Aaron Sorkin, internet troll
Every Monday, Glynnis MacNicol writes about the new HBO series, "The Newsroom." Today, Episode 6, "Bullies." (Earlier posts here.)
Last night's episode of "The Newsroom" was one of my favorites—when it aired 10 years ago on season 3 of "The West Wing."
Back then the episode was titled Night Five and the story centered on President Jed Bartlet secretly meeting with a psychiatrist (Adam Arkin) because he has gone five nights without sleeping. It's a great episode. And even after all these years the final exchange between Bartlet and the doctor about the root cause of his insomnia—that his father never liked him, which created a need to be liked; and that the legacy of Lincoln casts a long, long shadow on the modern presidency—is one I remembered clearly. What a relief then that when I watched Night Five again this weekend, the whole episode was just as great as the first time I watched it in February, 2002.
This led me to rewatch a few other episodes from season 3 of "The West Wing" (Sorkin left the show at the end of season 4), and the good news is that after some agonizing these past few weeks over whether "The Newsroom" would retroactively make "The West Wing" unwatchable, I was so very relieved to discover the show holds up. Entirely.
Alas, I'm giving up hope the same will ever be said of "The Newsroom," which is increasingly feeling like the warmed-up leftovers of Sorkin's more glorious past, with some extra ranting thrown in to cover up what's missing in substance, but which in fact makes the new material impossible to swallow.
Last night's "Newsroom" had a frame story: Will McAvoy has been unable to sleep, and so he makes an appointment with his therapist, Dr. Habib, hoping for a quick scrip for a sleep aid. Instead he finds that Dr. Habib has died, and his practice has been taken over by his 29-year-old son (who happens to bear a striking resemblance to Adam Arkin). And a quick scrip is not on the cards for him. Instead, Dr. Habib the younger wants to talk their way to the root of the problem. The episode unfolds as a series of flashbacks to Will's past few days. As the events unfold, we learn that Will can't sleep because:
a) he has changed the rules for commenters on the show's website (having moved on from women, Will is now going "singlehandedly fix the Internet!")
b) after a segment he did on the "Ground Zero Mosque" (a news story that actually reached its zenith 10 months earlier in real life than at the time this episode takes place) one of the commenters has threatened to kill him
c) Will picked on a guest once
d) he was mean to financial-news reporter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), who proceeds to tank her career
e) he was mean to her because his father beat him
If this last revelation sounds especially familiar it's because Jed Bartlet's father, played by Lawrence O'Donnell (who happens in real life to be the host of the 10 p.m. hour on MSNBC, the same hour McAvoy's protege Elliott Hirsch has just taken over on fictional ACN) also hit him; it's part of Bartlet's insomnia.
The fact that Aaron Sorkin recycles his own dialogue is not news. But that he should recycle a whole chunk of one main character from an earlier one is something else again. The two episodes end with the exact same line for goodness' sake ("Our time is up.") The first time, it seemed like an important message. Now, as with the "News Night" web commenters Will is so frustrated with, it just feels like a harangue.
There was plenty of yelling to be heard in this episode! Also, swearing. Much of it naturally was directed at women, with the exception of one excellent diatribe that was aimed at Will by a very discontented guest on his show. Let's talk about that first, because otherwise I'm afraid we're just going to have to jump right back into Sorkin's increasingly unbearable "girl" problem.
So one of the reasons Will can't sleep is because he feels bad about bullying his guests (his father was a bully, etc.). Flashback to an interview Will held the previous night with Rick Santorum's former deputy chief of staff, Sutton Hall, who is both openly gay and black. Will is hoping to turn these elements of Hall's identity into an indictment of Santorum's position on gay marriage, and more broadly on race, though Hall repeatedly says that his allegiance to Santorum hinges on Santorum's position on abortion. But Will hammers relentlessly at Hall about Santorum's views on gay marriage, asking Hall how he can work for someone who believes him to be evil and inadequate as a male, nearly bringing Hall to tears and finally pushing him to brilliantly eviscerate at Will live on air: "I am more than one thing, how dare you reduce me to the color of my skin or sexual orientation," and "Shut up!" and "How dare you presume to decide what I think is important" and "Get this through your head: I don't need your help."
Indeed. It's actually a great exchange (and would have been considered one in real life) and manages to accurately skewer much of what is wrong with the combative hyperbole of cable news interviews. Naturally, in Sorkin's weird world of cable news the newsroom, instead of being joyous at the viral possibilities of the exchange and the opportunity for another news-making on-air apology, is aghast at Will's ungentlemanly behavior. Even more unrealistically, the ratings take a tumble. The next day Will, and the bodyguard he is now saddled with thanks to that commenter's death threat, gets himself to a therapist.
Now over to the "girls." I'm starting to wonder whether Sorkin isn't actually just trolling us with his female characters.
In the course of these first six episodes the women in Sorkinland have developed into such pitiable creations one could create a drinking game based on the number of times they do something stupid and need to be rescued by one of the male leads.
