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There is a moment in Aaron Sorkin's 1995 romance The American President in which Sydney (Annette Bening) asks her boyfriend Andrew (Michael Douglas), who happens to be President of the United States, the following question: "How do you have patience for people who claim to love America but clearly can't stand Americans?"
That's the quote that came to mind as I watched Sorkin's new HBO series, The Newsroom, which follows a news anchor (Jeff Daniels) and his staff as they try to reinvent evening cable news by making it substantive, serious, and fair. Not balanced! Fair.
Sorkin's reputation for starry-eyed idealism comes from stories like The American President and A Few Good Men, as well as – most importantly – The West Wing. It's tempting to see The Newsroom as an extension of that idealism, given the sheer tonnage of inspiring speeches from people like Daniels, Sam Waterston as his boss Charlie, and John Gallagher, Jr. as a young producer.
Make no mistake: When Aaron Sorkin is persuaded that his cause is just, he writes better go-get-'em speeches than anyone else currently working in Hollywood. Hearing a Sorkin character forcefully argue something you believe to be true is like bathing in a tub full of champagne while you listen to a CD of affirmations called You Are Great And Smart, And No One Understands You: You know at some level that it's self-indulgent, but it feels so good, and don't you deserve that?
When a television show spends this much time having its characters make thundering declarations of their principles, that indeed feels like idealism, and finding it exasperating or empty at its center feels like cynicism. So said Matt Zoller Seitz of New York Magazine when he threw a fairly harsh accusation at criticisms of the show as somewhat hokey: "It suggests that we've become so comfortable with cynicism and despair that we can't even dream anymore."
The problem with this hypothesis is that The Newsroom is far from idealistic. It is, in fact, the darkest work Sorkin has ever done. It is cynical, angry and profoundly misanthropic, and it is more fundamentally despairing than anything David Simon ever wrote on The Wire.
Let's back up.
The underlying thesis of The Newsroom is that the problems of TV news – no, the problems of news media – no, the problems of American political life – are really pretty easy to solve. What could turn things around, the story suggests, is one newsman who will look into a camera and speak the objective and easily discernible truth. And, it suggests, the only reason that hasn't happened anywhere (and is thus so revelatory) is that everyone in every media organization in the country is so obtuse that they've never thought of offering objective facts in a civil manner before, and is such a money-grubbing coward that they'd never do it if they did.
And the reason, under this same theory, that Americans are separated by deep and profound political divisions is simply that they don't know anything about anything. They are dumb and gullible and believe, en masse, whatever is put in front of them (MacKenzie calls one of the show's objectives "speaking truth to stupid"), the upside of which is that if you serve them better facts, you can improve them. That's the epiphany that comes to Will, and to his new executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), and to Charlie. It's so easy, they all realize. All you have to do is stop being a mindless stooge like everyone else is, and you can start to fix the fact that we are right now a nation of idiots. The title of the pilot episode is, in fact, "We Just Decided To," and that's absolutely, positively Sorkin's point: we fail each other not when we try but do not succeed, but when nobody "just decides to" do everything right.
Now maybe you believe that; maybe you don't. Many people believe every single word of those two paragraphs, both about the problems in media and about the problems in the general population. Those people might be right and they might be wrong, but they are hardly our idealistic dreamers. If Sorkin is idealistic – if he is optimistic – about anything, it is the ease with which he believes minds can be changed and problems can be solved with well-chosen zingers. Will McAvoy is hailed as a hero within the framework of the show because it is woven into the show's DNA that doing a better job of conveying information on cable news can fix what ails us irrespective of any divisive issues that might appear to exist, and that doing so is not actually difficult if you are willing to give a stern lecture to a couple of craven dummies in suits who tell you that you should pay attention to ratings. (MacKenzie says she would rather make a good show for a hundred people than a bad show for a million people, which raises the question of what good is done for civic engagement, exactly, by a good show watched by a hundred people and who would pay for it – questions people in the real world would have to consider that she does not.) (Note: I had originally misremembered it and described her saying a good show for ten people instead of a mediocre show for a million people. I think the point certainly remains the same, but I meant to listen to it again and forgot; my flub.)
To believe it is this easy – to believe all it takes is "we just decided to," and to believe that outside of a New York cable newsroom is a undifferentiated ocean of people in desperate need of having their worldviews corrected with what the show likens to expert testimony – is to hold an optimistic view of the ease of social and cultural change, but a dim view of the people who actually exist in the country at the moment. It is to love America, but to be unable to stand Americans.
In the bleak worlds created by David Simon, the problems that vex society – poverty, drugs, crime, education – are hard rather than easy; complex instead of simple. Simon was thunderingly angry, but he was angry about problems that he presented as enormously difficult to solve. He wrote a world where a well-intentioned cop could inadvertently make things worse for a kid whose life he didn't fully understand. He allowed a character with an admirable commitment to problem-solving to boldly set up a zone in which drug activity would be ignored and violence hopefully quarantined, only to find that it got caught up in complicated political battles.
