GENERAL KNOWLEDGE: IN PRAISE OF THE NEWSROOM
Will McAvoy and the News Night team are here to save the world…
by Rachel Hyland
Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show, The Newsroom, has been savaged by critics and viewers all over, from the venerable New York Times to the respected Salon.com to assorted anonymous blogs—and in no uncertain terms. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker said, among much else, that “…Sorkin’s fantasy is of a cabal of proud, disdainful brainiacs, a ‘media élite’ who swallow accusations of arrogance and shoot them back as lava.” Esquire’s Jeff Bercovici has been particularly – though always entertainingly – cutting about the series, and on the back of recent news that Sorkin had fired his entire writing staff, offered up this hilariously apposite “spec script”:
“It’s set in July 2012. It opens in the conference room, where Will McAvoy has assembled his team. There’s a big story that’s been flying under the radar of the mainstream media, and Will has a hunch that he thinks could be the key to breaking it wide open. “Jim, do me a favor and check the mass region around 126 gigaelectronvolts,” he orders. As luck would have it, back in college, Jim did Habitat for Humanity with a guy who’s now the night operator at the Large Hadron Collider. A quick phone call later, Will’s hunch is confirmed. News Night has discovered the Higgs boson. We fade out on Will standing in the center of the newsroom, receiving yet another standing ovation from his wet-eyed underlings. If you zoom in close enough, you can just barely make out the Statue of Liberty, reflected in the single tear sliding down MacKenzie’s cheek.”
And, okay, sure. That’s funny because it’s so very true. (Well, come on; someone has to find that darned particle!) Sorkin’s workplace comedy drama, all about the people behind the news – or, rather, the people behind “The News”; rarely do we spend substantive time with the subjects of their assorted investigations and editorials, thus far – can be more than a little preachy, can be more than a touch self-righteous, can be more than a tad jingoistic. It’s all very familiar to fans of Sorkin; if you’ve seen his previous workplace comedy dramas, Sports Night, Studio 60 and the most beloved of them all, The West Wing, then the searing, stupidity-skewering monologues are as familiar as the awkward public humiliations and the nascent coworker romances.
The thing is, I am a fan of Sorkin, a very dedicated, very sincere fan, and so I love that this show is so familiar, so very him. I love the searing monologues and the nascent coworker romances. The public humiliation I can do without – like, say, in the second episode, when a private e-mail gets sent company-wide, with mortifying results; really, Sorkin? That storyline was done, and better, on Dawson’s Creek! – but on the whole, I stand by my longtime assertion that Aaron Sorkin is like sex and pizza: even when he’s bad, he’s good.
So what is this show about, you may be wondering? Well, it takes us deep into the doings of a nightly news program on a cable news channel hosted by a popular news anchor called Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). After years of generic puff pieces and non-partisan pandering, McAvoy has had a recent epiphany and is now committed to delivering the real news, indeed the real truth, to anyone who will listen. In his hour-long broadcast each night, from 9 – 10 pm, he has taken upon himself the mandate to inform and to educate the electorate, tackling such stories as the Louisiana oil spill, the ultra-conservative political movement known as the Tea Party, and the lies perpetuated by respected news organizations when they blindly quote questionable figures culled from random blog postings. (Apparently people believed that President Obama’s official trip to India in 2010 cost taxpayers 200 million dollars a day. Nice going, Fox News.)
On McAvoy’s staff are his Executive Producer, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), a recent addition to the team and also his ex-girlfriend; she cheated on him two years ago, from which he has yet to recover. Mackenzie brought along her hotshot associate Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), adorable and crazy smart, who has somehow been persuaded into a crush on the frenetic Maggie (Alison Pill), who is as cute as a button but whose eyes are too close together for it not to be a little unsettling. Maggie is locked in a co-dependent wreck of a relationship with office alpha male Don (Thomas Sadoski), and other staffers of note include our Geek Ambassador this month, Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) – he’s quite convincing the subject of Bigfoot – and superhot Economics PhD, Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn). Along with their boss, Charlie (Sam Waterston), the team has decided that they will now Do Things Right. That no matter how much their competitors and their colleagues might chase after ratings and seek out the lowest common denominator, the plucky kids of Will McAvoy’s News Night will stand for all that is good and holy in the good ol’ US of A.
One of the most interesting things to look out for in reading reviews of this somewhat patronizing, and certainly not kindly, take on Americans in general, and of American journalism in particular, is that so far the majority of these opinions have come, necessarily, from Americans, and as such much of the animosity this show has aroused feels purely defensive; spiteful rounds of “I know you are, but what am I?”
(It has also raised the ire of some journalists, as far as I can tell, purely because the show takes credit for the work of their peers. It’s set in the recent past, and with hindsight gloriously 20/20, postulates the theory that an Associate Producer should be able to easily make connections in the course of researching a story that would gain him a Peabody every night, or whatever.)
In the first episode – indeed, in the first five minutes of the first episode – Will McAvoy had rounded on a doe-eyed coed in exasperation when she asked for “one sentence or less” on why America is the greatest country in the world. He tries to blow it off, but the moderator of the discussion pushes him, and in the end, we have this gorgeous moment of truth in the media:
“… there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy. Twenty-seventh in math. Twenty-second in science. Forty-ninth in life expectancy. A hundred and seventy-eighth in infant mortality. Third in median household income. Number four in labor force and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.
“Now none of this is the fault of a twenty-year-old college student, but you nonetheless are without a doubt a member of the worst, period, generation, period, ever, period. So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I dunno what the fuck you’re talkin’ about. Yosemite?”
The American audience in-show did not like this. Apparently the American audience at home was similarly taken aback. But elsewhere… oh, yes. It was certainly a rant that sang to this Australian soul. (I also rather loved Will’s retort to the Republican blowhard who said America was the best country in the world because of “Freedom, and freedom.”: “207 sovereign states in the world, like, 180 of them have freedom.”)
See, this is not a show for America. This is a show for the rest of the world, those of us who see America, and American-style glitzy politics and journalism and policy, spiraling out of control and affecting our own countries, and long for a magic bullet to reign in all the insanity and give us back the glory days of integrity and honor that McAvoy, in his continuing soliloquy, goes on to eulogize:
“We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed. We cared about our neighbors. We put our money where our mouths were. And we never beat our chest.
“We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars. Acted like men.
“We aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it—it didn’t make us feel inferior.”
This is not to say, of course, that everyone in every country other than America is going to find The Newsroom a comfortable fit. Keith Watson, of the UK’s Metro newspaper, said of the first episode: “It is slick and sophisticated but it’s dangerously deceptive, ostensibly taking a pop at the US’s flaws while unleashing rabble-rousing speeches about freedom being embedded in American DNA.” So while homegrown critics get offended by Sorkin’s frank disapproval of many of the country’s voters ( and viewers), internationally, the show can yet be seen as not disapproving enough.
But that’s okay. The important thing is that The Newsroom creates controversy, gets people talking about truth and perception and politics, and makes them, makes us, really examine our own cultural and media biases. Of course, it is unlikely to do that for the people who may well need it most – it has often been said of The West Wing that Sorkin halved its potential viewership when he made its President a Democrat; what Republican was ever going to watch? – but, hey. Even if the show is preaching to the choir, at least it does so cleverly. Yes, it’s a hymn we all know, but man, it has one hell of a tune.
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