Aaron Sorkin is to 'Newsroom' what Bryan Goldberg is to Bustle
Last week former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank wrote a review of the Netflix series "House of Cards."
"Having watched several episodes, I agree that it is well acted," he wrote. "My problem is that it might mislead people into thinking that this is the way our political system actually works. It is not."
The review caught my eye for a number reasons: I had just finished binge-watching the entire series for the first time, and Frank's complaints sounded awfully similar to the complaints that have dogged "The Newsroom." Namely, that it has very little to do with how the media actually works.
But I couldn't give Frank's review more than a glance. The truth is, I don't care whether "House of Cards" is an accurate portrayal of our political system. It is too good. Too well-written. Too compelling. Too Kevin-Spacey'- rich-southern-drawl-directly-addressing-the-camera. Too smart. And finally, far too much fun. I just want to dive in and wallow in it, the way Francis Underwood does in a plate of Freddy's ribs; something the glories of Netflix allow me to do.
It admittedly helps that I don't know enough about the inner workings of Congress to nitpick all the plot points of the show. And Washington, anyway, ought to be more used to being presented in a literary rather than a literal light in entertainment.
But a lack of verisimilitude in the specifics is always forgivable when it facilitates compelling writing and exquisitely drawn characters. I've often wondered how "The West Wing" would have fared in the age of real-time Twitter critique. And the answer, I think, is it would have fared well.
Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" is also available on Netflix, and in an attempt to fill the hole left when I finished "House of Cards" (and to reassure myself that "The Newsroom" hadn't stripped it, by association, of its enjoyability) I watched the episode 17 People from Season 2. For those of you who are not "West Wing"-o-philes, this is the episode in which Toby Ziegler susses out that something is rotten in the state of Bartlet, and confronts the President, who reveals he has M.S.; this sets up a chain of events that culminates in Two Cathedrals (still one of network TV's greater hours). Here is Toby yelling at Bartlet:
"I wasn't in the Situation Room that night, but I'll bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets, that it was Leo. Who no one elected! For ninety minutes that night there was a coup d'état in this country."
It is so good. So good. So good in fact I wish some network would re-air the first four seasons of the show simply so Twitter could view it and fully enjoy the richness of the characters and the story lines and the writing, as well as little details like Charlie reading The Cornel West Reader outside the Oval Office.
Anyway, being reminded how good Sorkin used to be made the news that he had been offered a third season by HBO slightly less infuriating. If I were a higher-up at HBO I'd probably be tempted to give him another shot at television glory based solely on five minutes of 17 People (or the opening scene of Bad Moon Rising or the closing scene of The Fall's Gonna Kill You). I mean, when you've proven yourself so thoroughly great on even one occasion (even if a decade has passed since) the hope that you can do it again, despite all evidence to the contrary, must be overwhelming to the people who gamble on these things for a living.
Sorkin is like the Bryan Goldberg of television. Goldberg, who founded the wildly successful site Bleacher Report, recently received $6.5 million in funding (reportedly using only two slides to make his pitch) to start a site for women called Bustle. He then wrote one of the more idiotic, ignorant, and downright offensive posts I've read introducing it. ("Isn't it time for a women's publication that puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips?" It's so bad it's almost like Sorkin wrote it himself.) Calamity naturally ensued.
"The Newsroom" is basically Aaron Sorkin's Bustle letter. On one hand it makes you bang your head against the wall in rage that the same people are being given money to create mediocre content; on the other, with these sorts of track records of course they are being given money! (On both counts one feels nothing by sympathy for the hard-working staff of writers caught in between.) In the meantime let's rejoice in the fact both "Orange is the New Black" and "Top of the Lake" both got the greenlight, and then ponder again the brilliance of Skyler White.
In any event, here is what happened on last night's episode of "The Newsroom", the seventh of this season.
The episode, titled Red Team III (so-called because it describes an outside group brought in to scrutinize a potentially controversial story with fresh eyes after the news team has been in the trenches with it for months) is almost entirely plot-driven–not one woman was insulted!–and alternates between the staff giving further testimony to lawyer Rebecca Halliday and the audience seeing how the Genoa story finally made it to air.
In what feels like another example of Sorkin pulling his plot punches, it is also revealed that the lawsuit ACN is fighting has been brought against them by producer Jerry Dantana, who was fired for doctoring the interview with the three-star general to make it look like he was confirming the Americans had used Sarin gas. Dantana's claim is that he is merely the scapegoat and the story made it to air because of institutional failure.
Part of that institutional failure, we soon learn, is that no one thought to ask whether Will's confidential source was the same person as Charlie's. Also problematic is that after the story airs it's discovered that one of the marines testifying received his second purple heart after sustaining brain trauma, not from being in a knife fight as he'd initially asserted. And then the whole thing really comes crashing down when Charlie, having received an irate call from the General, tries to confirm the specifics of the story with his source and discovers the man had made the whole thing up as a sort of vendetta against Charlie for firing his heroin-addicted son from an intern position. The son later committed suicide and the father blames Charlie for it. In the most eye-rolling scene of the episode, Charlie returns to the office and holds the Genoa manifest that served as a principal proof for the story above a light bulb, long enough for the phrase "fuck you Charlie" to become visible on the page.
And then, right as Benghazi is breaking and the team has an inside line on the fact the riots may have nothing to do with Terry Jones' offensive movie, Mac discovers Dantana's nefarious editing and they are forced to tank the story.
The episode concludes—we are now back to October 2012, by the way, and Sandy is wreaking havoc on the East Coast—with Will, Charlie, and Mac attempting to offer their resignation to network honcho Leona Lansing (the glorious Jane Fonda), who appears in a dress so stunning that it should send everyone onto the Internet in search of old Jane Fonda workouts.
Lansing refuses to accept it. She's pissed that Dantana has "cooked an interview" and thinks he won't get "one fucking dollar." Leona has good lawyers!
At which point (doubtless if you are still watching this series your cringe-bar has been upped, but this will really put it to the test) Marcia Gay Harden rides in on the white horse of the law, confirms that no one should be fired, and offers her lawyerly services.
"Leona!" cries Charlie."We don't have the trust of the public anymore!"
"Get it back!" She shouts. End scene.
If only that was really the end scene. Presumably the next three episodes will detail the reclamation of that trust. Let's all keep our fingers crossed that whatever it is, it includes a lot of Jane Fonda.