The unreal dystopia of Aaron Sorkin

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Jeff Daniels in 'The Newsroom.' ()
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Every Monday, Glynnis MacNicol will be writing about the new HBO series, 'The Newsroom.' Here's her report on the first episode.

Has Aaron Sorkin ever watched cable news?

Because if he has, there was very little evidence of it in the premiere episode of Sorkin’s much-anticipated (and, to greater or lesser degrees depending on the critic, brutally panned) HBO drama "The Newsroom," which is ostensibly about the world of cable news.

"The Newsroom," Sorkin’s first television foray since the short-lived 2006 network drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," opens in familiar Sorkin territory: esteemed newsman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels)—described in the first few minutes as being “the Jay Leno of news anchors: you’re popular because you don’t bother anyone”—has what is commonly referred to on the sniping internet as an epic meltdown in front of a large college crowd after being asked by a “sorority girl” to describe why America is great “in one sentence or less.” Following some prodding by the moderator (who is helped along by McAvoy's apparent hallucination of his former executive producer in the audience holding up cue cards) McAvoy launches into the sort of rant that once so endeared Sorkin to an audience starved for big ideas.

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“When you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Yosemite? We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws for moral reasons. Struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty not poor people. We sacrificed. We cared for our neighbors. We put money where our mouths were and we never beat our chests … we reached for the stars. Acted like men. We aspired to intelligence …. We were able to be all these things, and do all these things, because we were informed by great men, men who were revered. “

Alas for those once-great men who led an innocent nation around by the nose. Don’t we all wish, as Aaron Sorkin (and Glenn Beck, for that matter) clearly does, that we could go back to the 1940s, when everything in America was good?

“I think I would have done very well, as a writer, in the forties,” he told an interviewer the other day, and he’s probably right.

On second thought, unless you are a white man, you probably understand that it wouldn't have been such a good time for you. That this golden age of America was actually only golden for some somehow never gets discussed by the white men who run the media industry and frequently hold it up as the corrective to society's ills.

Sorkin embraces the term "media elite" several times in the voices of several of his characters in this episode, in an attempt to reclaim the term as a description for old-school professional journalism; it's something he has done before in interviews, as when he said to the Times' David Carr last year, "Two of the scariest words to me right now are citizen journalist. ... I don’t want one any more than I want a citizen doctor." That old-school professionalism had, in the old days, its own, giant blind spots, which it appears from the first episode of "The Newsroom" with its flippancy about McAvoy's racial and gender stereotyping of his staff, he shares.

But this tired and misguided clarion call to shift America into reverse is not the biggest problem with the opening episode of "The Newsroom." It's not the unrealistic utopia Sorkin wants to offer us with "The Newsroom" that's the problem; it's the fact that the dystopia he thinks he's curing is unrecognizable.

The above speech began with McAvoy announcing that people hate liberals “because they lose always.” (That is a line that worked perfectly on "The West Wing" but has somewhat less resonance in the middle of an Obama presidency, something so unimaginable 10 years ago that Aaron Sorkin didn’t dare even dream it up as a "West Wing" plotline.)

McAvoy’s condemnation of the "sorority girl" as a member of the “Worst. Period. Generation. Period. Ever. Period” is the kind of silly "kids these days" lament common to the less self-reflective members of every aging demographic. Just, please. The college students who show up for a lecture at the Medill journalism school at Northwestern University are not wrecking the media.

But most importantly, in April 2010, when the action is set, Sorkin would have us believe there was possibly such a thing as a successful cable news anchor who a) owed his success to not airing his opinions in public and b) could feasibly be putting his career at risk with a tirade like the one McAvoy pulls at that Medill panel discussion.

I consumed toxic, nearly lethal doses of cable news between 2009-2011. The argument that America is no longer a great country was not an uncommon or shocking one. Far from it: It was the bread and butter of Fox News, which was in the early stages of reconfiguring itself as the network of Obama-administration opposition and devoted to keeping the President in a perpetual campaign mode by devoting each hour, every day to pointing out all the ways in which America is no longer great.

Nor is this now-bashing restricted to the right. More recently, an entire advertising campaign for MSNBC was built around this sentiment.

In the real April 2010, cable-news hosts were going out of their way to bust out and say stuff like what McAvoy says, with the express purpose of ginning up viral videos that would hopefully accrue to ratings.

There were few exceptions. CNN had already begun its precipitous ratings slide precisely for refusing to allow its anchors to have an opinion on anything. Remember Campbell Brown? Exactly. And there's Brian Williams, one of the three remaining people on TV outside of CNN who is paid vast sums of money because people still expect them not to have an opinion. He's a network anchor, though.

