Last week, I tried my hardest to earnestly engage with "The Newsroom" on its own terms, to try to understand the ways in which the show, even while indulging beliefs and tics I find, respectively, obscene and repulsive, was doing well on its own terms.
That mission is over.
Our episode begins on August 25, 2011, as Sloane Sabbith encounters Maggie sleeping in the office at 6 a.m. Maggie will be storing her bags in Sloane's office as she recovers from her breakup; she explains to Sloane how you know if someone is screening your calls (it goes to voicemail after two or fewer rings). Sloane had somehow never realized this, but she knows plenty about endorphins. Sloane and Maggie go to the gym together! Meanwhile, MacKenzie and producer Jerry (Hamish Linklater) get into an argument over a hot tip (the one that will catalyze the rest of the season, it seems) that the U.S. has used sarin gas on Taliban forces, interrupting her highlighting the New York Times. Their conversation ends when Maggie comes and summons Maggie, with sopping-wet hair. No blowdryers at the gym, it seems! Oops!
The opening minutes of "The Newsroom" indicate just how impossible it is to imagine that anyone -- though people must be out there! -- earnestly watches the show for fun. Any scene involving two women seems to advance the notion that women are no more than simpering, perpetually confused dummies, even when they're just talking about going to the gym; any scene involving news judgment comes to feel like political hectoring, even when it's about something necessarily removed from partisan politics. By the time MacKenzie and Maggie come into the meeting, during which one of Will's fellow ACN anchors is lecturing the group on how, like his wife, women alllll love closets for minutes on end, one realizes that the compulsions (to infantilize women and to embrace the power of the vociferous, verbose Great Man to dazzle those around him with speech) are utterly tied. Anyway, the closet lecture ends after Sloane is told by a colleague that she's just like his wife and she seems okay with it? And Will tells the group it was his idea not to anchor the network's 9/11 anniversary coverage, though he had been commanded not to by the network after his remarks on how the Tea Party was the "American Taliban."
A flight of fancy here: given that no real legal repercussions have fallen on Will (other than what he knows will be a condemnation on the floor of the House, which, whatever), is it so bad that he's getting in trouble for this remark? Will's show effectively resembles very few shows in prime-time cable news precisely because it's focused on reportage rather than commentary (except when the show wants it to be). If, say, Rachel Maddow made the "Taliban" remark (which is hard to imagine), she'd be forgiven as it would be of a piece with her general mien. But there are reasons why straight-news anchors don't condemn entire political wings; one of them is that, in the real world, it makes their programs hopelessly muddled. Is "News Night" a show with hard-hitting reporting on Libya or a show whose host makes offensively sweeping comparisons, stopping just short of invoking Godwin's Law? We don't know, and neither do Romney's flacks, who only let Jim on the bus when one of Meryl Streep's daughters, a competing journalist, orders them to.
September 11 overlies this episode, including a scene in which young folks in the control room watch archival footage of Will McAvoy on September 11, his first day as a news anchor. What this amounts to is weird footage, shot during an ACN commercial break, of Charlie telling Will that Will was the eldest brother in his family and ergo is more protective (?); when McAvoy went back on air after this lecture, he told the audience he had been "searching for Biblical quotes," and that though he didn't know what he was doing, he would figure it out and be there for his audience. (The most important part of 9/11 was how Will McAvoy learned to be a journalist.)
Cant was comforting in September 2001; in 2013 it feels doubly lazy, both as a way to avoid actually reckoning with the historical forces that brought about September 11 (someone who throws around the term "Taliban" might do well to learn what differentiates them from the Tea Party) and to make a silly TV show feel, automatically, Deep. "The West Wing" did a very special episode in which September 11 happened in President Bartlet's world, shortly after the event itself; twelve years later, Sorkin has run out of other ideas to make his show seem like a serious program.
I'm leaving aside, for reasons of space, the serious-minded subplot around Troy Davis, because what follows is so much more absurd and fun to write about -- perhaps consider the wild tonal shifts in your series if you don't want this to happen, "Newsroom" writers! The show's nadir may have come in Maggie's decision to call Jim and tell him that there's a YouTube video of her yelling at a "Sex and the City" tour bus, some hellish hangover from last season; the decision not to start somewhat fresh, here, for the benefit both of new viewers who can't possibly care and old ones who might like an angle in on Maggie aside from "silly idiot who acts in dumb ways," is astounding. Maggie uses Reporting Skills (you may have heard of them, bloggers?) to, along with Sloane, track down the woman who posted the YouTube video; here are the signs that this woman is from the mind of Aaron Sorkin:
- She is hesitant to take down her video because, with more than 1,100 views, it's building her brand.
- She writes a blog in the voice of Charlotte York Goldenblatt, a popular character from the television series "Sex and the City" (1998-2004). [n.b.: This really enrages Sloane, who is a Charlotte fan.]
- She seems really interested in Maggie's romantic life.
As the episode grinds towards a close, with little resolved -- Maggie is still sad about whatever's going on with her love life though she's headed to Uganda to cover terrorism, Jim still hasn't managed to pin down an interview with candidate Romney, the Troy Davis stuff still little more than a chance for Will to declare he doesn't get involved in "advocacy" (unless he can call people the Taliban, I guess?) -- Will decides to Google "Will McAvoy hate." (That's what the angry do nowadays, as much as they were in 2010 or in 2002.) For as much as "Sex and the City"'s goofiness evidently left the sort of impression on Sorkin that hasn't faded in the nine years since it ended, there's a reason Carrie Bradshaw never Googled herself, or really did much on the Internet; even in that show's heyday, it was pretty obvious that remarking in the show about how the Internet doesn't understand how special and nuanced your characters are makes you, well, a solipsistic nightmare.
I may be biased because I'm writing this, for a website, from my apartment and not from my parents' basement where Sorkin presumes I lie, but I simply had to wonder: Is there any way that the Occupy Wall Street episode, evidently coming soon as the "News Night" staff is sitting around discussing what a non-story Occupy is (very realistic newsroom time-management strategy, duh; all journalists talk about stories they have no intention of covering), is going to do anything other than completely derail the show? More as the story develops.