The Newsroom premieres tonight
Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterston, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel, Thomas Sadoski, Alison Pill and John Gallagher Jr. Photo: Vanity Fair Magazine
Aaron Sorkin doesn’t hate women, truly he doesn’t. He writes parts for intelligent, accomplished women who don’t take crap and love to throw down. The only problem with Sorkin’s female characters in The Newsroom, (and in The West Wing, and parts of The Social Network) is that they’re drawn like it’s 1940; they’re old fashioned. Think Rosalind Russell opposite Cary Grant in His Girl Friday where the dialogue between men and women is predictably snappy, sharp and fast. But unfortunately for Sorkin it’s also the only way he can illustrate sexual tension: by having the woman wagging her finger at her male counterpart - indeed, it's the only way for a woman to be. Sorkin has even given them the sort of names you’d expect to ﬁnd in a 1940s comic strip - Mackenzie Machale, (Emily Mortimer) and Sloan Slabbith, (Olivia Munn, below). Sorkin would probably call these characters of his ‘feisty’ but their attitudes are only feisty if you happen to believe that women are, at their core, delicate daffodils.
So there is that.
And then there is this: Sorkin managed to successfully stir our hearts and stoke our intellect on The West Wing, what with the symbolic gestures and the violins and the speeches that drew on the better angels of everyone’s nature.
But applying that (at times syrupy) idealism to the news is problematic. For one, news is not inspiring in and of itself. Nor should it be – news is a medium, it’s not a constitution. The entire premise of The Newsroom is based around Sorkin’s self-righteous complaint that the news - a place of alleged hallow ground - has devolved into nothing more than reality TV style entertainment. Looking around at networks like Fox News it’s easy to see his point. And, as the characters in The Newsroom make clear more than once, (and often in condescending tones) the American people appear to care more about the trial of Casey Anthony than they do the repeal of Glass Steagall.
In case you haven't seen it, in the opening episode, (and it must be said, every episode thereafter) Sorkin makes this plea predominantly through news anchorman Will McAvoy, (Jeff Daniels), a man whose own political point of view has atrophied in the chase for ratings. ‘The Jay Leno of news anchors’ McAvoy is told. ‘You're popular because you don't bother anyone.’ That is, until his breakthrough moment at a university, where he goes on a Sorkin-style rant about how far America has fallen. The speech earns him the respect of Charlie Skinner, (Sam Waterston), who charges him with the responsibility of creating a worthy news show, one that is free of bias and loaded with facts, as opposed to the current truthiness trotted out today. And so it begins - the show about how the news could be.
A lot has been written about the cornball shtick of The Newsroom. But when we groan over Sorkin’s stagey dialogue; his sexism, his old fashioned set-ups we forget that we once marvelled at them. Remember the live-wire act of Josh Lynman and Donna Moss on The West Wing? Best to leave it in your memory - it's awfully cheesy and sexist when you watch it now. “You can’t handle the truth” has now been parodied to death, but before it was a punchline it was a seminal cinematic moment, one in which we all cheered. My point is that perhaps Sorkin hasn’t changed, perhaps we have.
But perhaps Sorkin should. In interviews he’s spoken about The Newsroom as a kind of wish fulﬁlment; a longing for the grand old days of news when men like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather - men who cared about facts - reported it honestly and set the agenda for a nation. Even the opening credits contain footage of these grand old days. But in his nostalgising of the 1950s and '60s Sorkin seems to be forgetting that this was news from a singular worldview - that of an old white man. Today we have a wonderful new thing called the internet which contains a multiplicity of viewpoints. Yes, there are crazy fringe groups and sure, there are plenty of old white men still around running advertising and politics and networks. But for every Bill O’Reilly on TV there is a Rachel Maddow; for every Megyn Kelly there is a Chris Hayes, who only recently made this point in his book, Twilight of the Elites.
“The ﬁrst era of equality, [in America] from the end of the Second World War to the early 1970s, represented a period of historically unprecedented growth, mass afﬂuence, and middle-class expansion that has not been duplicated since ...
“[But] I do think there’s much to celebrate now. It’s senseless to pine for a bygone era of Jim Crow, Mad Men–style casual sexual harassment and gender apartheid, police raids of underground gay bars and sodomy prosecutions, and laws against interracial marriage.”
Sorkin’s solution to the current news crisis, (and, let's face it, cultural and economic crises) seems to be to return to a simpler time. But as Hayes makes abundantly clear, this simpler time came at a price. The solution for The Newsroom - and for Sorkin in my opinion - is to accept the new reality: the news has splintered, some of it’s good, high brow, worthy. Some of it’s trashy, sensationalist, bad. But to see it as all bad calls forth a dichotomic way of thinking - one that’s as narrow as the view Sorkin appears to be ﬁghting against.
Still, I’m going to stick with it. There’s a big twist in episode four and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t grab me, in the cliched parlance of Aaron Sorkin, hook, line and bloody sinker.
The Newsroom premieres tonight on Foxtel's Soho channel at 8.30pm