Simon presented a world with institutions so diseased that the people within them, however decent, well-meaning, and smart, often didn't stand a chance. He was a pessimist about our institutions and the people currently in charge of them, but he was not a pessimist about the capacity for intelligent thought on the part of the people he passed on the street every day. In his world, a responsible media culture was essential, critical, desperately needed – but that was because of the need for reporting of facts, not the need for the snide lectures that become Will McAvoy's stock in trade in the second and third episodes.
Sorkin paints a far more depressing picture than Simon, because in his world, it's not that our problems have grown so ingrained and complex that they overwhelm even the well-meaning; it's just that nobody will sit down and look at a few simple pie charts and come to their senses because they're all off watching reality television. He posits that our problems are actually relatively easy, because our failure to solve our problems is entirely the result of our inattention, lack of engagement, and intellectual laziness (all of which I think everyone believes exist, but not in people like them), and not to any degree because they are hard problems. And so he solves our problems by creating for us a oracle that literally pronounces itself to be "on a mission to civilize."
This is not idealism. It's a dream, in a sense, yes, but it's like giving up on getting a job and dreaming that you'll win the lottery. It's a beautiful dream, and it would be easier than the messy balancing acts involved in doing anything that might actually work and do some good for more than a hundred people, but its aspirational nature doesn't change the fact that at heart, it's something of a cop-out.
I realize this does not actually constitute reviewing the show. Let me review the show.
Aaron Sorkin remains my favorite writer of dialogue in American television and film. His workplace-banter scenes are like perfect little songs; there are times when I think he is as good at playing with words and rhythm as Cole Porter. Stretching back to A Few Good Men and the way it teased out a playfulness in Tom Cruise that I had never seen, I have believed he has an almost unmatched ability to build sentences and scenes that hit you like the Rube Goldberg machines in OK Go videos: You look at them in wonder and almost want to clap your hands when they're over, simply because they have been executed with such love, energy and style.
When he writes people talking to each other as equals or something like equals, I'm not sure anyone we have can touch him. John Gallagher, Jr., in particular, is a fantastic fit for Sorkin's dialogue, and Daniels is good with his speeches. And there are banter scenes, especially in the second episode, that get some good air under them, and it seems like that back-and-forth will put the show on its back and carry it. But it doesn't last, and what begin as clever exchanges quickly turn into people giving each other stern talkings-to. And yes, it's usually men giving them to women. Quite honestly, if the title of the pilot weren't "We Just Decided To," it could be "Well, That's Her Good And Told."
The women who are here exist, quite simply, on the theory that nothing is more dramatically important than a man becoming great, and men cannot become great without women to inspire, provoke, and drive them. Alison Pill, a terrific actress who was a ball of energy as an activist in Milk, is reduced to playing a quivering baby who has to be constantly tended to but to whom several men are inexplicably drawn anyway, because of how women are crazy but enchanting, see also almost every woman Sorkin has ever written.
Emily Mortimer is at least allowed in the first episode to be both neurotic and hyper-competent, but after that episode, her competence vanishes and her primary contribution is gazing adoringly at Will through her headset and being jealous of his girlfriends because, of course, she is Will's ex. Olivia Munn also shows up as a woman who's smart and well educated, but whom MacKenzie is happy to inform that she's getting an on-air position talking about economics because she's qualified enough, and the people who might be better qualified than she is "don't have your legs." Much of the fourth episode, in fact, centers on the stupidity and shallowness of women and Will's clumsy but well-intentioned efforts to correct their thinking. I wish I were kidding. (Note to show: Women don't actually throw drinks in men's faces very often. Let alone always.)
And the first time Will encounters the only major character of color, played by Dev Patel, he calls him "Punjab." This is accepted as part of the hilarious workplace chatter. Whether or not a person who calls Dev Patel "Punjab" is the right one to complete "a mission to civilize" is not addressed.
There is a strange quality to the show's entire conceit, which is that it's set in 2010 and covers real news events. This allows Sorkin to co-opt actual reporting that was done by actual journalists, and put it in Will's mouth – only Will does it faster and better and has a professional screenwriter on his side. It makes his show a sort of The News In Hindsight program, where Will is better than CNN in part because Will knows then what CNN knows now, after two more years have passed. Oddly, for a guy whose crusade is to save news, Sorkin has very little use for actual reporting, which here mostly consists of happening to have a sister who works at Halliburton or a friend at BP, and relies on the idea that if you call someone up and ask them a question, they will (1) instantly take your call, (2) rattle off everything you need to know, and (3) be right every time. It is thus not quite as interesting a show about news as it easily could be – in fact, Sports Night showed more reporting about sports than The Newsroom shows about news. Probably the best example of The Newsroom doing compelling television about actual reporting comes at the end of the fourth episode, when Coldplay's "Fix You" plays while Will's team decides not to report, as NPR among others did, that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died. It's stirring stuff, but it's the exception, unfortunately.
Parts of The Newsroom still feel like that champagne bath, and people who flocked to The West Wing will love Charlie's speeches, in particular. It feels good a lot of the time; it feels reassuring to be told it could ever be this easy to solve ugliness. And there are those scenes that are like songs, that made me remember how much I loved Sports Night and some of The West Wing and The American President and how thrilled I was that he laid off the speechifying when he wrote the very good scripts for Moneyball and The Social Network. I fully and firmly believe the guy's a genius.
But an idealist? Certainly not.