Neither of these examples changes this fact: Success in cable news in 2010 basically meant you had to have an opinion. And this is what makes the premise of Sorkin’s show a muddle from the onset, because it quickly becomes clear Sorkin wants to reward McAvoy for having a voice, and to project it as a matter of risking ratings and money in an unusual and brave move that is a credit to the ideals of the founding fathers.

CNN wishes this problem were even possible.

Does this sound nitpicky? It should. Sorkin chose to set "The Newsroom" in a recent, well-documented past using references to real people (The New York Times' Bill Carter, chronicler of the TV news industry, gets a shout out) and real news stories. That sets a high (and arguably unnecessary) bar of verisimilitude, for a show that is emerging in a television-drama landscape that fetishizes accuracy.

Sorkin has said that critics have found his new show far-fetched because it is far-fetched, because it's a fantasy of doing television news the right way. But it looks like Sorkin doesn't know what's wrong.

McAvoy’s new executive producer, hired while he's hiding out on a Caribbean vacation after Americagate, is MacKenzie McHale, who has just returned from two years in Afghanistan and Iraq and we are told numerous times is “physically and emotionally exhausted” by the experience. (And therefore wants to calm down with a job as the E.P. of a cable news show? This is the professional equivalent of going from a being jet fighter pilot to head of air traffic control for J.F.K., but fine, we get the point: she is a serious person.)

She is also McAvoy’s former lover and the person who broke his heart. She brings with her her loyal senior producer Jim Harper, and we are made to understand that he is one of some dozen people willing to leave their jobs in Atlanta and D.C. behind to follow McHale to New York City.

Following her arrival a love triangle between Harper, Don, and McAvoy’s beleaguered assistant Maggie (Allison Pill playing an updated Donna Moss) is hastily set up, though the banter feels weirdly stale, which may have to do with the lack of "walk and talks" in this show. People in newsrooms do not walk. They sit.

McHale, who is basically a continuation of Dana Whitaker and C.J. Craig but even more flustered (Sorkin’s ability to write women characters is an infamously diminishing one, though beyond the “sorority girl” moment not especially evident in this episode), loves being an American so much (her father was Margaret Thatcher’s ambassador to the U.N. so she was born on American soil) it’s like “she’s been locked in a room and only shown Frank Capra movies till she was 21; it’s like a sophomore Poli-Sci major from Sarah Lawrence.” Indeed. This is the sort of zingy exchange Sorkin perfected on "The West Wing," but which now somehow feels stale, if only because after 10 years of Internet consumption Sorkin’s knowing inside take on everything feels less insightful than something you’d read on Gawker.

Naturally, MacHale wants to make a “real” news show. Let McAvoy be McAvoy! While she is in his office listing the reasons why this is necessary (at one point she quotes some lines from Man of La Mancha, but the rest of the time she sounds like a particularly articulate commenter on Think Progress), actual breaking news happens. In this case, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But no one in the newsroom save McHale's protege, Jim Harper, will take any notice of the news alert that has come through because it is only color-coded yellow by the Associated Press.

In real life, newsrooms were also closely watching the social web to gauge the "code red" stories, and so the real "Newsnight" newsroom would likely have been a lot quicker to respond as a result, whatever importance the Associated Press attached to the news. But in McAvoy's world, the social web is just another silly contemporary diversion from the serious work of capital-J Journalism, as it is, presumably, in Sorkin's. (Twitter gets no serious mention on this show, instead being broadly mocked once or twice, including a joke on Twitter's 140-character limit that is so stale it evaporates.)

As the newsroom starts to energize around the story, the show takes its biggest dive off the cliff of plausibility. In Sorkin’s world, the plague of cable newsrooms is laziness. News people don’t want to know the news, they don't want to wear out their shoe-leather getting incremental advances on developing news stories; they just want what’s easy, what's prepackaged for them.

This is absurd. There are many things wrong with cable news. So many seriously damaging, complicated things wrong with cable news that it deserves an HBO show written by an exceptional writer to unravel them.

The one thing that is good about cable news, the one thing it rarely bungles, is breaking, real news. Cable news is very good at breaking news. Excellent even. It’s what it was built for. Perhaps too well-built for. Competition for the news breaks that make cable news work well have removed a lot of their grist; and that's the problem. When there is no breaking news to be had, the cable networks are left to run insignificant, silly, shallow or prejudicial stories through that same breaking news mill. This is how we got Sarah Palin, and the Beer Summit, and the birth certificate debate, and Herman Cain, and Donald Trump’s entire disturbing candidacy, (and the drowning dog, though that was pretty awesome actually).