My TV

10 July 2012

The Newsroom: “The 112th Congress”

By // TV

The third episode of The Newsroom is essentially a six-month montage detailing how Will, Mackenzie and Co. covered the events leading up to the November 2010 mid-term elections (they downplayed the Times Square bomb, shouted down anti-gay arguments, and went after the Tea Party). That’s all juxtaposed with the introduction of Jane Fonda as the owner of AWN (the parent company to ACN- the network that airs “News Night”), who grills Charlie about Will’s harsh criticisms of the new congressmen. Before said grilling, she’s given a recap/presentation by the incredibly likable Matt Long (a veteran of the Tommy Schlamme-produced Jack & Bobby) and the smarmy ratings guy from last week (who is revealed to be the nepotistic son of Fonda’s Leona Lansing). All I really got out of the Fonda bit was that I’ve really missed Matt Long’s face and sincerely hope Sorkin plays the story in Charlie’s relationship to alcohol soon since it’s getting to the point of worrisome (that meeting was at 10am with the head of the company and he was plastered by the end of it). The newsroom stories that fill in what Mattylong and Smarmyface theoretically are presenting to Fonda, on the other hand, are thoroughly interesting.

There’s a lot of “News Night”-in-Action sort of stuff this week, which I enjoyed, mostly because I enjoy watching smart kids take down the hateful and ignorant. I like that Sorkin’s made Will a Republican because it stops him from being just a writer’s proxy megaphone. Since the pilot’s story about the oil leak, the show has stayed largely away from events that scream “hindsight is 20/20”. The Arizona immigration bill, the rise of the tea party, the midterm elections- those aren’t things that have particularly changed with perspective, meaning that the characters get to react like real people did instead of with mysteriously convenient forsight.

Mackenzie is, unfortunatly, continuing the insane/unprofessional/inept streak she kicked off last week, making it progressively more difficult to shout down the many people determined to hate The Newsroom (more on that in a moment). That said, even when stupidly freaking out about Will dating other women (while dating someone else herself), Mack is still running a great show and seems like a smart person having a breakdown, not an incompetent person pretending to be smart sometimes. I think Sorkin needs to let the Mackenzie/Will drama simmer under the surface for awhile while they lead the real drama of the show-within-the-show, letting the youngsters carry the romance in the B-story (the Jim/Maggie/Don triangle is the more successful thread so far anyway; I don’t think Sorkin quite knows how to sort through all the hurt informing Will and Mack’s backstory yet, best to leave it alone before he writes himself into more of a corner). When Mack and Will behave like jealous and wounded former lovers they quickly lose a lot of their smart adult cred so they need to cut it out entirely; if they can’t do that, I’ll even take them just losing it in private instead of in front of their employees. Mack was established as awesome and fully functioning, and still is when she’s not being nutty, let’s bring that back to the forefront.

There’s some nice Jim/Maggie material in the episode (as there always is) when she has a panic attack and he has to talk her down. I don’t know why critics are quick to dismiss well-written romance as superficiality but I suppose that’s a genre taste thing so my advice to those people would be to just watch The Wire instead. I think the way Jim and Maggie are progressing isn’t sugary at all so much as sweetly honest. I loved when he told her that she and Don could really be something if they stayed together instead of breaking up after every fight, because when you actually care about someone you want them to be happy more than you necessarily want them to be with you. I loved that she made her roommate stay on the phone in case she needed her but it led to the sly reveal that Maggie talks about Jim when she’s not at work. I liked it when Maggie called Jim smug because it’s totally true but it’s been a struggle to find Jim’s flaws before now. I loved that even though it was Jim running to her rescue, Don knew exactly where Maggie was and what was going on with her because I really do want to understand and like Don as the show moves forward so I’m grasping on to whatever glimmers of kindness he’ll give up. And I liked that Neal is Jim’s friend and confidante, pushing him to ask Maggie out and calling him on his self-destruction. As Sorkin (out of character as it may be) struggles to find the right tone for his series-leading adults, he’s surviving on the strength of his likable upstarts, their attempts to make a difference and their complicated fight with their own feelings.

