On “The Newsroom”

by Corinne Purtill

A few months ago I saw the trailer for the new Aaron Sorkin series “The Newsroom” on one of the sites I frequent as a registered member of the effete liberal media. I watched Jeff Daniels rail against a fading America and I thought This is going to be such a great show! My journalist friends and I will love this! “The Newsroom” will be to us what Entourage is to assholes!

We set our TV record box to pick up the show as soon as it premiered on Sky Atlantic, a channel that cherry-picks the best of American cable television and, besides Nick Jr. and ESPN America, is the only thing we watch. (Don’t judge. Twenty-three hours a day, we shop at our neighborhood stores, chat up the locals and do our immigrant best to assimilate. When it’s time to watch television, we are like Americans who go abroad and let nothing but McDonald’s and imported bottled water pass their lips. Please don’t make me try to care about British television.)

We finally watched it this weekend. And it turns out that “The Newsroom” is not so good at all.

This isn’t a critique of how realistically the show captures life inside a media organization. It’s annoying when journalists complain about their fictional depictions. All professions are dramatized when they appear on television, but only journalists are in a position to subject the rest of the public to complaints about it. See the angry critical response to season 5 of “The Wire”: I believe I know how ‘corners’ work even though my hometown has a Pain Quotidien, and 84 percent of what I think I know about the American shipping industry comes from Frank Sobotka’s storyline, but those are not the type of pens newsrooms typically stock!! How did David Simon get this so wrong??

Besides, I’ve never worked in TV, so I don’t know how accurate the set is. Maybe in TV they really do the thing where people leap from their desk with a phone to their ear and shout across the room. Maybe when news breaks everyone in TV really does have a roommate who happened to have signed off on the relevant government contract or a sister who is sitting in a secret meeting with the top executives of the disgraced firm right now and whose first instinct is to quietly excuse herself to go leak some news.

My problem with “The Newsroom” is not the way it portrays journalists, but the way it portrays people – especially female people.

“The Newsroom” is full of gruff but honorable and able men who stay cool in crisis and dismiss the weak and stupid with puncturing words. It is also full of women whom the story insists are equally competent, but who flutter and collapse at a rate disproportionate to their male colleagues – and at a rate that undermines everything else I’m supposed to believe about their characters.

A key plot point in the second episode hinges on the premise that a female producer who spent three years setting up live satellite links in Peshawar and the hills of Afghanistan can’t understand the new office email program. I’m expected to believe that another young woman is a promising young professional, even as she’s shrieking at her boss for sleeping with her roommate in the middle of a staff meeting.

And I find it distastefully noticeable how many of the one-dimensional characters who appear as stand-ins for the foolish superficiality that Daniels’s character hates, the people at the receiving end of those preciously cutting lines that Sorkin does so well, are women.

I never saw “The West Wing” or “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” I am new to Aaron Sorkin’s work and this NPR-on-cocaine style of dialogue that no more resembles real human conversation than a Bond script does. I don’t like it as much as I thought I would. It seems an attempt to obscure – at least in this series – deficiencies in character that no amount of rapid-fire banter can compensate for.

It’s not that I don’t buy the contradictions between a character’s professional competence and personal chaos. All good fiction is a web of internal and external conflicts between characters. But it’s the effort to manage those competing selves that makes a character compelling, the ways in which that façade slips and cracks despite their best conscious effort that is interesting to watch. Don Draper’s personal world is infinitely more fucked up than any Newsroom character, but it’s his terror at having a truth discovered that makes his slick exterior compelling.

Nobody’s even trying to hold their shit together in “The Newsroom.” They pivot between soaring monologues on high-minded issues and child-like simpering over their personal lives. That’s not how adults act. That’s how I thought adults acted when I was 13.

(Speaking of high-minded rants followed by navel-gazing: Maybe there wouldn’t be a need for shows lamenting the death of journalism if actual journalists – say, myself – wrote about stuff that mattered instead of complaining about TV shows. Just a thought.)

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