HBO’s The Newsroom is the most compellingly terrible thing on television. It’s so bad (and in such idiosyncratic ways), that I find myself itching to watch it every week. I apologise if this is super boring, but I just really need to get some things off my chest.
1. First of all, the amount of contempt this show has for women is crazy. It’s relentless; all the little things. Lisa being so delighted with having FaceTime on her phone (“Can you see me?!”) that she walks right into a pedestrian. Don telling Sloan that her segment is going to have to be longer tonight, so she’s “expanding” — a common term in the industry they both work in — and Sloan exclaiming, “Come on, I only gained four freaking pounds!” Mack and Jim receiving the same oblique text from a national security analyst, but Mack being certain that he’s hitting on her. And that’s not even touching on the truly ridiculous shit they make Maggie say. In the particular universe of this show (and, seemingly, Sorkin’s life), women exist only to admire men and be the punchlines of jokes. It’s horrible and blatant and weird.
2. The characters have resumes instead of depth. Mack was supposed to have been an embedded war journalist in Afghanistan, but nothing in her wobbly, maladroit behaviour even hints at the qualities that would be needed and inculcated in such a situation. Will was supposed to have been a mild, inoffensive anchor who never upset anybody, but we’ve never seen him even come close to resisting the opportunity to lecture anybody. On a pretty fundamental screenwriting basis, it’s implausible that Will used to defend Sarah Palin, when ignorance or incompetence of any kind gives him rage-spasms. It’s implausible that he’s a registered Republican, when every political viewpoint he’s expressed is 100% Aaron Sorkin’s. The Newsroom has the most impossibly specious set of characters I’ve ever come across — the cast of Rocko’s Modern Life had more internal logic — and the cognitive dissonance that results from that, crossed with how seriously the show takes itself, is legitimately unsettling.
3. Which leads one to ask: if they’re not characters, what are they? The most fascinating thing about this show is how purely it takes its narcissism. I would honestly not be exaggerating very much if I summed up The Newsroom as “a bunch of smart people saying Aaron Sorkin’s political opinions, and admiring each other for doing so”. Opponents are brought on only briefly, to look abashed while their positions are eviscerated on national TV. Only Sorkin’s viewpoint is allowed to be argued articulately, and the show presents the force of that eloquence as the manifest proof of its truth. The dishonesty of the tactic is nauseating, even when I agree with what’s being argued.
4. And I agree with it a fair bit! That’s part of what makes this so weird! I used to love The West Wing, and was genuinely prepared to like this show. But where The West Wing was idealistic in a way that felt earned — it allowed characters who were equally smart and sympathetic to disagree; it was prepared to learn as well as teach — The Newsroom feels deeply cynical. Only with The Newsroom do I fully realise just how stupid Aaron Sorkin thinks everyone is. I hate to say this, but this show is actually making me re-evaluate my relationship with The West Wing. Did this kind of narcissistic “mission to civilise” lurk under that show’s fabric too?
5. There is perhaps an element of self-defence in my aversion to this show. Aaron Sorkin is spectacularly good at writing a certain kind of dialogue — unrealistically fast and clever, zingers and counter-zingers flying, a certain flattery to your level of intelligence — and when it’s paired with characters you care about, it makes for a really engaged televisual relationship. I stand by my assertions about how specious and badly-contructed all of The Newsroom's characters are, but it's probably also true that I don't want to care about them. Caring about them would mean handing the show an extremely potent weapon in the battle to emotionally manipulate my thinking, and that just feels like way too much power to cede to so creepy an entity.
6. I get the feeling that my experience watching The Newsroom might be somewhat akin to what a thoughtful right-leaning person might feel when watching Fox News. You know: the cringe in your stomach when you see people arguing dishonestly for something you believe in. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to feel like there might really be something to that comparison — that, more than any news program currently in existence, this might actually be what a left-wing version of Fox News actually looks like.
7. No, I’m serious. Fox News presents a highly partisan take on current events (carefully guided to accomplish specific goals within the current political climate), and disguises itself as news. The Newsroom, in contrast, presents a highly partisan take on current events (carefully guided to accomplish specific goals within the current political climate), and disguises itself as a drama. Their difference in form might require no more complex explanation than that The Newsroom was created by a screenwriter, and Fox News by a newspaper man. Both deliberately blur the boundaries of reality and fiction. Both do so in the unshakeable belief that their own worldview is ultimately righteous enough to justify the tactic. What am I missing?
8. Some months ago, I made the argument to a room full of people that propaganda was important, and the avenue through which important social battles were won. “If Nazis are really good at propaganda,” I said, “isn’t it our responsibility to be even better at it?” Clearly, though, my discomfort with The Newsroom belies the easy enthusiasm of that statement. Even if it could turn someone around on some issue or other, I find myself unable to deal with the idea that people could find this show convincing, or noble, or even legitimate. If you wanted to, it wouldn’t be hard to see this as a microcosm of why the Left (very generally speaking) has a harder time effectively propagandising its aims.
9. But maybe not. Maybe the amount of things about this show I find politically objectionable (the misogyny, the elitism, the Great White Man Coming To Save Us All) far outweigh the occasional decent arguments it makes. Perhaps politics resides less in the questions that are asked, and more in the way they are asked; the framing of the question, the structure of the dialogue. Even if I agree with what the Great White Man is saying, he can fuck right off if he believes he’s the only one worthy of the space to say it.
10. Yeah, okay, I feel better now.