Okay, that was the episode recap bit, my duty is complete.

Now, this site began way back when because I wanted to rant about TV and found that people didn’t actually want to stand there and listen (also because I can be overbearing and it comes off as aggressive, which isn’t really how it’s meant). So when I found myself last night angrily typing an overly long Facebook comment after poor, well-meaning Jason wrote a critical status about The Newsroom, I thought I’d better vent some thoughts here so that hopefully I can assess next week’s episode with a clear head (and can stop cyber-yelling at Jason). The following rant is in response to the many, varied, loud critics (and everyday folk with Facebook and Twitter) who are going after The Newsroom. Now, I don’t mind when they call it out on being too obvious and a little clunky with its point-making (because those things are true, and a matter of taste, but mostly true), but it’s the accusations of misogyny that really bug me, or when people call the show a nostalgic attack against younger generations (or even just generally out-of-date), or that one article that was all about Sorkin’s middle-aged white-man point-of-view being inherently condescending (I mean, Sorkin himself can be sometimes condescending, but he can’t help having a middle-aged-white-man point-of-view, he is a middle-aged white man). That stuff just begs to be argued with. Hence, an argument:

Grand Speeches as Statements of Rightness and Unquestioned Heroes as Characters
There’s a lot of shouting and grand speechifying that happens in Sorkin shows, but if most of the critics doing the whining about that fact would listen closely, they’d realise that grand speechifying is in the characters’ DNA, it doesn’t mean they’re always right when they’re grand. These are entertainment types who decided they could help the world by doing news instead of fiction, it’s a pretty sanctimonious, grandiose crowd. And while critics like to heap those traits onto Sorkin himself (which I won’t argue with), they manage to present them as mutually exclusive with the ability to recognize said traits in others (or give them to his characters). Well, if Mack is making a grand speech and Will is making a grand speech, and they don’t agree with each other, how is what they’re both saying the attitude of the show that Sorkin is preaching at you? I think what a lot of people aren’t getting is that these characters (with Will as their central representative) are deeply flawed, even more so for being so convinced of their own heroism. They do the right thing often, and sometimes they don’t but they think they do, and sometimes they do the wrong thing and they know it and it nags at them (that’s why Mack’s so awkward around Will, it’s why Don’s so sharply defensive). I don’t remember the last time the modern critical masses looked at a character who was mostly good but bad in small, believable, hypocritical ways and called them half as complex as Don Draper or Walter White (who’ve got the outward/fundamental badness down to a science). It’s that layer of self-satisfied hypocrisy he’s putting out and the nagging self-hatred and guilt he’s trying to cover up, that the show’s critics aren’t bothering to look for in Will. The fact that they don’t recognize those flaws is why a lot of critics think that when Will says something, it is the show’s way of saying “This Is The Truth, 2+2=5, How Dare You Disagree With Such A Smart, Strong, Brave, Perfect Man!” and why when Will says something condescending to Mack the show is misogynist, or when he calls Neal “Punjab” the show is racist, or when he makes a big speech about Murrow the show thinks no one is awesome but old white guys. Just because he’s the loudest, does not make Will McAvoy the voice of anything other than Will McAvoy, and maybe “News Night”, but certainly not The Newsroom.

