So! The Newsroom is, as adeptly predicted at TBD, terrible.
My problems with The Newsroom are my problems with Sherlock. A) It sucks. B) It sucks because it not only utilizes the Great White Man trope uncritically,** but because it fails to adequately use or characterize its designated GWM. It neglects to create credible character logic. Though the GWM in question are extremely flawed (and therefore potentially interesting) characters, the narratives both misrepresent and dismiss the flaws as being a mere lack of “niceness” – that is to say, that the GWM’s borderline-pathological refusal to acknowledge the humanity of those around him is merely a refusal to distract himself from his own greatness with manners.
The Newsroom is in some ways an even worse offender than Sherlock in terms of its GWM. Whatever Sherlock’s other failings, and they are many, the protagonist is at least credible as having the intelligence imputed to him. Sherlock is a brilliant man and a great detective. Will is a mediocre newscaster. He has a lay person’s knowledge of American politics (perhaps less, as he is still under the impression that a “liberal Republican” is something that a person possessed of an ounce of intellectual honesty can be in 21st century America – because why should a GWM limit himself to, like, ~labels, man, and actually deign to admit to having a viewpoint?). His nostalgia for a simpler age when everyone “acted like men” doesn’t only reveal his objectionable politics, it also shows that doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. He seriously argues that American history had some great golden age of fluffy statesMANlike non-partisanship. That’s just a full-on falsehood.
Will’s grip on the contextual and systemic political issues is lacking. He’s a special snowflake who exists without social context, and therefore so should be everyone else affected by the issues on which he – allegedly – reports. He needs an inside source (yet another hyper-convenient close personal connection, no less) to tell him the what the DOJ’s budget is, in a series of cases he’s been reporting on for weeks? Nobody thought to look into that? Of course not, because prosecutors should effortlessly, immediately, and costlessly win all of their cases out of sheer Righteousness Magic. Easier to bloviate than research, I suppose. He assuages his conscience over his support for xenophobic anti-immigrant policies by dropping a fraction of an hour’s pay to one undocumented worker whose plight moves him personally. He considers public health issues mere “human interest” fluff that can be easily trimmed.
In order to make up for its failure to show us intelligence on the part of the GWM, it tells us (a highly improbable and frankly insulting story) about his heavily abbreviated education. I really, really dislike the wunderkind trope generally. I take serious issue with the idea that any accomplishment for which one puts forth time and effort is no achievement at all, though this mindset does a good deal to explain the quality of both Will’s and Sorkin’s work product. Just as the GWM doesn’t have to deign to take a position on the political issues that affect the lesser beings, he also doesn’t need to pay even lip service to the idea that he has worked to hone his thinking. Narratively, that does nothing solve the FUCKING MORON problem. It just makes it more glaring, even to any slack-jawed boneheads in the audience who got their JDs on the three-year dumbass track.
The motif of the Newsroom as a courtroom of public opinion is a serious, serious structural issue for a lot of reasons. This is another trope Sorkin likes, and one that he has historically been capable of using well. (Hey, at least no one was supposed to give Jack Nicholson a cookie and a cabinet position for taking it upon himself to decide who may or may not be able to handle the truth.) It doesn’t work here because the analogy doesn’t work, as anyone with a passing familiarity with either the role of the legal profession or the role of the free press knows why those two institutions do and should function very differently. But somehow all of the characters we’re supposed to root for – not just Will – are operating under some appalling misappropriation of legal-ish sounding rhetoric. Mackenzie’s casting of the news anchor as “attorney for both sides” is a fundamental impossibility in an adversarial justice system. Her insistence upon “only calling expert witnesses,” while slightly less rhetorically grating, snobbishly dismisses the value of direct evidence in both trials and reporting. Charlie’s smug declaration that “the American people need a fucking lawyer” is even more of a non-sequitur than his usual unprofessional babble.