This week Sloan Sabbith is given the opportunity to fill in for Elliot as host of the 10 p.m. hour. Earlier that day, she had conducted a pre-interview in Japanese over the phone with a former colleague who is now the spokesman for one of the Fukushima nuclear power plants; he tells her, off the record, that the danger caused by the plant in the wake of the tsunami in Japan is actually much greater than the Japanese are letting on.
But it's off the record. She seeks advice from Will, who criticizes her for never following up her questions and allowing guests to lie on the air to her. In the live on-air interview, Sabbith goes after the spokesperson when he appears, with a translator, as a guest on the show that evening. At one point, to get around her friend's interpreter, whom she tells the audience is mangling the translation, she switches to Japanese, live on air, to confront the pair, before losing her head, and turning to the audiencee to tell them what she was told off the record hours before.
Cut to a spitting mad Charlie Skinner, who arrives shortly after the show ends and suspends Sabbith (now referred to simply as "girl") with pay until an investigation into whether she is making things up can be conducted by the network.
It's worth noting that the most shocking part about the storylline was not Skinner calling Sabbith "girl," something he does repeatedly during the last scene of the episode without any real reaction from the newsroom. It's the idea that a supposedly experienced reporter would be led to break the off-the-record agreement, live on air, out of an overconsumption of Will's blinding masculine journalistic energy.
"Help me, I need some wisdom," Sloan later pleads with Will, when she is confronted with one option for saving her skin on the air. No really, she really says this. In the end Will's wisdom is to encourage her to lie on air and pretend she's an idiot and misheard her guest's Japanese in the pre-interview. This despite the fact that, presumably in part because of her on-air ethical lapse, she's already been proven correct. (The Japanese exchange, meanwhile, had it happened in real life, would likely have sent ratings through the roof and landed Sloan her own show.)
A subplot is that one of Sloan's guests on the show she's subbing in for is Sandra Bernhard; she keeps saying Sarah Bernhard, and all the males are annoyed that she can be so illiterate as to not know the famous old actress.
Mackenzie didn't know who Paul Krugman was last week; another example of Sorkin's seeming determination to expose his female leads as idiots and know-nothings with a penchant for meltdowns. This week, she's conducting an opposition-research style investigation into Will's past, at the behest of ACN, because news has leaked of a complaint filed internally on Maggie's behalf by someone who saw Will berating her over a year ago. Maggie, it seems, was berated for confusing Georgia, the country and former Soviet republic, with Georgia, the state. (Oops! Another example of women not knowing things.) The potential is seen for more skeletons to come out of WIll's closet, and the network wants to know about everything first. Assigned to the oppo research is Maggie, among others.
It creates an awkward step in the love-hate dance between Will and Mackenzie, who has just discovered that while the two were in a relationship, Will fielded an offer from Fox and never told her about it.
In a stormy confrontation in his office Mackenzie accuses Will of keeping the offer secret and misleading her into thinking they were headed for marriage when really he was planning to quietly decamp to L.A. on his own. Not so, says Will. The offer was never serious, and by the way here's the Tiffany's engagement ring I was planning on giving you that's been sitting in my desk all these years. The ring casts its spell on Mackenzie as it must upon any woman; she apologizes once again for cheating on Will and departs.
Except, we're later told, Will actually only just bought the diamond ring this week anticipating Mackenzie's discovery of his years-old Fox offer, in the hopes of making her feel bad. Or something. I'm still admittedly confused about the reason for the ring, though the point I guess is is that Will rips up the receipt and keeps the ring.
Back in the therapist's office, after a full session, the doctor concludes the egg sandwiches Will eats before bed are really to blame, writes him a prescription and encourages him to return more regularly.
Will's pain is really the source of all problems; if he could find his way through it, he'd be in a position to make everyone happy. He could be charitable to the women around him, who know so little and whom he resents; he could get close to people; he could resist bullying guests who are hurting because they are black and gay.
Sorkin's faith in therapy as a solution (for men, at least) is a theme that has run through all his shows. In "Sports Night" Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) sees a therapist because he blames himself for his brother's death; in "The West Wing" Josh (Bradley Whitford) sees a therapist because he blames himself for his sister's death. And, of course, there's the president (and now Will) and and their insomnia.
Over the weekend I happened to listen to a Bill Simmons' podcast from June in which he interviews Louis C.K. At one point the conversation turns to "The Newsroom" (as it is wont to do in media circles). Louis C.K. is apparently a huge fan of Sorkin's but says he's holding off watching it because he prefers to get the whole season at once.
Regarding all the backlash, C.K. admits to having "hate-watched" Studio 60, but says even Sorkin's failures are so spectacular they are worth every annoying minute: "He took such big bad swings, I couldn't stop watching," he said.
And maybe that's where "The Newsroom" is really falling apart. Because I don't feel like Sorkin is even bothering to take a swing. I wish he would!
David Milch has been taking big, bad swings ever since "Deadwood" ended, and each one is fascinating.
Sadly, it mostly it feels like Sorkin thinks he's already proven himself so completely that now it's the audiences job to sit back and submit to a barrage of repeats until we get it into our thick skulls. In other words, Sorkin has become an Internet troll with a production budget.