The problems with Aaron Sorkin’s newest show, The Newsroom, start with the opening credits. Then, seventeen minutes later when they’re finally over, these problems continue to manifest with the rest of the program.
The very nature of The Newsroom makes it inherently awkward and at odds with itself. Sorkin clearly is making a commentary on the state of American journalism, television news in particular. It’s a noble cause (if a somewhat self-important one for him to champion,) as the news media is not in the best shape. In order to present the way news ought to be reported, Sorkin sets his show in the not-too-distant past rather than a fictional world like he did in The West Wing. But by giving his message strength by grounding his show in the real world, he also exposes its greatest weakness. Of course you know how to report the news two years after the fact. When in episode 4, Atlantis Cable News is the only network not to report that Congresswoman Giffords has been killed by the gunman; it doesn’t looks like ACN is doing the news right. It looks like they have the unfair advantage of knowing how it actually turned out. Even more egregious is the premier, where they break the Deepwater Horizon story in 45 minutes because of two made-up inside sources. It’s easy to report the news truthfully and honorably when you’re omniscient, and because of that it’s hard to endorse, or even interpret the message Sorkin is sending about how to do the news right, because the way he’s showing us is impossible. The clash of reality and fantasy is seemingly necessary for the show to accomplish its goals, yet that same contradiction is the show’s biggest flaw and undermines the whole message.
Another reason for my hesitance to enjoy the show is the fact that Aaron Sorkin clearly hates my generation. The first scene of the first episode shows lead character Will McAvoy giving an impassioned (and impossibly spontaneous) speech to a questioner at Northwestern University. He answers a student’s question of why America is the greatest country in the world by saying that it is not. While I sympathized with the gist of what was said, it should be noted that people who keep making this argument tend to forget that the forties and fifties were swell, if you were a white guy. The darkness of the past and decades of civil rights struggles are whitewashed in favor of wistful reminiscence. Then Will turns his attention to his student questioner. He blames her for the current state of America, apparently because this nineteen year-old was solely responsible for screwing up the perfect America that the Baby Boomers gave her. While I’m by no means trying to say that my generation is perfect (we’re kind of whiney bunch,) or even blameless, it’s annoying to see Sorkin simplify the issue in such a way that puts his generation on a pedestal while throwing mine in the mud.
Lest we think that this is merely Will’s character, there’s lots of evidence suggesting that Sorkin resents the youth generation. In an interview with a reporter for The Globe and Mail, Sorkin snapped at his interviewer, saying “Listen here, Internet girl, it wouldn’t kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in a while.” That Sorkin views the Internet in such an unfavorable and incomplete way is telling, as is the fact that he overlooked that the “Internet girl” he was talking to was in fact a newspaper reporter. The Internet is much more than he gives it credit for, and it’s not just a “young people” thing. You can read the news online (a fact that somehow astounds Will McAvoy,) you can watch movies online, and you can waste time online. None of those things are exclusive to any one generation. Go into an office sometime and watch all the white-collar Baby Boomers mess around on FarmVille when they should be working. Mine is not the only generation drawn to the vapid distractions the Internet offers, and that certainly isn’t all the Internet can do.
At times it seems like Sorkin is praising the past and bashing the present without actually understanding either time period. Much like the news stories that ACN is reporting on with two years of hindsight, Sorkin and many similarly minded people are able to look back on America’s good old days because they know how everything turned out. At the time, the forties and fifties were certainly not the perfect, halcyon days that they’re now made out to be. Reminiscing of a simpler time isn’t really possible, as the simplicity comes from nostaglia. I’m sure that in fifty years people will reflect on how simple the 2010s were compared to the tumultuous 2060s. Things aren’t perfect in the present day, but it’s foolish to think that society and journalism of the mid-21st Century were the infallible beacons Sorkin seems to think they are.
You may have noticed that in this whole review I’ve talked about the show’s goals, message, and execution, and never once referred to character plot or drama. That’s because no one cares. Nobody is invested in the love triangle, or Will and Mackenzie’s past romance. Though the acting is decent, the characters are mainly only worth watching as cogs in the news-making machine. The show so clearly wants to be an editorial but it’s to the characters’ detriment because their lack of definition makes it hard to care about their personal stories in the wake of the real-life crises like the gulf oil spill. Well, fake versions of real-life crises, I guess. The exception to this is Charlie, the boss played by Sam Waterston, though this is mainly because he gets progressively more drunk with each episode and if nothing else, he is entertaining. It says something that the most positive thing I can say about Sorkin’s bold criticism and envisioning of the news is, “look at the funny drunk,” but given how muddled the centeral concept of the show is, I’m afraid that’s all the praise I can muster.
Those opening credits are actually an apt metaphor for the problems with the show. They’re overly long, incredibly pompous, and place a heavy emphasis on the history and past glory of the news while failing to truly examine or live up to any of those standards in any way. All this said, I’m going to keep watching the show, mainly because it’s on Sunday night and I haven’t started watching Breaking Bad yet. Plus if I keep watching, in two years, Will McAvoy and his crew of newsies will be able to correctly report what we all should’ve felt about this show, back when it was a simpler time.
Originally published Thursday, July 19, 2012