Jaime: Hey, Ken: now that the season is over for The Newsroom, would you care to revisit some of your opinions about the show? Do you still hate it?
Now that I’ve seen the season in its entirety, there are some flaws that I was willing to overlook in that first blush of infatuation that I felt at the intro. But I’ll say this: despite some (major) issues, I do indeed still love it.
Ken: Hey, Jaime. Now that you mention it, yes: I would be happy to revisit my opinions about The Newsroom. I have to say that, as the season wore on, I found a few things to love about it–even though I still hate it more than I love it.
Let me start by saying that I totally understand Aaron Sorkin‘s attraction to the concept. I grew up as a journalism major who wanted to save the world through ace reporting, which, to me, meant telling the truth. I can be seduced by the crusading journalist fantasy. The reality is that I want to like Will McAvoy much better than I actually like him. But I’ll tune in just for the journalism rush.
Jaime: Well, we agree there. I found it truly inspiring to watch a world where cynicism was put on pause for an hour for some good, old-fashioned earnest journalism. Of course, if Sorkin is preaching to a choir, I’d be the lead singer he’s addressing. I actually clapped when, in the season finale, Will wound down the indictment of the tea party leaders with the title “The American Taliban.”
There has been criticism about the one-dimensioned female characters, and while I hate to be unoriginal, that’s a valid critique. To say that I don’t understand the appeal of Maggie would be an understatement. As an actress, Allison Pill nails it. I watched her on the previous season of the brilliant HBO series In Treatment where she played a cancer patient who was dealing with her illness with her therapist. Maybe that informs my opinion here, but she still looks like she’s sick. I get it, she’s supposed to be hapless and overworked and–like everything else Sorkin–earnest. But it does not make sense, especially in light of Sloan Sabbath’s revelation that she has feelings for Don, that Maggie would be the office catch, the object of both Jim Harper’s and Don’s affections. If I were to get over my male chauvinism and address this beyond looks, she plays it clumsy, nervous, and manipulative. Come to think of it, the first two are the same adjectives I’d use to describe the other two leads: MacKensie McHale and Sloan Sabbath. Beautiful, intelligent, competent women who fall to pieces when one of the males on the show dares to look at them head-on. Come on, now!
Ken: I agree: the female characters are weak sauce. Sorkin’s never been much of a women’s writer. It’s odd, because his shows seem to have such juicy roles for women. But almost all of his women are, in some way, moonstruck over some man. If not for C.J. Cregg, it would be easy to think of Sorkin a kind of liberal chauvinist, standing up for women only because the brave men need them.
But I have to say: even when he’s giving in to his worst instincts, Sorkin has an ear for dialogue. It’s always bright and snappy and interesting, if rarely realistic. His famous walk-and-talks are invigorating. They make me want to get up off my ass and be more, do more good in the world. And the words Sorkin puts in people’s mouths make me want to know them better. They all seem so smart and engaged. I wish my brain worked as quickly as theirs.
Even the Dev Patel character, in spite of his Bigfoot obsession. That was just about the stupidest subplot in the history of subplots.
Jaime: Juicy roles for women, yes! And, that’s almost the worst part about his misstep with his females: he squanders the opportunity to showcase really interesting characters. We have MacKenzie McHale, who is this British/American daughter of an ambassador, home from Iraq where she suffered a gunshot wound. Yet, she crumbles to pieces and cannot utter a sound sentence when Will deigns to look a her. I understand that a one-dimensional superwoman would get boring and might grate on the audience’s nerves, but every time she goes cutesy, I want to punch her in the mouth.
That said, I love the contrast of the intelligent warrior with the vulnerability that comes with being in love and betrayed. I think the therapy sessions with Will are some of the most compelling scenes (even if Sorkin ripped himself off by stealing the insomnia story-line from The West Wing). Yet, they cast a spotlight on exactly what is wrong with MacKenzie’s character: while Will has the same feelings for her, and we know there will be an eventual reconciliation, he is able to play it cool, to focus on the larger task at hand: taking down the Tea Party with honest ferocity. His ex-girlfriend alternatively makes pouting speeches, just shy of stomping her foot.
