That was pretty unfair of me. But I watched the pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new show, THE NEWSROOM, the other day, and it really did strike me as STUDIO 60: Phase Two.
Some wags have suggested that I actually mean SPORTS NIGHT: Phase Four, but I don’t think that’s true. SPORTS NIGHT flirted with the ethics of reportage, but in a more personal way. WEST WING was a paean to public service, but much more of a complete statement, despite Sorkin taking off at the end of the fourth season.
But STUDIO 60… using the backstage workings of a live comedy tv show to address both the trouble that American tv is in, and the trouble that American culture is in. Sorkin got cut short on that show, and, quite clearly, never got to say everything he wanted to say. And, perhaps, it wasn’t the best vehicle for delivering all the stuff that’s currently in his system.
And now, THE NEWSROOM: a vehicle for fully expressing everything he wanted to talk about in STUDIO 60, but in a more culturally “heavyweight” setting. At least notionally. And if you liked STUDIO 60, or wanted to see what more he had to say after that show’s cancellation, you’ll have a pretty good time with THE NEWSROOM. It’s, obviously, a consummately craftsmanlike piece of television writing, and if you liked the casting and the gags on SPORTS NIGHT and STUDIO 60, you’ll probably like THE NEWSROOM just fine.
It opens, as STUDIO 60 did, with an elder man (in this instance, the protagonist, newsreader Will McAvoy) losing his shit in public in the mode of Peter Finch in NETWORK, the rant about how the culture is terrible being the engine of the show. But there’s something a little different in this. In talking about how ill-informed the American public is, McAvoy summons the memory of “great men” who told it like it was, Murrow and Cronkite. Not great journalists. Not even great newscasters. Great Men.
That was the first of three things that really leapt out at me during this show. The second was at the end, when I discovered that this show is actually set a couple of years ago, and what it’s positioned to do is illustrate how the American news media should have covered a string of real-life events. It’s actually an alternate history.
(I’m reminded suddenly of a comment I made after I read the script, to the effect that the show was a televisual fantasy exploring the idea of whether or not Jeremy Paxman could get work in America.)
The third was all over the show, and is related to the first. It doesn’t like women very much. The female lead, Mackenzie, while described by someone else as having scars from covering Shiite protests and the like (but it’s Great Men who do the great work and Christiane Amanpour was certainly never on the ground for the siege of Sarajevo), is first described to us by two Great Men as both untrustworthy and some kind of fainting ninny whom they have to bring home from the world and fan until she revives. The question that sets off McAvoy’s rant comes from a blonde student whom McAvoy also calls a “sorority girl” once or twice during the bit.
(I’m not counting as cruelty the fact that the gifted Alison Pill seems essentially cast as a stand-in for Janel Moloney – just the way her character is treated — but I thought it was a shame that we don’t really get to see the fire and bite she can produce.)
(I also don’t want to get into the frankly stupid interview Aaron Sorkin gave to Sarah Nicole Prickett, in which he is reported as addressing her with “Listen here, Internet girl…” This is too long already. But read it. It speaks quite directly to the tone of the show.)
But I wanted this to be a brief note, not a lecture or a drone strike, so let me just circle around to the first thing again. That this is a show about A Great Man (or, if you like, as others have styled it, A Great White Man) allowing a team of women and less-than-classically-masculine men aid him in his crusade to Fix TV Journalism, Fix Reportage and Fix America. In an alternate world, where, in the pilot episode, the work of many many journalists across the world is condensed into an hour’s placing of phone calls from the newsroom. Sure, it’s fiction, there’s license, I get that, I do it all the time (TRANSMETROPOLITAN is nothing but a fantasia of journalism)… it’s just lousy coincidence that I’m currently reading a book about the BP oil spill that forms the news event of the pilot episode, a book which illustrates how much is still not commonly known about that event even today. Hindsight lets Sorkin cheat (and I’m not going to spoil the big cheat for you, but you’ll know it when you see it and it’s a cynical “must invent shit to compress events for drama” cheat), and, unfortunately, that and the obvious triumphal applause at the end of the bit are going to give a lot of people clubs to beat him with.
And those aren’t the clubs that I think may well put THE NEWSROOM to death. A death I take no pleasure in, because I loved THE WEST WING and I like living in a world where Aaron Sorkin is writing for television. I think it would be really nice if, over the course of the run, Aaron Sorkin learned some things about how journalism happens and put them into the show. I take no issue with the pilot episode’s lack of nuance, or the fact that it’s a polemic.
But, as a middle-aged white man, I take issue with the notion that it takes a Great White Man to fix the culture, and that shitting on every woman in the room to do it is just quirky, grumpy collateral damage. I’m pretty sure that’s been tried, over here in the real world. And here we are.