by Shloka Ananthanarayanan
After the furor over The Newsroom's pilot episode, I thought I would wait until I formed a definite opinion on the series. Now four episodes in, I am realizing that my opinion from the pilot has merely been substantiated. Straight from the mind of Aaron Sorkin, this show is a highhanded ball of frustration.
If you don't know what the show's about, here's a short recap: Will McAvoy (played by a surprisingly excellent Jeff Daniels) is a news anchor on the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel. He's incredibly popular but runs a safe apolitical show that doesn't push anyone's buttons and delivers the news as blandly as possible. However, when asked at a college debate, "Why is America the greeatest country in the world?" Will explodes into a tirade of statistics revealing how America is no longer #1 at anything that matters and needs to work on regaining its former glory. What follows is a decision to make his show a shining beacon in the dark pit that is cable news. New people are hired, among them, MacKenzie McHale (the always lovely Emily Mortimer) as his new Executive Producer, who of course also happens to be a former girlfriend. They are all united in their goal to present the news like the good old days of yore when stalwarts like Murrow and Cronkite ruled the airwaves and the primary concern was educating the public rather than garnering high ratings.
All that is well and good, but The Newsroom leans heavily towards sanctimonious preaching and highhanded monologues set to the backdrop of inspirational music. Will McAvoy is clearly the Messiah sent to save us all from the morass of political insult-trading that serves as news these days, but his approach is infuriating enough to make you want to switch over to Fox News. The show's especial conceit is that it is set in the "recent past" so that Sorkin can tell us how real-life news stories ought to have been covered. Therefore, the pilot covered the BP oil spill, and while everyone else was foolishly dismissing it as a small news item, McAvoy and his team were supposedly able to crack the story wide open in a few hours and predict it to be the disaster that it became. Perhaps that is plausible, but hindsight is 20/20. We know now that the oil spill was a huge calamity, but would journalists have known the details that very day and had conveniently placed sisters and college roommates in the upper echelons of BP's corporate structure who were willing to provide evidence that their company didn't know what it was doing?
But my real gripe with the show has nothing to do with the news. As preachy and saccharine as Will and MacKenzie's idealism can get, I do agree with their thesis that the news has to be more factual, impartial, and concerned with delivering the truth rather than giving us shock-and-awe ratings boosters. But what I thoroughly disagree with, is the show's treatment of women. In the pilot, some women were referred to as "honey" or "sweetheart;" a little thing, perhaps, but one which still rankles. Will seems to have no trouble remembering the name of the brand new male producer who shows up in a chaotic day of changes, but after constant reminders, he still can't remember that his long-time assistant's name is Maggie. At the end of the episode, he triumphantly calls her by the right name, and we are supposed to applaud his ability to finally remember some woman's name. Hurrah.
In the fourth episode, Will meets a female gossip columnist and begins to preach a sermon on why her job is thoroughly unimportant and meaningless. I might agree with that viewpoint, but his self-aggrandizing views, refusal to consider it just plain rude to insult a stranger's occupation, and complete inability to let this woman speak are thoroughly galling. Later, he goes on a date with another woman, and upon discovering that she likes to read gossip magazines, he subjects her to a treatise on how he is "on a mission to civilize," and she needs to know she is a frivolous floozy for being interested in things that don't concern him. When the aforementioned Maggie is promoted to associate producer, she is still thoroughly dependent on the new producer and her boyfriend to hold her hand during panic attacks and talk her through her feminine incompetence. MacKenzie is a seasoned journalist who has worked on the front lines in the Middle East and is a force of nature, but she's mostly just there to tell everyone about Will's heart of gold and how she's the one who broke up with him and not the other way around. Then she hires Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) to be the show's financial analyst, because she has 2 PhD's in Economics, but primarily because she has "legs" to match. And Will's nickname for Sloan? "Victoria's Secret." Naturally.
Veteran anchor Dan Rather has been reviewing The Newsroom for Gawker, and his reviews have been glowing with praise from Day One. I was surprised, but then realized he was merely critiquing it from the news angle. According to him, the way that Will's show is produced and the questions about journalistic integrity versus network interference are all accurate and remind him of his own days as an anchor. That's great, but if that's all we needed from the show, HBO could just make a documentary. As a work of fiction, you need to be able to portray people and characters accurately as well, not just their workplace. The actors on this show are superb, but the clunky dialogue and paleolithic attitudes make every episode a struggle. Sorkin has been saying how the 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday was one of his inspirations for The Newsroom. Given the way he portrays women, I am not surprised that this show seems like it was set in the 1940s than the 2010s. But even Rosalind Russell's character in that movie would be far too ahead of her time to fit into The Newsroom.
I don't think it's asking for too much for the women on this show to be treated with respect. Some might argue that would be too idealistic, but given the tone of the rest of the show, wouldn't that fit right in?