I’m disappointed to have to loathe Sam Waterston’s character. Not quite as much as I loathe Will, if only because he doesn’t get as much screen time, but when he is around he makes the most of it by simultaneously enabling Will’s jackassery and indulging in his own. “Sometimes things fall into your lap, and by ‘things,’ I mean ‘women!’ HUR HUR!” is the punch line to his his charming character-establishing anecdote. He subscribes to the SAE Pledgemaster theory of effective business management, spending half of his time drunk and making misogynist good-ol’-boy cracks, and half of his time drunk and threatening physical violence against anyone who insults Will’s honor. He would be a great love-to-hate character if his behavior were appropriately critiqued, but the only time his behavior bites him in the ass is when he’s too drunk and sloppy to adequately appreciate the threat posed by Conniving Bitch #45. Charlie, like Will, is really super awesome at his job! Totally! But we have to take his word for it.
The narrative is, to some small extent, aware of these issues, and it throws us a bone with a glorious gem of a call-out from Jane Fonda: “do you wanna play golf, or do you wanna fuck around?” Unfortunately, this one moment of lucidity is undercut by the fact that it comes from the antagonistic network owner. But sometimes, the higher-ups stumble on a good point. This review by an actual journalist points out the major flaw in Sorkin’s depiction of what he thinks journalism should be – basically, that facts magically appear if you’re a morally good person, and therefore any need to consider trade-offs in time or resources in gathering and presenting those facts are evidence that you’re criminally lazy and irresponsible.
The defense of this is narrative necessity – and yes, in order for the show to retain some dynamic drama, things do have to fall into the protagonist’s lap once in a while. And that’s generally fine, but in this case it fails aesthetically and philosophically. I’m not sure which is easier, because they’re both pretty blatant. Aesthetically the protagonist privilege thing is a problem because it greases the narrative wheels so easily. That means EVERYONE DOES IT. So it’s boring on its own. And if we’re all conditioned to it to that extent, because EVERYONE DOES IT, and the special snowflake protagonists still stand out, then that’s bad. And it’s also just not credible worldbuilding. That is not how the news works.
Along those lines, I ended up most sympathetic to Don, the executive producer. The script goes so far out of its way to make him as unsympathetic as possible, which is pretty much the #1 way to get me to see a character’s perspective. In the pilot, he’s set up to be SO WRONG about how he doesn’t just TRUST the inside Halliburton tip from this kid he doesn’t even know? Because hey, reliable sources: who needs that, amirite? How could he be so negligent and incurious as not to know off the top of his head the names of the RESIDENT GEOLOGISTS? How could he be so DISLOYAL as to want not to work for this jackass who treats him and everyone else in the world like shit? Don’s tawdry obsession with audience investment doesn’t get half the sympathy given to the sucking black hole that is Will’s need for approval, even though it really is his fucking job.
It’s very sweet, that these new people come in with a blaze of energy and incredibly plot-convenient sources? but poor Don has been getting stuck with all the glory-free cleanup work for years now. This, too, is symptomatic of the GWM trope – that someone else will be around to do all the unglamorous work that sucks up all your energy and attention, and then is around to be the emotional punching bag when it gets SO HARD being SO GREAT. I mean, I guess it’s a little bit interesting that the nagging harpy sitcom wife is a straight man? But okay.
Because the show can’t be bothered to show us intelligence in its GWM, it fills the world around him with characters who are even dumber and shallower than he is. By which i usually mean, women. (OH, HERE WE GO, AND YES, IT’S EVEN WORSE THAN YOU’VE HEARD.) Miss Armed Southern Liberal doesn’t know how to use her own gun? Sarah Palin, the “sorority girl” (is there ANY MORE CONTEMPTIBLE CREATURE on GOD’S GREEN EARTH?!) in the introductory scene in the pilot; the pageant queen/Tea Party economist – their existence is a burden to him. Oh, sometimes there’ll be a shocking! surprise! about how YOU’RE the sexist for underestimating that hot lady who is only on screen for two seconds to make Will look good in one way or another, she’s a secret neurologist, but never mind that, she’s Will’s date and Mackenzie is JEALOUS JEALOUS JEALOUS! (Of course, the accomplishments of women who don’t meet Minimum Hawtness Standards are completely nonexistant in Newsroom-world.)
