In Which Our Hero Saves The Newsroom

I haven’t talked much in this space about HBO’s The Newsroom, partly because I don’t feel that this particular blog needs posts that go “AAAAAARGH AAAAAARGH AAAAAAAAARGH AAAAAAARGH”.

So I waited until I had something constructive to say, and I finally do. I can fix The Newsroom’s problems. It’s not an elegant way, but it’s an effective way, and here’s the best part: it requires nothing on the part of writers. Which is probably a good plan.

First, for those of you who don’t watch: good job on you. Second: the show’s got problems. That’s a big plural. I’ll have to spend a little time on them so that the cure will make sense, but the overarching theme is that the entire show is this bizarre revenge-fantasy fever dream in which a rich middle-aged white guy goes on and on about how much better the world would be if we’d all just listen to rich middle-aged white guys.

Aaron Sorkin, for his part, denies that he sees any of those problems, which makes sense. The show is unquestionably one of the most singular things ever to hit television. Well, actually, it’s sort of…duoular, because it’s basical Sports Night with the good parts ripped out, the character names changed, and Dan and Casey rolled up into the same character.

The premise, as quickly as I possibly can: Will McAvoy (Harry Dunne) was known for being bland and not having an opinion about stuff despite being a real television journalist. He’s at an event at which he says that America isn’t great but it would be if we were more like the America when people listened to the rich white guys who “legislated their ideals”1. There’s a shit storm and a guy named Don (Jesse Calhoun) leaves as the producer, taking the staff with him, which is actually related to an entirely separate incident. To replace the staff, Mackenzie MacHale2 (Jack Donaghy’s girlfriend with avian bone syndrome) comes in from a bunch of time in Afghanistan and brings with her her….I don’t know what he is. She’s Dana from Sports Night, and this dude is Natalie. In television role, not in terms of character. Anyway, his name’s Jim and he played Katie Holmes’ brother in the movie Pieces of April.  He has a weird halting not-quite chaste-from-afar romance with the spoken-for Maggie, who played Katie Holmes’ sister in the movie Pieces of April3. Maggie’s boyfriend is Don and that storyline is leotarded. Mackenzie and Will had a relationship that ended when Mackenzie cheated on Will, and I hope to hell that’s the last I have to write about that one, too. I suspect it won’t be.

Rounding out the cast is Dev Patel (as Neal Sampat, who is the only character that likes the internet and also believes in bigfoot), Olivia Munn (as Sloan Sabbith5, Sam Waterston, and occasionally Jane Fonda4.

The show starts out being set a couple of years ago (although it’s moved up to just one year ago now), and that gives us our first problem: the smug “this is how it should be done” tone. You know why we all can go and look back on the decisions made by the newsmedia when these stories actually happened? BECAUSE THEY ALREADY FUCKING HAPPENED. It’s not enough for Will to be good at his job, he has to be superfuckinghuman at his job.

There’s also the problem that Will is never wrong, which is closely related to the first, and very closely related to the third, major issue. He’s never even a little wrong. When you think he’s going to be wrong, IT TURNS OUT HE WASN’T AND IT LEADS TO BETTER THINGS. There might be one exception: in the episode, “Bullies,” a monologue is given by a character about Will’s narrow-minded, white-male-centric view of the world. The idea is that Will is berating a fictional Santorum staffer (this is, remember, just over a year ago – the major event in the background of the episode is the Fukushima crisis) for being gay and black and helping Rick Santorum. The fictional staffer yells at Will for reducing him to being gay and black and trying to “help,” and not allowing him the chance to be a complex person. More on that in a minute.

But even more than those problems, is Aaron Sorkin’s Women Problem. It’s hard to tell how much of it has always been there, and how much of it has been hidden behind shows with a better structure and better scripts. It’s related, however, to his impulse to refabricate the story of the founding of Facebook as being the result of being spurned by Rooney Mara – he’s big on the Man Done Wrong Getting Revenge plot, which is a tricky plot at best.

On The Newsroom, however, it’s not even ignorable. We’re told, repeatedly, that Mackenzie is good at her job, that she’s highly credentialed, that she spent time in Afghanistan, doing Serious Journalism, and that she came back to spur Will McAvoy into taking action to be a Serious Journalist who Fixes the World. But mostly we watch her send inappropriate emails, trip over things, be completely unable to focus on her professional duties, make fun of her inability to do math, and watch her, again and again, humiliate herself so that the great and powerful Will McAvoy will forgive her. And that’s just the microcosm; there is maybe – maybe – one event per episode that generates conflict that is not resolved in a man yelling at a woman.