As for Bigfoot, can we just pretend that storyline didn’t happen, let alone go on for an entire show?
Ken: It would be nice to let that disappear, Jaime. Maybe it was all just a minor character’s dream.
Speaking of dreams: I’ve been dreaming about being a Republican lately, and it’s all Will McAvoy’s fault. I love the fact that he’s a Republican who gives his party hell. Contrarian Republicans are almost extinct, and the bizarre, far-right positions the GOP has adopted are so far out of the mainstream that I can barely fathom ever voting for any of them. Certain planks in the Republican platform are so extreme, it would be like the Democrats actually embracing communists. (Of course, a lot of boneheaded Republicans believe this is true.)
But I have faith that most Republicans really aren’t that extreme: they’re just afraid they don’t stand a chance of winning without the idiot factor, and they may be right. I just wish that some registered Republican would stand up and call bullshit, loudly, in the media, on a national level. And The Newsroom gives me a glimmer of hope that it might be possible. I know gay Republicans, African-American Republicans, female Republicans–even pro-choice Republicans. I want to know why they stay with the party, and I wish they’d shoot holes in all the horseshit, even if it means their party loses.
Jaime: Would that the Republicans could sacrifice wins for righteousness, Ken. I fear that they might only believe in a success that results from a loss on the other side. The Mitch McConnell-orchestrated “Party of No” has proven that winning is the end to their means and that the only sacrifice is to be done on the backs of their constituency.
I might also add to that that short of declaring themselves communists, Democrats might do better by defining what a “liberal” is and owning it, much like Will does in his discussion of the term RINO (Republicans in Name Only). The truth is that both parties are the homes of such disparate groups of people that the media/politicians are trying force into small boxes. Most of us who affiliate with one party or the other rarely toe the exact party line. Yet, to speak out against our own party is suicidal. Sorkin knows this, and acknowledges it by casting Jane Fonda in the role of network head. Here she plays a strong, savvy businesswoman who is kowtowing to the Koch brothers. Fonda is known for making unpopular stands, notably against the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet, Sorkin felt the need to put that character in her place by writing for Will, “You have a body that refuses to quit. If Playboy ever decided to do a ‘Women of NASDAQ’ layout, it would be a tasteful layout, like, ‘Oops, I dropped my quarterly stock holdings.’” Granted, great line! When I stop laughing, I’ll talk about how sexist it was.
Ken: Yeah, yeah. Jane Fonda. “Atlantis Cable News.” We get it, already. Why doesn’t Sorkin just hit us in the face with a frying pan?
My final point–and I’m happy to let you have the last word, since you have what seems to be the most popular view–is that, for all my bitching, The Newsroom is pretty damn good television. Yes, I’m hate-watching it. Yes, I’m looking for every opportunity to sneer at the coincidences and the pointless comedic set pieces and the over-the-top characterizations and the self-indulgent, retrospective screeds against American idiocy. But at least someone is writing and performing those screeds. I may be hate-watching, but The Newsroom is a fun hate-watch.
Jaime: Well let’s just say that subtlety is not Mr. Sorkin’s forte. Which brings me to my final point: there is a character whose toned-back persona makes for the perfect setup for the more–shall we say vocal?–characters. Sam Waterston’s Charlie Skinner doesn’t rant or prosthelytize. He plays an affable alcoholic, seemingly having lost his edge in a liquor bottle; yet there are revelations that he is indeed the holder of the puppet strings. Interesting, since his dim-wittedness is played against the sharp intellect of the rest of the cast. His lines never miss, especially since they are tone-opposite to all of the speechifying. So when he gets emotional, like when the NSA character jumped off a bridge and he said simply to Jim, “Call your parents. It isn’t that hard,”–and when he rallied Will from his hospital bed taking to task anonymous contributors to a “take-down” piece on Will calling them, “pussy-ass, coward-ass, pussified pussies,” it absolutely shines. These moments, and the dialogue, the message, and the acting, keep me firmly in the “love” camp, even if I have to cringe watching an Ivy-League-bred executive producer walk into a door because a news anchor likes her.
Ken: Okay, I lied about letting you have the last word. I kinda hate Charlie Skinner.