This sets up the excuse for when he does finally get something even vaguely resembling the much-deserved comeuppance: it’s so NOT HIS FAULT, Will is totally the victim of lying bitches, in whose path he was thrown by Unable To Keep A Man Overeducated Awkward Olivia Munn. Anyway, he was totally set up by Conniving Bitch Jane Fonda, who is the only woman so far who has not spent the vast majority of her screen time fussing about romantic relationships and therefore was clearly the villain of the piece. Will’s and the show’s contempt for fashion is illustrative of the good judgment it takes to be suspicious of lying stupid feminine bitches.
Even leaving aside the context, the relationship between Will and Mackenzie is…hard to watch. Mackenzie goes around telling everyone Will is so great! Really! Everything that went wrong was all her fault! He’s such a fucking prince, he agreed to a non-compete clause in his contract so he could have the pleasure of holding Mackenzie’s job over her head indefinitely. But that’s just his prerogative, because he has a “way of doing things.” Oh, well, that specific and effusive praise explains her all-consuming need to be bathed in the warm glow of his approval. Because he’s great! Really! So great that he makes a big show of flying off the handle and dressing her down in front of everyone she works with. Because when you’re as GREAT and IMPORTANT and JUST GREAT as he is, it’s SO HARD to be disobeyed and embarrassed in front of DOZENS of your underlings. After which spectacle, Mackenzie stumbles into his office and placates him by reminding him that he’s so great and it’s all her fault because she just couldn’t bear it for other people not to know that things are just great! This at least explains on a Doylist level why Mackenzie is incapable of anything other than cryptic, superficial, and highly improbable interactions with other women: because if she did have a credible female friend, she’d have someone to tell her to RUN LIKE THE FUCKING WIND.
Women – not only Mackenzie with her sexy sexy cheating, but also pretty sorority girls with their sexy sexy stupid voices and sexy sexy Sarah Palin and sexy sexy beauty pageant winners – just make him SO MAD HE CAN’T CONTROL HIMSELF. The only woman who can speak more than a sentence of dialogue without setting off his explosive temper is sweet, artless, loyal, baby-faced Maggie.
In keeping with the show’s determination to make Jim shoulder any deserved animus the audience may have for Will, the script warps and minimizes the problems with Mackenzie/Will and projects them onto Maggie/Don. Unlike Will’s disregard for everyone below his esteem – that is to say, everyone – Don’s reluctance to meet Maggie’s father is shown as evidence of a slimy, untrustworthy lack of character. Because awkwardly dude-heavy family brunches, like marriage, babies, and shitty chocolates, is one of those wacky and inexplicable relationship milestones toward which all women push reluctant men. Oh, and he’s a dick because he leaves her alone when she has a panic attack because she has asked to be left alone during panic attacks.
And Maggie, when she’s “mean” even though she claims to feel no reason to do so (she’s also quirkily and arbitrarily mean to whats-his-name with no provocation other than her quirky adorable inexplicable neuroses), “we break up, I apologize, and he takes me back.” Which, no, is not a healthy relationship, but it’s not remotely close enough to Will’s endless manipulation of Mackenzie to be an illustrative comparison. Don wants a low-key relationship and a reasonably stable job; Maggie’s not sure yet what she wants in romance or career. That might not make them the best-suited couple on the show (or, worse, they might still be that), but it’s not a character flaw on anyone’s part. Maggie/Don is the only one of the younger woman/older man relationships to reflect any of the discontents of that particular power dynamic, but it’s unclear what differentiates this relationship from all of the other pairings on the show.
Don’s flaws-which-aren’t are basically there to support the sole dimension of Jim’s characterization, which is that he’s obviously more deserving of Maggie’s affections. It’s to the actor’s credit that the character doesn’t always come across as a Nice Guy (TM), but he’s still awfully smothering and more of a Douchebag Guy’s idea of what women think a Nice Guy is than anything else. I guess it’s thoughtful of the series to throw us a bone with a strong supporting cast. But that doesn’t change the fact that having them all mill around to prop up Will only underlines the reality that there’s nothing there for them to support.
But what the fuck do I know? I’m just an Internet girl.
**As a point of comparison, Mad Men is similarly structured around a charismatic GWM. Unlike The Newsroom, it is an excellent show, because it is a deconstruction of the GWM and a world warped enough to place him at the center of it.
So anyway, if this thing stops sucking like a Hoover, let me know. In the meantime, The Rachel Maddow Show is on MSNBC weekdays at 9PM Eastern.