Posted by: Kristen Hicks | July 25, 2012

Aaron Sorkin: The Frustrating Auteur

I adore the West Wing. I finished the full 7 season run of the show a couple of months ago, but made regular revisits to episodes as my roommate quickly made his way through the entire show more recently.

I love the characters – CJ and Charlie are special favorites – the intelligent and often witty dialogue, the view of a workplace filled with independent, exceptionally competent, intelligent people who know how to get things done when the stakes are high. I even like how well the many, many random one off characters are developed. How various Congressmen and Senators and campaign staff members and journalists etc. are able to feel like real characters even when they only show up for a couple of episodes.

All this very much colored my expectations of The Newsroom. I hoped and expected to meet new characters I’d care about and hear conversations I’d thoroughly enjoy about the different sides of issues important to us as a society.

I have pretty complicated feelings about the show. There are things and moments that work really well. I’m glad I didn’t really get around to writing this until after seeing the 5th episode, because for me it was an episode that largely lived up to the potential scattered across the strongest moments of the episodes that came before. It was one of the first episodes not filled to the brim with moments where I could easily tell what the show wanted me to feel, but didn’t find myself feeling it.

The Newsroom isn’t a bad show, it’s just a show with some elements that work really well and others that really don’t.

Here are some that don’t:

Exhibit #1 – Everything about the Maggie character

She’s regularly portrayed on the show as wildly incompetent, so much so that when she comes through with something of value it’s more surprising than the show treats it as. She is pursued by two different male professional superiors, both of whom at different moments in the show let her off for something stupid she does cause she’s pretty (the show tries to make other excuses for why they do this, but all the other interactions they have support the idea that it’s cause they’re attracted to her). She regularly behaves in ways that are shockingly unprofessional (this coming from one of her fellow members of “the. worst. generation. ever.” even I know that shit’s not ok to bring into work) and no one comments on it or seems to notice (maybe cause she’s pretty? that makes it ok, right?).

I re-iterate, both of her suitors are her professional superior. The show treats this as a cutesy love triangle rather than an especially inappropriate work environment. The HR department at this company either doesn’t exist or is staffed by people as incompetent as Maggie.

Exhibit #2: Will McAvoy as hero

He’s a pretentious jerk. Lots of characters in the show talk about what a great guy he is and some scenes are set up just show the viewer how generous and noble he’s capable of being, but often in scenes where the writers clearly expect us to be cheering along with him, he treats the people around him like shit and goes out of his way to let them know that he is certain that he’s better than them.

Will McAvoy’s take downs of popular culture, modern media like blogging, and the. worst. generation. ever. do not make him seem like a noble beacon of reason and civility in a fallen society. They make him seem like an out of touch jerk, starring in a show too out of touch to realize it.

Also, you can’t convince viewers the show is politically neutral just by having a character proclaim they’re a republican repeatedly, when they’re clearly not.

Exhibit #3: The News

Other than being able to magically know things sooner than the other reporters in existence (magic in this case being the knowledge of the past that the show’s writers possess), the news show within the show doesn’t really seem to cover anything that wasn’t already being covered at the time.

There are plenty of big issues that print media or international media do a far better job of covering than tv news (for example, the flaws in our prison system, the too often forgotten wars we’re still fighting abroad and the largely ignored full on war happening right below our southern border, just to name a few). The news show meant to change tv news for the better neglects these issues just like all the others and merely covers the same issues as the other stations, but with more of a liberal bent than most (which is ok, cause Will’s a republican, really, he says it all the time).

Exhibit #4: The General Out of Touchedness (highlighted by clumsy attempts to show viewers how in touch the show is)

Sorkin seems to be treating this show as a forum to express all his personal complaints about modern politics and society. The kind of speechifying that is a far too regular feature of this show was also common on the West Wing, but the context allowed more opportunities to make those points two sided. There were many scenes of our liberal heroes having to work with decent conservative characters to find a compromise that would allow both sides to make progress together.

The same types of speeches are exclusively one sided on the Newsroom, giving them the unintended effect of feeling like lectures being made to the audience on how it’s ok to feel about things and why you’re wrong if you don’t think like the characters do. This does not make for good tv.

It’s made worse by how out of touch many of the views are, and the odd ways the show tries to meagerly insist both sides are represented. Sorkin doesn’t care for blogging and McAvoy gets in some digs at it here and there in the show, but one of the characters is a blogger, so that makes it ok right? They cast all of two black characters for the show, but neither of whom has any real personality other than being smart  (which we know because McAvoy tells us so) and possessing an opinion on Obama. But that shows they care about diversity, doesn’t it?

The show spends a disproportionate amount of time criticizing reality tv and gossip mags as though these are the reason that the news in the United States is sub par. Why take on industries that exist purely to provide entertainment and never intended to inform and educate alongside the targets that should be educating us and are failing? Why should I care what a news journalist thinks of reality tv?

Also, you’ve probably noticed that a certain line about my. generation. may have rubbed me the wrong way.

Here are some things that do work, mostly:

Exhibit #1: MacKenzie (most of the time)

I have to say most of the time because there are times she switches suddenly from a competent, intelligent and emotionally complex woman to one who cries all the time about a past breakup, flails her arms about while proclaiming how awesome Will is and doesn’t understand basic technology.

The negatives aside, she really has the potential to be an interesting character, with a fascinating background that should come into play more. To specify, I mean the part where she was a tough, foreign war correspondent, not the part where she had a relationship and breakup with Will, that comes up plenty. Strange that that was apparently the more traumatic experience for her than getting shot at in war zones.

Anyways, we’ve got the shell of an amazing character here who has been given some scenes where she gets to impressively fill that shell in, alternating with many scenes where the show forgets that she’s an awesome, tough character and just has her cry some more about Will.

Exhibit #2: Scenes of them Putting Together the Show

This is what Sorkin does best, hyper-competent people working together. When the show shifts into its getting-things-done scenes it works.

Exhibit #3: Sloan (most of the time, when they let her show up)

A brilliant, beautiful economist with wit? Yes, please. Can she actually show up more than once a show for a couple of minutes and do more than talk about boy troubles and nails with MacKenzie?

There have been some close to good scenes between those two characters, but the show just can’t give us a full scene between these two intelligent women without them starting to talk about boys. Has Sorkin never heard of the Bechdel test? Make her the interesting character she should be, already.

Exhibit #4: The way they talk about what the show is supposed to be

The show these people describe working on sounds amazing. During the speeches they give about what the news should aspire to be, I’m right there with them. They just need to make the news show within the show live up more to those lofty ideals.

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