There is in the very fiber of The Newsroom something that incites the viewer to extreme silliness. There are serious fans of The Newsroom out there, people who watch the show with emotional investment, patience, curiosity. They thrill to Jeff Daniels’ invective, swoon to Olivia Munn’s dulcet monotone, delight in the crankiness of Sam Waterston as Charlie (which, to be fair, I do too. Sam Waterston delights everybody). But for the rest of us, the show just provokes a severe case of the giggles. If you are a serious Newsroom fan, and you want to know why people are laughing, there’s no better place to start than the first two scenes of last night’s episode.
We open on Will facing the camera, a mighty thunder-bearing Zeus atop his Olympus, ready to sear the flesh of mortals with the crackling, blue-white flame of his “editorial comment.” This comment is about Stephen Hill, a gay soldier who was booed at a GOP debate for asking about the candidates’ stance on LGBT people in the military. Make no mistake: What those people did was awful. Make no mistake: So is Will McAvoy’s subsequent speech, which is less a political argument than a barely-coherent stream of liquid rage, barfed straight from Will’s mouth onto the face of You, The Viewer.
“The people who were booing were in Orlando. Soon, they’ll surely be in Hell, though not soon enough,” Will bellows, before pivoting to declare that not one single Republican candidate is fit for leadership (reminder: Will is a registered Republican) because they’re all “witless bullies and hapless punks.”
And with that, Will gets up, goes to his office, and immediately starts complaining about the lack of civility in the media.
No, really! He name-drops his famous “mission to civilize” — apparently Sorkin still doesn’t understand the troublesome connotations of that one — before complaining that “the bitchiness has to stop.”
Thirty seconds ago, this guy was using his media platform to inform an auditorium full of people that he wished them dead. Of course, the behavior and beliefs of the people who booed Stephen Hill were loathsome. They deserve to be shamed. But the rants Sorkin writes for Will aren’t clever, they aren’t insightful, and they simply don’t line up into a coherent argument. You can write a character who makes the argument — as Will does — that people in the media should “nicer” and more “polite.” Or, you can write a character who believes that it’s perfectly fine to tell chunks of his audience that he wishes they would die so that they can be tortured by Satan. You can’t write one character who does both these things, in succession, without making that character come across as a hypocrite and a fool.
If Sorkin’s scripts acknowledged this, that character might work. Maybe Will really is just a bully who complains about bullies. Maybe he really is a morbidly narcissistic abuser, so grandiose and so thin-skinned that he yearns for “civility” because it would allow him to pummel people into submission without getting hit back. A show about that man could be compelling. Will McAvoy is a bad person, but so are Walter White, Don Draper and Tony Soprano. It’s just that Aaron Sorkin has written a fantastic villain, and then shoe-horned him into a script that pretends he’s Superman.
For example: For the third week straight, the plot of The Newsroom hinges around Will McAvoy being booted from the network’s 9/11 coverage. This time, someone has leaked the information that Will’s absence was not voluntary to the dread Gossip Press, personified by former McAvoy date and current McAvoy nemesis Nina (Hope Davis). There’s lots of scampering and screaming and wackiness, but let’s cut to the relevant bit, which is: Will must now reunite with Nina, and he must civilize the living heck out of her, so as to keep her from running the story.
Will asks Nina if she would like to date him. She refuses. Let’s make this clear: She doesn’t refuse because in their previous encounters Will has belittled her, insulted her, called her names, told her that her profession is “destroying civilization” and that he would “have more respect for [her] if [she] were a heroin dealer,” and additionally threatened her, thereby putting her through an entire emotionally abusive relationship in just a few hours. No, she turns him down because she thinks he still loves Mac. He tells her he doesn’t, and she sleeps with him, because she’s been hot in the pants all along for the entitled, volatile, condescending narcissist who has claimed he’ll ruin her life if she disobeys his orders about how to do her job.
Meanwhile, Neal is taking a week off from his position as the Designated Will Substitute — he gets only a few minutes to lecture Mac this week, which Sorkin neatly turns into an opportunity to talk about how much women love shoes — and the crown has descended upon Jim, who is on the Romney bus, being so generally sassy toward the Romney campaign workers that even other Sorkin characters find him insufferable. Jim is frustrated that the campaign won’t respond to questions about the discrepancies between Romney’s stances over the years, and he sulks at anyone who will listen. Most particularly, a young female reporter.
For a brief, shining moment, it seems that Sorkin intends to address media sexism through this fine young woman, who says that she was fired from a previous job because “I was replaced by someone with more experience, who didn’t ask questions I wanted answers to.” Those questions were about “women’s issues,” she says, and she explains that abortion is not the only “women’s issue.” It’s as if a rounded, intelligent female character somehow landed on Planet Newsroom.
But nothing gold can stay: This woman, too, exists largely to be “civilized” by the power of male shouting. Jim feeds her a question about Romney’s stance on abortion — it turns out it is the only woman’s issue, and also, that a woman who covers political campaigns and “women’s issues” for a living needs a man to literally set a laptop down in front of her and point at, so that she knows what to say — and then he stands up on the bus and screams at her to ask it, telling her that if she doesn’t, “you’re going to know you’re a lame fraud.”
Well: She does. Soaring music underscores the moment, just in case we had any doubt that it’s a wonderful thing when a man screeches at a woman about how to do her job until some essential part of her soul caves in and she starts following his instructions. After she asks the question, rather than leaving any pause in which she might actually receive an answer, Jim starts screeching again about how they’re not answering her. The question didn’t really matter, you see. The women it affects presumably don’t matter much either. What mattered is that Jim proved his point.
Over the course of the Romney plotline, Jim also explains why Will’s “die and go to Hell” rant was justified: Will wanted “the front-runner to tell the audience that he wasn’t interested in the votes of anyone who was booing; not for nothing, but he’d have won the election that night.” This is, of course, wrong. But it makes it pathetically clear that, in Sorkin’s world, there is literally nothing that cannot be gained — celebrity, women, presidencies — by a little high-minded shouting.
That’s why people laugh at The Newsroom. It’s a show about the media that is confused and angered by the media, a show about politics that is both unrealistic and frequently offensive in its politics. Every week, we crack up, giggling and making rude comments and throwing crumpled-up notes at each other, with Aaron Sorkin as the beleaguered substitute teacher who can’t keep his class in line. Those students misbehave because inexperience posing as authority invites revolt; because they suspect the teacher knows less about the class than they do. In Sorkin’s case, the laughs are going to keep coming, because our suspicions are right.
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.