12:23 pm Jul. 23, 20126
Every Monday, Glynnis MacNicol writes about the new HBO series, "The Newsroom." Today, Episode 5, "Amen." (Earlier posts here.)
There is a television show Aaaron Sorkin should be writing right now. And it is becoming increasingly clear it is not "The Newsroom."
A frequent reaction to "The Newsroom" that I've come across since I started writing this column has been a certain angst among longtime Sorkin fans that the show will somehow retroactively make "The West Wing" impossible to watch. But there has been little discussion of whether "The West Wing" could even exist in the current television climate, or whether Sorkin's earnest ideology and "factifying" can stand up to the demands of a digitally-engaged audience that arguably knows too much about the media to be ideological about it at all. (I'm not talking about ALL CAPS commenters, of course.)
I think the fear for the legacy of "The West Wing" is misplaced for any variety of reasons; of course, it's impossible in a lot of ways for a show to be as perfect for its time as "The West Wing" was and still hold up a decade later, but nothing about the appearance of "The Newsroom" affects that intractable and enduring problem of writing for the times.
But the question of whether "The Newsroom" makes any sense for this time is a related and different question, and one I've been asking. And it's led me to ponder what sort of show Sorkin might have done instead of "The Newsroom" that might better have suited his strengths.
Lo and behold, I think he answered this very question last night, though unintentionally. It happened during a small scene in which resident financial journalist Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) attempts to explain the history of the financial crisis to MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who has confessed that she approves Sloan's five-minute spots on the economy without actually knowing what they are about.
(I won't bother to harp on the "women are bad at math" angle here—it's present, even though Sloan is a woman—except to point out that it's impossible to imagine even the most economically ignorant media person—and I qualify for that designation among a large number of my fellow media people—not knowing who Paul Krugman is, let alone the executive producer of a prime-time cable show. Aaron Sorkin sure likes to hammer his women.)
Cut to Sloan giving a short, utterly compelling (in the best spirit of "The West Wing") history of the Glass-Steagall Act and its connection to the current economic crisis.
Boom! Why aren't we watching that show? I want to watch that show. I would actually welcome "The Aaron Sorkin Lectures America About Wall Street Show." Not only can I not think of any subject more in need of explaining (tell us Aaron Sorkin!), more compelling and timely, more actually in need of ideology and an infusion of moral values, more resonant with the American public's needs and wants, than the financial fallout. But it would also have provided Sorkin with endless opportunities to create avenging, heart-of-gold whistleblowers, his favorite sort! And chances are they might have seemed both hard-driving (whisteblowing ain't for sissies), and very, very, necessary to boot.
Boy would I like to see that show.
But we have instead "The Newsroom," where it is now Feb. 11, 2011, smack in the middle of the Egyptian uprising. Elliott Hirsch, the 10 p.m. anchor whose show much of Will McAvoy's staff jumped ship for in the first episode, is reporting the story from a hotel room in Cairo. This frustrates Will's former executive producer Don (who now works for Elliott), because he wants Elliott out in the square and in on the action.
So Elliott takes a walk down to the street, and is attacked by protestors who throw stones at him. So he needs to be rushed home to the States.
This storyline appears to be a direct reference to Anderson Cooper, who, along with Christiane Amanpour remained in Egypt after the networks had pulled their anchors. (Cooper left a few days later on Feb. 6; Amanpour remained.)
Cooper had spent a few notable days reporting his show from a "undisclosed" location in Cairo after being chased through the Cairo streets on the morning of Feb. 2 by Pro-Mubarak forces (CNN subsequently sent out pictures of Anderson being chased, which presumably is what Don is suggesting when he pushes to get Elliott back on the air, bruises and all, before thinking better of making Elliot "the story").
In the real world, Feb. 11 is not a random date in the timeline of the media in Egypt. It is the date on which CBS journalist Lara Logan was brutally attacked in Tahrir Square, suffering "sustained sexual assault and beating." This gets no mirror image on "The Newsroom," however, despite the fact that Logan's experience was by far the worst trauma suffered by an American journalist in Egypt at the time (though by no means worse than what was suffered by many Egyptian journalists on the ground there).
Back in the "News Night" newsroom, resident internet guru Neal Sampat is able to get in touch with a Egyptian man, Amen (who gives the show its not-so-felicitous title), whom he encountered during the London subway bombings (we learn Neal was on one of the subway cars that was bombed). Neal persuades Amen to report from the ground, which he does, though after revealing his identity on the air (something we are told that as good journalists, reporters for "The Newsroom" are required without exception to do) Amen (predictably) goes missing.
