Hate is such a strong word. I don’t really hate TV shows. I can’t work up enough energy to hate any TV show.
But if I could, that show would be The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama. It’s so smug and self-satisfied in its liberal rectitude that is makes me, a reliable lefty, wish I had the power to cancel it before it makes a mockery of everything I hold dear.
(I should note as I write this that I skimmed Jaime Franchi’s ”Why I Love The Newsroom“ a few days ago, but didn’t think it was fair to use it is a platform to take apart piece by piece. So this is not a response–just a different opinion.)
I’ve been a fan of Aaron Sorkin‘s work. It’s hard to not love A Few Good Men, and The West Wing was great television. Sports Night was a TV dramedy far ahead of its time. The Social Network and Moneyball were, in their way, masterful; it’s hard to imagine another writer being able to pull off scripts for major motion pictures in which there’s so little action.
But Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a painful failure: a drama about a Saturday Night Live-style comedy show that was overwrought and unfunny. There was a lot of “we’re changing comedy across this whole damn planet” hyperbole, but no comedy to back it up, and a bunch of characters so earnestly damaged that they were impossible to root for. To call Studio 60 a train wreck is to give it far too much credit. Disasters are fascinating; Studio 60 was a snooze.
In terms of sanctimony, The Newsroom picks up where Studio 60 left off. Only The Newsroom isn’t playing the relatively low-stakes game of comedy: now we’re talking about the Fourth Estate, The News, the way it used to be reported by Murrow and Cronkite and Olbermann. There’s no joking around here: our National Character hangs in the balance.
The ever-dependable Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a cable network news anchor known for his blandness–until one evening when, at a panel discussion, he goes all Howard Beale, irritated as hell at the vitriol on the right and the cluelessness on the left. In a rant you’ve almost certainly seen on YouTube–and if you haven’t, you can watch it here–McAvoy rattles off a barrage of smart statistics proving America is not the greatest nation in the world in a way only Sorkin could write. It’s smart and funny and true–and, yes, sanctimonious–and it sets the stage for McAvoy to cast aside his milquetoast persona and reinvent himself as television news’s last bastion of civility and truth-telling.
Only the show’s approach to truth-telling is a lot more like Stephen Colbert‘s “truthiness” than actual veracity. That’s because the show is set in the recent past, and the stories McAvoy and his team report on (the Gulf Oil Spill, the midterm elections, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, et. al.) are fresh enough that we remember them well. In most cases, we also remember the ways the stories were fumbled or manipulated or sensationalized by our national news outlets.
And therein lies the source of my disdain for The Newsroom: Will McAvoy and his producers are so much smarter than every other news team in the world. They know things no one else knows. When the talking heads on Fox are shooting off their mouths, our guys insist on restraint–even when the bad network executives are ordering them to report what everyone else is reporting, dammit! When all the other networks are toeing the BP corporate line about the oil spill, our guys blow the lid off the story! It’s just a total coincidence that the new producer–like, first-day-on-the-job new–has a college roommate who works for BP and a sister who works for Halliburton.
I’m willing to let the coincidence go for the sake of storytelling–so long as it doesn’t happen every week. What I can’t abide is the pecksniffian hindsight in which the stories are crafted. It’s easy to be Will McAvoy–just set your time machine for two years in the future and see how everything turns out, then go back and ask the bad guys the tough questions. It’s easy to see how catastrophic the oil spill is going to be from your perch in 2012. It’s easy to confront witless Tea Party supporters two years after their Sherman’s March to power put a torch to reason and civility in partisan politics. Even Sorkin’s casting of Jane Fonda as the network’s right-wing matriarch is a smug wink from a writer who knows too much. Hanoi Jane’s politics are exactly the opposite–and she was married to Ted Turner. Get it?
And don’t get me started on Sorkin’s ugly habit of building shows around courageous men–Don Quixote types all–and the quirky-but-loyal women who love them. As producer MacKenzie McHale (two main characters, three “macs”), the ex-lover who turned big-hearted Will McAvoy into a bellicose asshole, Emily Mortimer is alternately fumbling and bloviating. Alison Pill’s spunky Maggie Jordan can’t decide whether she should be the quirky-but-loyal sidekick to McAvoy’s ex-producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) or new guy Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.). Sorkin’s women aren’t real. They’re all versions of Nathan Rabin’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, here to save our hero(es) with their rare combination of wisdom and zaniness.
The material sinks even Sam Waterston. As news head Charlie Skinner, his role is to defend, inspire, and goad McAvoy into doing the right thing. And to be drunk. Not necessarily in that order.
It all adds up to a prestige-drama that panders to the left in the most offensive–and easy-to-dismiss–way. The Newsroom is the sort of self-righteous crap that conservatives (rightly) vilify. Maybe “hate” isn’t too strong a word.