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The Newsroom Recap: We Don’t Do Good Television

The roof is caving in on Will McAvoy. Literally, of course, because this is The Newsroom. His show, despite higher ratings, is in shambles, staffed by people far too smart to be so incompetent. Every weekday he’s forced to work with the woman who didn’t know how else to love him but to hurt him. And worst of all he has to suffer through the most condescending Journalism 101 lessons in America.

If every element of News Night is based on MacKenzie’s imbecilic Three Is, thus far each episode of The Newsroom is comprised of three As.

    •    Assume the audience will not understand subtlety, spelling out points with excruciatingly heavy-handed detail.
    •    Arrange the narrative arc so that female characters are embarrassed far more than male ones.
    •    Affect change in characters through contrivance, even if it means a lifetime of a character’s political belief is wiped away in just a day.

Sorry, were you expecting good TV? MacKenzie warned otherwise. “We don’t do good television,” she tells Will before her journalism crash course. Okay, she actually said, “We don’t do good television, we do the news.” But that’s just the problem right there. The Newsroom isn’t good television. It’s just Aaron Sorkin’s dream of the news.

Nowhere was that more evident than MacKenzie’s lecture. Worried that her staff is too green, she calls them in for an all-hands meeting to discuss News Night 2.0, her ideal vision of what journalism can be. It is, apparently, a utopia hidden from capitalism and deadlines. All of the utopia’s residents vote, and best of all, they have the time to learn enough to make informed decisions. (Single parents with two jobs are not allowed in.) Edward R. Murrow broadcasts are piped through the speakers on an endless loop. (No one wants to consume anything but the news.) Peter Jennings paces up and down town smoking his cigarettes, calling people on their lies. (Residents only want serious facts, never trivial fluff.) Walter Cronkite, owner of the estate, overlooks it all from his rocking chair on top of the hill, telling stories about how things used to be. (Stories that people actually make time to hear.)

The Newsroom suggests that anyone who doesn’t want to live in this utopia is shallow and weak. "I don’t want to feel sorry for anybody,” MacKenzie said when Neal suggests lending a human-interest angle to their immigration segment, “I want facts!” But MacKenzie, who within two episodes already has the worst traits of an overly principled ideologue, is short-sighted. Truth and emotion aren’t mutually exclusive. Sometimes, emotional truths are what make good news. Not coincidentally, true emotions also make good television. Just ask Cronkite.

Will knows better than to entirely trust MacKenzie’s stultifying ideals, but only because he’s “the biggest ratings whore in the business.” Or at least so says Reese, The Newsroom’s evil henchman. How do you know he’s a villain? Because he, unlike any Sorkin hero, is dressed well. Rydell, Lyman, Ziegler, Albie, Zuckerberg — Sorkin’s men of principle are nearly always men of drab.

Sorkin’s women? Silent bearers of sexism. First there’s Sloane (C.J. from The West Wing + Erin Burnett + a Ph. D. + an impeccable sense of grammar), a woman whom Sorkin has tried to make strong — “I know I don’t really look like it, but I’m an economist” — but is actually so deferential that she tries to give the biggest break of her career away to some stodgy professor. No wonder: MacKenzie, knowing how to make a lady feel like a lady, convinces her to take the position by hinting she’d rather hire a man, but “the thing is, they’re not going to have your legs.”

Why does MacKenzie feel like she can treat Sloane like a piece of hyperarticulate meat? Because that’s how Will treats her. In the midst of Will and MacKenzie’s highly predictable blowout after the e-mail mishap, Will is apoplectic that Sorkin has written her to be adept at all things but monogamy and technology. “GET IN THERE!” he shouts with the sneer of someone who knows he has the power. The entire newsroom watches. No one says a thing.

And MacKenzie wonders why people think Will’s an ass.

Finally, there’s Maggie, a woman so deferential to men that she lets one have sex with another woman while Maggie’s in the room, cowering under the bed. (This is actually Sorkin’s best metaphor of the night!) That run-in from years ago dooms the whole newscast (women, always screwing up even when you barely rely on them!) when the man in question just so happens to be Jan Brewer’s press secretary. Have all of these people been hired because of their relationships with folks conveniently close to power? First Jim, now Maggie — what’s next? Smart Black Guy Gary Cooper is actually Obama’s old student?

What does MacKenzie do when Brewer bails? Does she decide to scrap the segment? Does she move it to the back half of the show? Does she call any of the dozens of pundits in Washington willing to speak on behalf of a law that can easily be said to enhance state rights and protect American jobs?

No, she goes with the nutters. We know this isn’t the best MacKenzie could do — and it’s not the best Sorkin could do, either. He appears to be channeling one of MacKenzie’s (and thus his own) lessons from earlier in the episode: Are there really two sides to every story? Sorkin suggests that even on immigration, one of the country’s most vigorous debates, there is not. One side has an intellectual argument to make about compassion and the economics of the working class. The other only has a guy with a gun, a racist professor, and a Miss South Carolina knockoff.

But what about Will? Will believes in Arizona’s immigration law! He’s an emblem of the old-school, thinking-man’s conservatism that has been run out of Washington! He’s proof Sorkin does think the Republicans have a point in the debate!

Except by the end of the episode Will has abandoned his views on immigration. Faced with his three guests’ gaping stupidity, Will, condescending as ever, makes the Democratic case to eviscerate the Republican one. His line about a fifteen-foot-wall and a sixteen-foot-ladder was taken nearly verbatim from Janet Napolitano, the Democratic governor of Arizona before Jan Brewer moved in.

Lest you think that Will was just doing his job, questioning both sides regardless of his own belief, he calls Neal at the Ally McBeal bar and tells him he’s going to pay for a taxi every day to take an illegal immigrant in Spokane to and from work. Proof that Will isn’t an ass! To further prove it, he tells MacKenzie that he’s “in” — commerce be damned, they’re going to do a show that’s principled.

And then, praised be the newsgods, there’s a moment of genuinely affecting dialogue. “There you go again,” MacKenzie says, alluding — but not explicitly mentioning! — her earlier comment that while she dated Will, “You’d have these ways of … doing things.” Could it be that Sorkin has remembered that subtlety makes good TV? That not everything needs to be so explicit, so manufactured? That emotion is better elicited than forced?

As I was asking these questions, the screen flashed away from Will and MacKenzie to a shot of the Statue of Liberty. That was enough of an answer.

Stray headlines relegated to the ticker:

• Did you see Will check out the woman who walked by during his secret meeting with Reese? Sorkin has now invented the walk-and-talk-and-gawk.
•  Did anyone else think MacKenzie and Sloane’s 30-second pitter-pat about corporations not being people was the most effective political argument made all episode? Had something to do with the fact that it was so short compared to the other bloviating on the show. Sorkin’s like a gas — willing to fill whatever space you give him. Often with hot air.
•  At least you can say that Sorkin is the only writer brave enough to put a lengthy discussion of e-mail Listservs on television. Points for not resorting to the reply-all cliché.
•  Sorkin crafts his characters to be the smartest people on TV, giving them perfect scores on the SAT. And yet they don’t know what the University of Phoenix is?
•  There were times when it seemed like episode one didn’t even happen. Of course everyone thinks Will’s an ass — that was what the pilot was about. Of course MacKenzie wants to supervise Maggie on her Brewer call — she was only promoted from assistant a few weeks ago. “I’ve done this before,” she tells Jim. When, exactly?
• Lackluster episode for name-drops, unless you count all the politicos. I only caught: “The demo,” George Bernard Shaw, Race to the Top, and Sardis. What’d I miss?

Photo: Melissa Moseley/HBO