SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 3 YET.
“The newsroom turned into a courtroom because I decided the American people needed a fucking lawyer.”
The news media is vitally important to a free society (unlike, say, sports or comedy, the subjects of Aaron Sorkin’s other two TV-based drama series). It’s only through the news that you know anything of what is happening in the world outside your own immediate experience. It is therefore vital that, when you receive the news, you’re not being presented with opinion – you’re being presented with facts. Those facts will shape your own opinion, and if you don’t trust their source because of bias or corruption, then you’re not equipped with enough information to form a reasoned view on anything. Conversely, if you blindly trust their source despite bias or corruption, the same result is true.
That the American TV news has failed in this was pointed out in painstaking detail in this week’s episode of The Newsroom, beginning with Will McAvoy making an onscreen apology for his own complicity in this failure – from miscalled election results to outright misinformation from news organisations held hostage by commercial interests, specifically the advertisers from whom the broadcasters gain all their revenue.
Will’s diatribe, the concentrated detail of which took a lot of paying attention to, was obviously Sorkin’s own attempt to diagnose the problem with TV news in the US. The increasing divorce of US TV news from facts and its ongoing affair with opinion as a rebound can often seem strange to us in the UK, where (by and large) our TV news is regulated and obliged to remain free of bias. It’s frequently accused of bias (especially the BBC), but the fact that the accusations are balanced from both sides of the argument indicates to me that it at least tries to live up to that obligation.
US TV news, by contrast, often seems closer in style to UK print media, where paranoia, half-truths and corruption are regularly peddled according to the corporate whims of their owners and sponsors. That sector of our news media has now so thoroughly disgraced itself in the eyes of the British public that we’re in the middle of a lengthy judicial inquiry into its ethics and practices; by Sorkin’s argument, the misinformation fed so frequently to the American public by its TV news outlets would probably merit something similar.
One of the major criticisms that many (including myself) have had of The Newsroom from its first two episodes is precisely that Will McAvoy and co’s eager attempt to claw back integrity from the increasingly jaded news media is simply too utopian; that in the real world, those commercial interests simply would not permit an approach so potentially damaging to profit. Sorkin seems to have anticipated this, and this third episode was framed with a new subplot of ACN’s corporate owners giving idealistic news veteran Charlie a damn good bollocking for going against the corporate line.
As a framing narrative, it was effective, with Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, CEO of Atlantis Media, parent corporation to ACN, glowering silently at Sam Waterston’s Charlie for most of the time, even during a comical attempt to liken his strategy to that of Rocky Balboa in Rocky II. The casting of Fonda is a nice nod to her own iconic role as a crusading news anchor in 1978’s The China Syndrome, but here she’s on the other side of the debate – and when she finally speaks up, it’s like the wrath of a deity of pragmatic profiteering.
The corporate inquiry was peppered throughout by flashbacks to events at News Night in recent months, beginning with Will’s eloquent apology then building through the months of campaigning prior to the 2010 midterms to the climax of election night itself. Along the way, the show’s ideology took precedence over its soap opera aspects as the ACN staff laid into Aaron Sorkin’s target of the week – the Tea Party movement.
As usual, this revolved around characters having a seemingly implausible supply of facts and statistics readily at hand to debunk the arguments of their opponents. But fair’s fair – it’s a news organisation, half the characters are researchers, and those researchers feed the figures to the anchor as interviews progress. Plus, I’m sure they’re capable of remembering the research they’ve done; certainly I’ve been able to pull those kinds of facts out of my mind in pub arguments when I’ve researched them earlier in the day for pieces on this blog.
I was again struck by Sorkin’s clever tactic of having McAvoy, as his main character, be a moderate Republican. As Will himself comments, it legitimises his attacks on ultra-right wing targets. And make no mistake, the Tea Partiers who gained so much ground in the 2010 Congressional elections were ultra-right. As Will himself complained, they were a fringe movement (with, initially, some valid arguments) hijacked by corporate and religious extremists, who themselves went on to hijack the mainstream Republican Party to the extent that US politics has been largely paralysed in uncooperating deadlock ever since.
That they were gaining so much influence was worrying given their apparent incomprehension of the issues they were protesting against. So Will (ie Aaron Sorkin) basically spent clip after clip debunking some of their more notorious misconceptions. These included Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies” – “so basically, she’s not ruling out the idea of an armed overthrow of the elected government” – and the (at the time) little known fact that this ‘grass roots’ movement was in large part being funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, hardly “average Americans”.
As this went on, it became clear from the cutting back to the CEO inquiry that the corporation were not too pleased about this. Attacking corporatism means losing advertising revenue, not to mention the political awkwardness of losing the support of corporate-backed legislators. But back in the trenches, persistent asshole Don was none too pleased about it either, laying into the infinitely more competent Jim about how this totally undercut his attempts to gain success for the 10 o’clock bulletin straight afterwards.