Mackenzie: An Antiquated, Simplistic, Anti-Feminist Icon of Male-Written Condescension 
(also: Maggie, Olivia Munn, and the various “Sorkin is a bad dude” complaints that aren’t about misogyny)
Critics are using Will’s perceived flat heroism (already a misread) to put down the generally capable Mackenzie as an antiquated female character (antiquated being the adjective picked because she struggled with the email last week? I guess). But I really want to know how a woman who is at the top of her field, armed with a forward-thinking brilliance could be seen as legitimately antiquated. Okay, so the woman who’s been embedded for 3 years made a technology mistake, why is this such a big deal? (to say nothing of the fact that that moment was just lazy TV and clearly not meant to inform her character as much as people are determined to make it). Mack is highly capable but she’s also girly in a traditional gender role kind of way- she likes to shop, she’s fascinated by gossip, she gets insanely jealous, she’s a little bit clumsy, she can be emotionally manipulative. What’s driving me absolutely mad is that people seem determined to make that anti-feminist. Are you kidding me? I don’t know how many women you people have met (I know, some of you are women- Even So!) but almost all of us have at least one of those qualities. Hey, I will admit to having all of them, and I dare you to call me an antiquated female representation- I *unladylike use of language* Dare You (on an incredibly related note, I legitimately giggle when Jim does anything but am determined to see the good in Don- does that make me, like Maggie Clearly is according to the critics, a stupid boy-crazy schoolgirl who is an embarrassment to women everywhere? She’s 26, get off her case and stop beating up on the women for not being perfect). When Mack hired Olivia Munn to do a short finance segment on “News Night”, she confessed to asking her because she’s hot. That’s not anti-feminist, that’s post-feminist, but hell if the angry feminists will accept that. The absolute, non-negotiable, unhappy but true fact of the matter is that mostly men will be watching that financial segment and they are entirely more likely to not flip the channel if it’s Olivia Munn presenting the information. That was an example of a woman making a decision based on the facts of the entertainment industry, no matter how unpleasant. She wasn’t telling Olivia Munn “you’re too hot to study economics, why don’t you pose for this magazine instead?”, she was promoting her to do something she’s qualified to do, and making the best decision for her show, just like a man would (oh god, that sentence hurt my fingers while typing, can we please be over crap like having to point out that a woman is as good at her job as a man?!). Misogyny is an accusation people are desperate to pin on Sorkin, and have been for years, but I feel like many critics are looking at the male characters and seeing them as shinier than they are while they’re only seeing pratfalls and giggles from the women. Just like those making the generational argument against The Newsroom leave Jim out of it and the racial argument folks like to ignore Neal (though I will admit that that’s maybe the one sensationalist accusation I think has a tiny bit of merit), those who want to find something to hate are picking and choosing what they want to see.

In Short: Expectations and Infallibility
I think there’s an expectation gap that’s hurting The Newsroom with critics. Viewers were excited to see the show and lots of them have loved it so far (it has an 8.8 rating on IMDB); Sorkin has an Oscar and lots of Emmys, he created one of the most adored shows of all time. There’s a tendency to take all that and think he’s infallible, but there are few things the critical mind likes more than to prove infallibility false. When The Newsroom came around, there wasn’t a possibility in a million years that it could live fully up to expectations, and so it didn’t, and critics pounced. And that’s their (our, I guess) prerogative, but there’s a self-satisfied tone to most things I’ve read about The Newsroom that really rubs me the wrong way, as if people are thrilled to see how the mighty have fallen. First of all, if this is what falling looks like, sign me up. But, mostly, I think we need to show even the big guns more patience than what’s been afforded Sorkin (at least with television, if he screws up the Steve Jobs movie I hereby give  you permission to go after him with pitchforks). He likes pratfalls more than he should and his characters tend to all sound alike and he restates his thesis too often and he sometimes struggles with plot segues (like how to get the information about the Will/Mack breakup public without making one of his characters look like an idiot- Fail), but Aaron Sorkin is a fallible human being so he’s allowed to have those drawbacks (all of which, by the way, he has always had). He gets it right way more than he gets it wrong (and even Shakespeare had a Comedy of Errors mishap or two) so maybe lets take whatever disappointment we have over The Newsroom‘s not being perfect and try not to turn it into rants about feminism, okay?

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One Response to The Newsroom: “The 112th Congress”

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