After much back-and-forth with the uncooperative corporate arm of ACN, Will eventually buys Amen's safe return with $250,000; in the show, there is an additional nod to a scene from the 1993 David Anspaugh football-underdog-hero film Rudy, which we learned earlier in the episode is the only film that can make Will cry: the staff all contributes to the pot even though they can't afford it! Yay American generosity.
I'm pretty resolved not to nitpick this show to death, mostly because it's become such a boring exercise. But this plot development provides yet another (somewhat egregious) example of how fundamentally Sorkin doesn't understand how the media currently works. The world, including cable networks, was getting plenty of enormously valuable, on-the-ground news reporting from Tahrir Square even after many of the U.S. journalists left. It came via Twitter and Facebook from Egyptians in the thick of the action.
It's now become an exercise among smart people to satirize the new media's worshipfulness of Twitter and Facebook during the Arab uprisings of 2011, but it's precisely because we are all so completely aware of how crucial the social web was in these revolutions that it's ever funny.
I'm sure Sorkin would argue that these people were not real journalists and not worth his time. Real-life Sorkin quote: "When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from 'BobsThoughts.com,' Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website ...."
This is stupid not least of all because it elides the importance of social media to the "real" journalists Sorkin seems to worship: The New York Times' Nick Kristof remained in Egypt, safely, throughout the uprising and did much of his spot reporting via his own Facebook page.
But the larger point is that Sorkin happily skips over, or intentionally discounts or utterly denies the role social media played in the uprisings, which is undoubtedly one of the most significant real-life developments in media over the last decade.
I would like to suggest that as a first step in figuring out the role the internet actually plays in journalism and politics, Sorkin would do well to watch "The Good Wife," a show that excels at incorporating the digital world into its dramatic storylines. And who knows, maybe he will. Earlier this week Sorkin reportedly fired nearly all the writers on the show, which if nothing else—Sorkin is notoriously controlling about his scripts, making it hard to peg the weakness of this show on the writers' room—suggests he at least knows there's a problem.
I was reminded this week that Sorkin's sour relationship with the Internet can be traced to the comments section of the site Television Without Pity, where he used to post frequently in defense of his own shows. Eventually things turned nasty and rumor has it Sorkin cut out the Internet from his life entirely as a result. He's paying a steep price for it now. Come back to the Internet, Aaron Sorkin, Aaron Sorkin!
Following the other dramatic strain of the show, the screwball romantic comedy, was as dire as it ever is this week. I will keep it short: It turns out MacKenzie's boyfriend is planning to run for Congress (something that obviously never occurred to silly her!) and the fact that he's been booked on Will's show five times is enough to get the gossip magazines in a frenzy of accusations that she's been using her position to boost his political career. (I'm trying to imagine what gossip magazine would give even a sentence to this story, but I suppose this development hews to Sorkin's view of journalists as the vaunted heroes of Democracy, and more famous than Justin Bieber or Kate Middleton.) Will offers to pay the gossip columnist off to keep her quiet (because every woman on this show desperately needs to be ransomed) but rescinds his offer when the gossip writer has the audacity to call herself a journalist.
MacKenzie's reaction to all this is to bemoan hurting Will.
Lower down on the "Newsroom" totem pole, Maggie tries to force Jim on a Valentine's Day date with her roommate, Lisa, because no woman can be alone on Valentine's Day without contemplating suicide! When Jim forgets and stands her up for dinner, Lisa, like an avenging harpy, comes raging into the newsroom to scream her disgust for him (real world here again: the amount of security required to enter a newsroom is such that a scene like this is pretty much totally impossible).
Oh and at one point a stripper randomly shows up in the newsroom . That this stripper is played by Sorkin's ex-girlfriend Corinne Kingsbury, who is also a writer on the show and reportedly the only person to survive this week's purge of writers, nicely and succinctly sums up the role of women in Sorkin's worlds, both real and fictional.
One last thing. There is a lot of bruising on this show. Jim gets hit in the head and needs stitches, Neal punches his computer screen (which is showing Rush Limbaugh) and breaks his fingers, Don charges a door and dislocates his shoulder. All of which is maybe supposed to be an analogy for the rough knocks we all (or, actually, only the men in this episode) take in life, but mostly just felt like an accurate reflection of how this show continually leaves me feeling by the end of the hour.
There are five episodes left in the season so maybe Sorkin will "fix us" yet.
More by this author:
- What's really wrong with the White House Correspondents' Dinner?
- Nate Silver receives the adulation of New York's media demimonde in Nick Denton's Soho loft