Aug 20, 2012

Stupid Women, Stupid Romances and Stupid Solutions: How "The Newsroom" Has Failed Sorkin Fans

There are numerous articles detailing the many faults of Aaron Sorkin’s newest program, The Newsroom. The last thing we need is yet another attack on a show that has hidden its positive features under an ever-increasing landslide of flaws. Here I go anyway.

Having caught up on The Newsroom in the past few days, I am only now aware of just how badly Sorkin botched this project. I was warned, as nearly every critic I respect shoveled a constant heap of disdain upon the show, but it was all justified. If you’re a Wine & Pop fan, or a good friend of mine, you’ll know that one of the show’s biggest faults in my eyes is its wretched view of women, so let’s get that out of the way first.

Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill are two actresses with at least one great performance behind them. As they proved in Lars and the Real Girl and Milk, respectively, they are very capable actresses who can bring life to an intelligent female voice. The Newsroom is simply incapable of providing this voice. Mortimer’s character cannot balance a checkbook (literally), gets gum stuck in her hair and doesn’t know how to send an email. When confronted with even the slightest romantic issue, she breaks down, in the middle of work, where she is supposedly the executive producer. Alison Pill’s character has this same problem. Olivia Munn plays the only main female character that doesn’t lose every ounce of professionalism around the man she likes. This is simply because she has yet to face a romantic plot. God forbid that day ever arrives.

Now that we’re done talking about stupid women, let’s get to the honorable men, who do great work in a system that is about as facile as a show within a show as ever been. The webseries within iCarly makes more sense than News Night, the program hosted by the courageous Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels. The premise of The Newsroom is simple, completely too simple to make any damn sense. Daniels and Mortimer team up to create a news program that is actually truthful and honest. This is, of course, a noble goal. It’s also a much more difficult one than the show presents. The Newsroom seems to be under the impression that all one needs to do, to have a Murrow-esque program, is decide to do that thing. This is not how the world works. The show had one episode (its best by a mile) that featured Munn and Daniels botching interviews. This was an actual honest look at an issue that would arise. Being a journalist is difficult. You don’t just have to fight the suits; you have to face a million other problems as well. The Newsroom could be a great program if it zeroed in on those issues, instead of wasting time with the most insipid romantic plots this side of, well, those reality shows the characters all hate so much.

The love triangle between three of the young characters, as well as Mortimer and Daniels’ past, are poorly done. They are distracting not because romance is not a real-life issue, but rather due to Sorkin’s inability to take them anywhere interesting. The love triangle is reminiscent of a thousand others, exactly like it. It’s so similar to The Office’s that the “good guy” in the triangle is actually named Jim, and his last name sounds a hell of a lot like Halpert. It’s honestly incredible that no one thought this to be an issue. There has been exactly one pleasant scene derived from this story: in the second or third episode, John Gallagher Jr (who plays Jim) comforts Alison Pill after she has a panic attack. It’s sweet, it tells us why the two should be together and its well-written. All of the other mentions of this plot include incredibly generic plot points, from “why is she still dating a jerk” to “why can’t Jim just tell her how he feels?” It all comes across as inauthentic, and not at all how adults would act.

This is a major issue because if Sorkin wishes to stand on his soapbox and yell at us, the American public, about our failings, he must stick to some semblance of realism. Making the process of fixing the news incredibly simple, and peppering in romances for the sake of filling out an hour-long show make it impossible to take Sorkin at his word. Yes, it would be fantastic if a show like News Night existed. Sorkin argues that well, because it’s an easy point to make. Something difficult, and artistically rewarding, would be to show exactly how that could be done.

In one of the first episodes of The Newsroom, Mortimer states that she would rather put on a good show for a hundred people than a bad one for a million. This is said without irony, and meant to be incredibly noble. Instead, it illustrates the show’s largest, gaping flaw. If the only viewers one has are those who agree with everything you say, you’re not doing a public service at all. Better is to find a middle ground: attract a big audience, and give them the truth. Yes, that sounds impossible. I would love to watch an Aaron Sorkin show where he proves that it isn’t.           

All of this, and I haven’t even touched on Dev Patel’s idiotic character, who has been given the worst two subplots of the show (Bigfoot and Internet trolling). I didn’t mention the TMI conspiracy plot, which has failed to gain any sense of traction. And I won’t bother describing exactly why Mortimer/Daniels romance will never matter to anyone. There are a number of things the show does right, which makes its weaknesses that much worse.

There’s a great scene, at the end of the episode “5/1”, which, overall, is one of the show’s worst outings. After spending an hour poorly mixing the gravity of Osama Bin Laden’s death with those aforementioned trite romances, News Night goes on the air. Will McAvoy gives a speech concerning Bin Laden. He then throws it to the live feed of Obama, from the White House. As the credits roll, we hear that riveting speech, and it becomes damn near impossible not to feel something. Luckily, its one of the rare instances where the show isn’t telling us exactly what to feel. It’s a simple moment, a quiet reflection, and its impact is enormous. The scene shows, rather than tells, the incredible power that the news can have. We don’t cry, or cheer, at this because one of the characters is practically telling us to. We do so because we feel something, because, for a few short minutes, The Newsroom reminds us how important its message actually is.

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