The Pretentious Condescension of 'The Newsroom'

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Aaron Sorkin's new show is unpleasant, heavy-handed, and often inaccurate.

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HBO

"He's not going to look like an elite Northeastern prick?" a cameraman asks MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a cable news executive producer, at the end of the first episode of The Newsroom. The "he" is Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a formerly bland anchor who has blown up his reputation with a rant that was circulated on YouTube. "He is," MacKenzie acknowledges. "Let's make that sexy again."

Therein lies the problem with The Newsroom, a new HBO show by West Wing and Social Network writer-director Aaron Sorkin, which premieres Sunday at 10 pm. A series with great self-confidence but no discernibly unique ideas, The Newsroom is determined to dress up old models as the future of journalism, even as it blithely skates over the realities of the news business and the real work of reporting.

The Newsroom appears to operate on a hierarchy of condescension. At the top is executive Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), who describes MacKenzie as if she's a fragile flower rather than an experienced war correspondent. He says, "She's mentally and physically exhausted...and she's been to way too many funerals for a girl her age. She wants to come home." Will, a notch below him, is unpleasant to everyone in sight, starting in the opening sequences, when he tells a college girl, "You are, without a doubt, the member of the worst period generation period ever period." (The show later validates Will's nastiness to her by making her seem spoiled and entitled: She sues her college for emotional distress.) Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will's soon-to-be-former executive producer, can't risk snarking on MacKenzie, his replacement, "She's like a sophomore poli-sci major at Sarah Lawrence." Jim, MacKenzie's deputy, snaps back: "She's exactly like that. I guess the only difference are her two Peabodies and the scar on her stomach from covering a Shiite protest in Islamabad."

Sorkin's characters are often accused of sounding alike. Here, what they have in common is a sense that they're superior to someone who hasn't submitted to their needs, wishes, and worldview.

At the bottom of this miserable totem pole is Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), formerly an intern, promoted only recently to be Will's assistant, who is condescended to by everyone. "He didn't promote you, honey. He thought you were his assistant," Don, her negging nebbish of a boyfriend tells her at the beginning of the episode. Will, trying to prove he's attentive to his staff, insists that her name is Ellen. MacKenzie declares that Maggie is "me, before I grew into myself and got hotter with age!" And when Maggie volunteers for a reporting task, both Don and Jim treat Maggie like an idiot. "Can you do this? You can't just look it up on Wikipedia," Don tells her. "It's true, Maggie," warns Jim.

It might be nice if this felt like some sort of critique of the way powerful men in journalism ignore and fail to mentor young women, or of the grinding, low-paid jobs that people of both genders increasingly have to accept if they hope for a long-term future in the field. Part of journalism's problem, after all, is a generational one: Young reporters are being asked to do more, with less supervision and training, and for lower salaries. But the only salary or housing situation that's mentioned in the pilot is Jim's. Maggie feels soggy, rather than stifled—she tells flimsy lies to her parents to cover for Don, who is too commitment-phobic to go to dinner with them after dating Maggie for four months. And the show is too invested in establishing MacKenzie and Jim as heroes to make them recognize that their treatment of Maggie is unkind rather than charming.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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