Don continues to be the least believable character in the show, a serial asshole whose inability to learn from his own mistakes makes you continually wonder how he attained such a prestigious position. I saw a recent Facebook post proclaiming that “Aaron Sorkin can’t write characters who aren’t intellectuals”; this is a large part of the problem, but another part is that he can’t write sympathetic, rounded characters who disagree with him. It was notable that The West Wing’s portrayal of Republican characters actually became more rounded after Sorkin left the show.
Still, the continuing passion of most of the characters goes some way to making up for this, as does the increased portrayal of their own fallibilities. We saw last week how Will wasn’t immune to self-interest; this week, Charlie Skinner’s idealistic crusade to restore integrity to the news began to seem increasingly naive and optimistic in the face of his corporate overlords. Oh, and he also drinks too much – “you’ve had enough bourbon for a lifetime,” comments suit (and mother’s puppet) Reese.
With so much emphasis placed on the ideological crusade of the show this week, the soap opera aspects were less prominent than the first two episodes. I found this a bit of a relief. It’s not because I object to them altogether; I recognise that without being interested in these characters as people, it would be hard to sympathise with their crusade. It’s more that, generally, I think this aspect of the show is being handled in a rather more hamfisted way than it ever was in The West Wing.
Take MacKenzie, for example. She’s an immensely talented and capable professional, able to deal brilliantly and concisely with her egotistical star in their work environment. But introduce any element of their previous, personal relationship – as Will did this week by bringing a string of younger, sexier dates to the office – and she becomes a gibbering, competitive imbecile.
Then there’s Maggie. She at least takes Will to task for his insensitivity, and he listens to her. But she too is stuck in a relationship with the insufferable Don, which for some insane reason she seems incapable of permanently ending. And then the much more likeable Jim (who we’re being transparently manipulated into rooting for as her alternative) advises her to sort it out with Don, despite that being the worst result for himself. Thank heaven then for Neal, who lets Jim work this out via the convenient motif of working on a story about “people voting against their own interests”.
After an initial lack of impression, Neal is quickly becoming one of my favourite characters. He’s as impossibly ‘nice’ as the rest of the gang, but he comes up with the most interesting ideas regarding the future of news in an increasingly digital age – witness his impassioned defence of Wikileaks this week. He also seems to have a girlfriend himself, nicely derailing the usual stereotypes about socially awkward nerd. And it doesn’t hurt that Dev Patel has plainly been to the gym a fair bit since his painfully skinny shirtless scenes in Skins.
No, I’m still generally unconvinced by the ‘soap opera’ aspects of the show, which flowed so naturally in The West Wing. In fact, Aaron Sorkin has been taken to task (again – poor sod gets more of this than Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat) for failing to write credible, intelligent female characters. In MacKenzie’s case, I can see the problem – how can such an intelligent woman be so good at her job yet dissolve into babbling inanity when dealing with the same coworker on a personal level? But I don’t think you can reasonably level that criticism at the writer who created CJ Cregg.
And while there may be some of those problems with the character of Maggie, the one aspect of the show that struck a nerve for me this week was her portrayal of being prone to crippling panic attacks (which Don, typically, just lets her get on with out of his way). I want to be quite clear – this is not a gender issue, and it most certainly is not a ‘weakness’ issue.
I suffer from panic attacks just like these. They’re not ‘being a drama queen’ or ‘attention seeking’ – they’re a genuinely terrifying, crippling set of mental AND physiological symptoms which hit you at times you don’t expect and for reasons you don’t understand, rendering you physically incapable of dealing with the world around you. I tend to keep my own vulnerability to these very much under wraps, as it’s still often perceived as weakness or overdramatisation. I can only hope that the very convincing depiction of it in this show might enlighten its viewers in the same that The West Wing did for multiple sclerosis.
This episode cleverly had two, contradictory endings. One showed Will, Charlie and the staffers celebrating their perceptive election coverage in the usual karaoke bar. This climaxed with the email to Charlie summoning him to the meeting we’d been seeing throughout – a meeting that, just before the bar scene, had ended with Leona’s ultimatum that Will tone it down or be sacked. Clearly, Charlie’s crusade is already in danger.
Which I hope The Newsroom isn’t, despite its mixed reception. Sure, I still think it’s flawed, but episode by episode it seems to be building on its strengths. And if not eliminating its flaws, at least pushing them somewhat to the background. Only three episodes in, and it feels like it’s gaining complexity and credibility from its initial naively optimistic and utopian premise. I’d like to see more of that.