Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Politics Of: The Newsroom

Taken From HBO's Website: Who Did I Cut? The Minority Actor (Neal Sampat)

HBO is on a roll right now and they've shown they're not afraid to get political (except for that Game of Thrones thing with Bush's head on a spike--they were kinda scared by that). In this case we're talking about Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom--his spiritual heir to The West Wing. It's going into Episode 5 of a 10 episode season so this is a great time to jump in! NOTE: There will be spoilers.

The Show
The Newsroom takes place in the office of Atlantis Cable News (ACN) where bland but popular media star played by Jeff Danies is generally phoning it in night after night (he's called "Leno" mockingly because Jay Leno offends no one). The opening episode has him asked a question about why America is the greatest country in the world and, after two unconvincing non-answers he sees / thinks he sees his ex-girlfriend in the audience holding a legal pad up with the words IT ISN'T and BUT IT COULD BE and he, inspired (or maybe just tripping on vertigo medication) goes off an an explosive rant about, well, why it isn't--but maybe could be again! This traumatizes the poor college student who asked the question and goes viral.

When his boss (played by Law and Order's Sam Watterson who not only shines in the role but is notably the other Law and Order guy to get a decent gig on HBO ... and seemingly a longer lasting one than Christopher Melon's run on True Blood as he just got, um, staked) decides to run with his new infamy he goes behind Daniel's back and hooks him up with his ex-girlfriend (Emily Mortimer) who will now be the show-runner!

This would be a recipe for absolute disaster in the real world, but in the Sorkin-verse the sexual tension between the two (and another, similar love triangle) propels the Speak-Truth-To-Stupid new show to great heights of integrity and insight.

That is, if you agree with Sorkin's politics. If you don't you probably stopped watching ... HBO altogether. Maybe? Well, okay--you're still watching Game of Thrones, but that's different.

Sorkin is a master of witty dialog matched only by Joss Wheedon and he gets his lectures crisp (but still lectures) and his venom biting (but still funny). He educates you (or "educates" you) while keeping things moving with the verbal equivalent of raging rapids. His characters are drawn well enough to make gruff and unlikable still be likable and adorably dorky, well ... adorable (for some measures--the show has drawn fire for its portrayal of the female leads as, well, 'adorkable.' I'll talk about that below).

I'd read a lot of critics hating it or at least finding it a major disappointment and I'd gone in skeptical. But I came out a believer--the show manages its powerful moments, seems--really seems--to know its stuff (I feel like I'm learning things about how a news room works) and has managed to keep my attention even when it's obviously being manipulative.

But, well, then there's Sorkin's politics ... which is what we're gonna discuss next.

Bottom line? I like it. HBO manages, after Game of Thrones ended, to keep me looking forward to Sunday night which, if you think about it, is a pretty amazing feat all things considered.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of The Newsroom
Let's start with the genius of The Newsroom: it starts in 2010. This isn't out of nostalgia for the last two years--it's so that he can cover real news. That's right: you get to watch them cover the Deepwater Horizion disaster, the 2010 elections, the Gifford shooting, and so on. This is brilliant--Sorkin knows you know those stories better than the characters and plays off it. He can have his people make all the right moves with 20/20 hindsight which, although it's artificial intelligence (to re-purpose a derogatory term from The New Yorker's negative review linked above) it's still intelligence.

This really works. You get to re-live those stories and it creates not only unparalleled verisimilitude (Sorkin does not have to create "fake news") but it also gives you a chance to look a little deeper as he does his homework on each one. You get Sorkin's idea of what a "perfect newscast" would look like for each event. I cannot tell you how engaging this is for me. That's easily the best thing The Newsroom pioneers!

On the other hand ... I gigged ABC's Scandal for having a "Republican president" who was basically a Democrat with a right-wing VP. The Newsroom does the same thing albeit more intelligently. Daniels is, he keeps saying, a registered Republican (as is Watterson) who, in his words, "Just sounds like a Democrat because he believes hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure instead of gay marriage."

This is called lampshading where the show's creator takes something that snaps your suspenders of disbelief and calls attention to it ("hanging a lampshade on it"). Daniels is Sorkin's mouthpiece (all the characters are--but Daniels most specifically) and, well, he sounds like a Democrat because Sorkin is a Democrat. To think otherwise is plainly naive.

Certainly there are some Republicans who do believe that gay marriage could be causing extreme weather but (a) that's not most of them and (b) that's not a part of the Republican platform (get rid of gay marriage to stop the drought!). It would be a bit more correct to say that he sounds like a Democrat because he undoubtedly believes that mankind is causing global warming and that global warming is causing extreme weather rather than naturally occurring cycles which may not be impacting weather that much.

But Sorkin can't say that because for all its focus on truth in news he isn't interested in giving "both sides" the same level of voice.

What do I think about that? Well, I'll tell you: I believe it would be 'statistically fair' to have Sorkin, say, take 1000 of the most highly acclaimed climatologists in the world and pick, say, a few at random, and get their take on what's going on with global warming ... and present THAT as Daniel's argument.

I believe he could do that and not change a word of his dialog (and those big lists of climatologists who "dispute global warming"? Yeah--tell me about those again I'm here all day!). So am I offended by his stance? No--I'm not--but neither do I think it's "even handed"--it's just Sorkin.

Similarly, while Watterson and Daniels take on the Tea Party (with numerous real quotes making various Tea Party candidates look like idiots) and are in "some good company" with the GOP "establishment" (and I'll note he doesn't just hit O'Donnell over and over--Sorkin stays away from the easy marks), this is still just going through the motions. Jeb Bush aside, what Daniels and Watterson are today are RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). You can lament, as they do, that maybe the party has moved on--but it still isn't "honest."

Sorkin isn't a real Republican launching criticisms of the party from the inside: he's faking it. Having Daniels painfully defend Sarah Palin's remarks--trying to kinda explain them to the audience doesn't make it any more realistic: if he hates the Tea Party (as co-opted by the Koch brothers) why does he like Sarah Palin? Uh-huh.

Finally I want to talk about the gender politics. There are two major female leads: Alison Pill (a junior staffer who gets two unexpected "field promotions" and starts doing news) and Emily Mortimer who plays a veteran news expert (who reported from multiple war-zones) and is Daniel's ex ... and she cheated on him but now loves him and he hasn't forgiven her ...

In both cases the women are shown as easily flustered and for the most part making poor romantic decisions (Pill suffers panic attacks--the same way that veteran soldiers do--but they were shot at, she's just in a meeting). To be sure the men come off badly too to a degree--but they do not in general come off as weak. I think that Sorkin is doing a specific thing--he knows how to make a certain kind of character resonant and he's doubling down on that (the ACN owner played by Jane Fonda is not 'adorkable'--she might be a villain and she sure isn't weak--but she's also a bit part).

If you are inclined to be disappointed or worse by the gender roles in the show, for my money you have sufficient room there. It's definitely a liberal-leaning show--it's supposed to be enlightened--and I'm not sure it lives up to its ideas or even passes the Bechdel Test.

With The Newsroom Aaron Sorkin is back. If you liked the West Wing you should definitely check it out. He's still quick witted and spry with his characters and ideas. If you're a Republican who isn't horrified by your party in 2012 you're not going to think much of the show's 2010 Republicans and I doubt you'll even credit Sorkin or "making the effort" but despite its shortcomings the show delivers.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Good catch. I'll revise it--thanks.