In fact, most of the conflict is generated by women being extremely bad at their jobs. Maggie, for example, has clearly never been in the same neighborhood as feck, and has a back story in which she’s done things so terribly, hopelessly unprofessional that the fact that she can even get hired to do any job at all counts as a minor miracle, or at least proof of this enormous charity that we keep hearing that Will is capable of. And the treatment of her character, and Mackenzie’s still pales in comparison to the treatment of Olivia Munn’s.

Sloan Sabbith6, the character, is a PhD economist who also teaches at Capitol (I think?). She’s brought on to talk for five minutes about the economy every night to help people understand it, because that’s how Aaron believes Things Should Be Done. In-story, it’s also because, in the words of Mackenzie McHale, she has great legs7. Over the course of her appearances she not only convinces Will McAvoy to go hit on a girl who ends up being a gossip columnist who works to bring down his public image, which was actually a part of the machinations of the aforementioned Jane Fonda, who, I remind you, is also a woman but also manages to first badger a professional colleague in Japan into making off-the-record comments that she then holds him under duress on the air to recount, all the while yelling at his translator – a woman – for not translating her words correctly. These two examples matter because in the first Sloan is shamed for impelling those events, and in the second she is told to be more assertive with her interview guests, and is told after the fact that she was wrong. Responsibility, then, is shifted onto the woman regardless of what her actual role is, and regardless of whether someone else inhabits an identical role.

I’m not going to belabor the point any further. The point is: the dude’s got a problem whereby women have to be both inept and constantly-punished, at least within the world of the story. It’s a revenge fantasy against the Women Who Done Him Wrong, or at least it plays out that way.

So why fix it at all? Because sometimes it’s good. Never for very long, and never without reservation, but The Social Network wasn’t good without reservation either, nor was The West Wing. The scene in which Sloan badgers the Japanese guy into revealing his off-the-record opinion is a thrilling couple of minutes, not the least because it spends half of its focus on the control room, and on the one person who knows what’s going on. There’s a scene earlier in the season in which Jim helps Maggie through a panic attack which, again, says more about Allison Pill than anything else, but which was a nice, well-written passage about the relationship between two people. The scene where the black, gay republican yells at Will for reductivism is more than good – it seemed like a tacit acknowledgment of what he was doing, and then denied doing to the press, with the character. And it seems like the sort of thing you’d give an imaginary hero to give him “flaws”8

So here’s the solution:

The real main character is Jim, and this is all his at-work daydreaming. Jim is an associate producer (I think), and is unhappy that his boss, who is a powerful, credentialed journalist in real life, is demanding and hard to work for. So he creates a system whereby she screws everything up constantly. He has a crush on Maggie, whose boyfriend is Don, so he has to imagine her constantly in positions of emotional vulnerability, while vilifying her boyfriend to justify snatching her from him. Plucky, obnoxious Dev Patel is actually good at his job, and more understanding of the world, and that’s a threat to Our Boy, who fantasizes him a bigfoot-obsessed weirdo. Sam Waterston’s a drunk, Jane Fonda is a shadowy overlord who’s actually trying to ruin everything.

And Will McAvoy? He probably doesn’t exist. He’s clearly, even outside of my modification of the story, a fantastic figure who exists predominantly to be the platonic ideal of the journalist hero. He’s Tyler Durden – the inevitable projected result of Jim’s inability to do what he wants, but more importantly his inability to be what he wants. It explains why Jim is spurning Maggie’s roommate, who just so happens to be extremely attractive etc. It even explains why The Newsroom’s newsroom does not, in fact, behave like any other newsroom known to man or beast.

So should there be an readership that coincides with viewership of The Newsroom, be advised: none of this is real, and maybe it even takes place in a snowglobe.

1 that’s a paraphrase, but the monologue itself is easy to find on YouTube.
2 I promise that not only am I not making any of these names up, but that I will deal with it later, and also there’s a name coming up in this synopsis that will make you long for the days when Mackenzie McHale was the dumbest name you’d ever heard
3 I may have thrown her away for that joke, but I would like to give unilateral, unironic praise to Allison Pill for being, consistently, the best part of this show. She is given less to work with than literally anyone else, and she manages to wring laughs and genuine response out of those situations. She was also great in Six Feet Under, but more understated, and really, you should go watch that show instead of this one if you haven’t already.
4 meaning that Jane Fonda is occasionally in the cast, not that there’s a person in the cast who is occasionally Jane Fonda. That would be weird, and what would she be the rest of the time?
5 Yep. That’s her name. Didn’t I tell you you’d long for the glory days of Mackenzie McHale?
6 ugh.
7 despite the fact that, regardless of your opinion about Olivia Munn, she clearly does not, and Emily Mortimer does. Which is just one more sign that Aaron Sorkin has absolutely no idea about anything anymore.8 which, really, is what it is.

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