The Newsroom is almost entirely cannibalized from Sorkin’s previous work. Is this a problem? No and yes.
There’s a sense in which Sorkin is like commedia del’arte — it’s about riffing on established themes, types, and scenarios. The familiarity of core elements is not a weakness, but a defining characteristic. That’s the genre. If you’ve seen two or more Sorkin shows, you’ve probably noticed it.
But, that puts the onus on Sorkin to make that repetition work. He has to make each iteration feel specific, complete, and organic in its context. He has to sell it. And the acting and direction and editing all have to back him up in selling it. And in this, The Newsroom fails more often than it succeeds. What in West Wing and even Studio 60 felt charming and clever now feels stale and obligatory.
It’s strange, because when I’m watching an episode, it feels like I’m just now realizing that something I thought was funny really isn’t. But that’s not the case. It worked before, and it’s broken now. Part of that is a writing issue — Sorkin’s not putting as much polish into the execution of the bits as he did in prior shows, and he’s also not building up to them properly.
We’re seeing exchanges that should happen in mid-season happen in the first two episodes, and that’s jarring. I’m not a fan of the phrase “earning” in the context of evaluating writing, but honestly, it fits here. Sorkin’s not asking for the butter, he’s asking for the laugh, and he’s asking for it out of turn.
But part of the problem is also on the performance/production side. In terms of the performances and the visual style, The Newsroom feels too much like The Office. Too much TV, not enough theater. And as aggravating as I find the writing in The Newsroom, it’s still Sorkin writing, which is not well-served by the indoor voices and the handheld camera.
One of the most worrisome iterations in The Newsroom is Will’s little hallucination-triggered rant — a variation on Casey’s speech to Dan in the Sports Night pilot and Wes’s freakout on live TV in the Studio 60 pilot. The key difference is that we know — either at the time or in later context — that both those speeches are in some degree horseshit. Casey’s real issue is his divorce, and Dan calls him on it. Wes was the architect of his own failure, and we come to understand that as we get insight into the history of Danny, Matt, and Jack. And of course he loses his job and vanishes from the show’s stage entirely.
But Will’s breakdown isn’t treated that way. Not only does nobody call him on his bullshit, but his boss and his ex-fiance actually re-arrange dozens of lives put millions of dollars on the line to enable his bullshit, and the audience is expected to stand up and clap.
This is a real step backwards in terms of the kind of story that Sorkin’s telling and most especially in terms of the moral of that story. And what’s funny, or not so funny, is that it’s actually a much dumber, simpler, more palatable story.
Mackenzie MacHale (seriously?) and Maggie Jordan are possibly the worst female characters I’ve seen on a Sorkin show. (Maybe not worse than Hallie Gallaway. It’s a tough call.) I find almost everything about them annoying, but the biggest problem is how they fit in relation to the rest of the cast and especially in relation to their male counterparts.
Compare Mackenzie/Will to Dana/Casey, Josh/Mandy, or Danny/Jordan; compare Maggie/Jim (?) to Natalie/Jeremy. Both Newsroom pairs are obtained by taking their earlier counterparts and sucking most of the strength, professional acumen, assertiveness, and authority out of the female character and putting them in the male character. (Imagine what the beginning of West Wing would look like if Mandy had to essentially beg Josh for her job and serve at his pleasure. In fact, The Newsroom is almost exactly Josh’s fantasy of how that scenario should have played out.)
Sorkin has often had issues with gender in the past. There’s a lot of nerd-machismo, West Wing had a strong paternalistic streak, and there are lots of little things you could ding him on if you wanted to. But almost none of his women were weak. Dana, Natalie, Sally, CJ, Donna, Abbey, Jordan, Harriet. Those characters are all quirky, idiosyncratic, sometimes cute, often neurotic — but they’re tough and smart and they don’t back down. That’s important not only because we need as many tough, smart, indefatigable women characters as we can get but because the banter/bicker web that holds a Sorkin show together depends on characters that can stand up to each other.
Are there other ways to write good female characters? Of course. Can you write a good show with as many weak characters as strong characters? Of course. But that’s not what’s happening here. These women aren’t more nuanced than other Sorkin women, and the overall tone of this show isn’t more subtle or complex (quite the opposite). They’re just weaker, more deferential, more anxious, less useful, less powerful, less interesting. And that makes their relationships with the male characters less interesting. (And the men are also less interesting, since they wind up being the explainy/judgy daddy figures that have to be wheedled/placated/impressed.)
After watching two episodes, I have to ask: did someone break up with Sorkin right before he began writing this series?
The stories are lousy. There’s no actual journalism happening. We just get told that someone had a phone call with a person they inevitably knew already (relative/friend/college boyfriend) and that becomes the pretext for a bunch of Sorkinisms and posturing.
And there’s always some of that in Sorkin, but Sports Night gave some indication that people were doing the actual work of journalism — editing, researching, writing, prepping. And Studio 60 persistently reminded us that writing and acting are jobs that take talent and effort. They weren’t Edward R. Murrow, but that baseline sense that people were doing the work was important, because that formed the basis for our ability to make sense of how much they cared about the work.
And the straw men — again, this is something that you have to expect in Sorkin, but they’ve (if possible) gotten even more straw than before, and it seems especially obnoxious given the aggravatingly high-minded stance the show insists on (notionally) assigning to itself.
More than any other Sorkin work, this feels like it could just as easily be published in the form of an op/ed screed. It’s just a big excuse for complaining about certain things combined with some golden age bullshit and some preening self-congratulatory displays of clever rhetoric.
Again — that’s always been there in Sorkin. But until now, I never thought that was what was essential in Sorkin’s storytelling. I never thought that was the point of it. Now I wonder if maybe it was all along, and it just had better packaging before.