear their ugly heads before this is done, I fear it's Mortimer who's going to be the sad victim of it.
She puts together a staff, and they're a mixed bag. Dev Patel plays a cyber-cowboy who's treated as only marginally less of a stereotype than Apu from The Simpsons. (Will calls him "Punjab" at one point, and Patel refrains from throwing a stapler at his head.) There are dueling young tyros who are trying to pull Will in different directions, and also trying to score with Alison Pill's Margaret Jordan, one of those earnest young things that are forever inexplicably the romantic centers of a Sorkin universe. (Sabrina Lloyd in SportsNight and Janel Maloney in The West Wing are your archetypes.) Pill teeters dangerously close to being the female Joshua Malina here, and really ought to be rescued from that grisly fate.
Once the crew gets together, they're forced to respond quickly to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. (Sorkin has decided to marry his newsroom to actual events, beginning in 2010. This may be the riskiest thing about the project.) Here, Sorkin's speechifying blessedly gives way to his real gift for kinetic action through dialogue. There's a lot going on in the background of every scene, the way there should be, and the characters speak to each other with some real snap. The show, which immediately prior to this had lumbered through a lengthy expository passage in which MacKenzie and Will renew their relationship in a fashion that is going to make absolutely nobody forget Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, goes from indolence to remarkably vivid life when responding to actual breaking news, which makes it very much like every actual newsroom I've ever been in. Waterston comes in for some grizzled celebration at the end.
Quite simply, Sam Waterston saves the entire thing. His Charlie Skinner was clearly designed to be the cardboard old-school conscience of the project, but Waterston invests him with so much twinkling charm that it's as if he's finally able to unleash all the humanity he largely had to curb for nearly 20 years as Jack McCoy on Law and Order. Charlie wears a bowtie, plays video poker against teenagers in Iowa, and drinks more during the day in the office than any news executive on TV since Lou Grant hung 'em up. At first, it seems that Waterston's going to be left gasping by all the walking-and-talking; Sorkin's scripts can be fearsomely aerobic. But there's a moment in the first episode when Skinner goes off on one of the young tyros — "I am a Marine and I will beat the shit out of you no matter how many protein bars you eat!" — when you can see Waterston find his character in one of those snappers that redeem Sorkin's writing from all the preachy oatmeal that fills up the rest of the script. It is said that, in The West Wing, President Jed originally was supposed to be an off-stage character, but that the sheer gravity inherent in even a fictional president pulled the show to him. If Sorkin's not careful, Waterston's going to make off with the whole enterprise here.
And that might be all to the good, because Charlie Skinner seems to be the only one here who knows that what he told Will early in the show is at least 50 percent bullshit mythology. He's an idealist, not a nostalgic. He probably saw Murrow take down McCarthy, but he also saw him interview Liberace and get shoved out the door at CBS because of the same forces that The Newsroom has set itself against almost 70 years later. Charlie Skinner is an institutional memory, and they are cold, realistic things, which is why they make us uncomfortable, and which is why we abandon them in favor of what never was.