When The Newsroom premiered last year, I was sitting in a living room filled with friends, all excitedly talking about what this new Aaron Sorkin show would be. The promos had Will McAvoy, played by golden-retriever lookalike Jeff Daniels, sitting behind his anchor's desk seeming both pensive and conflicted in the way that Sorkin likes his heroes to seem. So the group could assess a few things: We would be following a newscaster who, while maybe morally bankrupt in his personal life, is a man of character and social responsibility behind that desk. One could only assume that he would have a complicated office relationship with a brilliant but difficult woman because, well, it's Sorkin.
The series opens on a liberal-conservative debate with our hero McAvoy sandwiched in the middle. He's bored by the predictable argument between the two sides from the not-too-distant past. If you think Obama is a socialist then Reagan was too, and so on. Our hero has had enough. Temple rub. Bridge-of-the-nose squeeze. The moderator points at McAvoy and says, "I want a human moment from you." Then we get a vision of a concerned Emily Mortimer in the audience, and then McAvoy is yelling at a blonde undergrad as to why America is not the greatest country in the world.
The problem was not the soapboxing or the unbelievably rapid-fire way that McAvoy lists statistics. At this point, you either accept that the world Sorkin creates is one where people are approximately three percent better than actual human beings, or you don't. I will never argue about Sorkin's genius or complain about his style. I am completely and unapologetically on board. No, I think the room-wide eyeroll came when Mortimer, sitting in the audience of the college auditorium, held up a sign that read, "But it can be."
We have all phrases we repeat, devices we use, and Sorkin is no different. In fact, famously so. This opening scene, where we see McAvoy yell at a doe-eyed girl about how America is slipping, took me right back to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, where I remember watching a frustrated Tom Jeter, played by Nate Corddry, yell at his sweet Midwestern parents about the differences between sketch comedy and "skits." I loved that scene and I still do, even though the reasons have changed. I devoured comedy albums as a kid. Couldn't get enough of The Kids in the Hall, SNL, or The State. Watching this little 30-second rant about the proper term seemed like a personal victory to me somehow.
"We don't do skits, Mom. Skits are when the football players dress up as the cheerleaders and think it's wit. Sketches are when some of the best minds in comedy come together and put together a national comedy show that's watched and talked about by millions of people!"
It wasn't until years later that I realized this guy was yelling at his parents for using the wrong word while their other son was fighting in Afghanistan, which I assume is how most people saw it. And watching that opening scene from The Newsroom where our hero is hurling perspicacious abuse at this undeserving 20-year-old, I couldn't help but see parallels. But I wondered who exactly I was supposed to be cheering on. The elite informing the ignorant quickly became a theme of The Newsroom, and it was not apologetic about it nor should it have been: Television news and the government in 2010 were dominated by Tea Party hysterics, a bleak economy, and a seemingly unending war in the Middle East. News Night, had it actually existed, would have been a much-needed haven from the demands to see the president's birth certificate. But even when you agree with every word that McAvoy is saying, he is never challenged by an intellectual equal. So while his rant in that college forum would have been refreshing at the time, you're left wishing he wasn't such a dick about it.
Sorkin has created something perfectly infuriating, where I'm not sure that I'm enjoying it, but I am completely engrossed.
By the time we reached the title card, we had already lost two people from our viewing party. It became clear that this show would not be about human moments but a series of jabs at the state of our country in 2010. In an interview with Vulture, Sorkin explained the setting: "So the idea to set the show in the recent past happened out of necessity. But then it became a kind of creative gift. For one thing, the audience knows more than the characters do, which is kind of fun. And it gives me the chance to have the characters be smarter than we were, which is always nice." It's nice in the way that is cheating. While Sorkin continues on to say that reporting on fictional news would have made the show harder to believe, the clarity that two years gives does quite the opposite: The characters always make the right choice both morally and strategically, which of course isn't believable. For example, the new floppy-haired executive producer Jim Harper, played by John Gallagher Jr. (who's like The Office character Jim Halpert only in name, looks, and mannerisms), within minutes of stepping into the ACN newsroom receives a news alert about a fire at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well--and immediately recognizes the huge importance of it.
But before he sounds the alarm on one of the biggest environmental crises the US has ever suffered, Harper makes sure to set up his own complicated office relationship with a difficult women. Maggie Jordan, played by the usually likable Allison Pill, is one of the most challenging characters to watch on television. Written presumably to be the show's comic relief, Maggie is inept at her job and almost incapable of performing the tasks that a normal human being has to perform to get through the day. Throughout the season we watch her repeatedly trip, get snagged in things, and be mean to Jim for no other reason than that is what Sorkin thinks people who are sexually attracted to each other should do. But here's the thing: People who are sexually attracted to each other don't fight for episodes on end, or throw their attractive, less annoying roommates at each other. They have sex and date and even might have chemistry. We as an audience are repeatedly told that these two are destined to be together, that their lives run parallel to that of McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale (played by Mortimer), who also fight with each other instead of fucking each other. Don't get me wrong, Sorkin can write romance. The love affair between Sports Night's Dan Rydell and Casey McCall is one of the greatest in contemporary television history. But each time Jim and Maggie are forced closer together, I couldn't help but scream "run!" at the screen. Because complicated is one thing, and unpleasant is another. Maggie Jordan is unpleasant and a hazard to office equipment.
By Episode Four I was no longer watching the show socially, because none of my friends were still watching. Sunday night had so quickly gone from being a night with dinner and friends to one of me in a dark living room in front of the television, rolling my eyes at every didactic rant from Will or failed joke from Maggie. Their trifles, their obsessions with Bigfoot, their references to Don Quixote all seemed like less interesting reincarnations of characters we'd seen before. But I couldn't stop.
There is a strange insensitivity to the show, certainly not intentional. Take the fourth episode, titled "I'll Try To Fix You," which is truly Sorkin's love letter to American broadcasting. The episode spends equal time annoying its audience with speculation about Bigfoot while overwhelming them with the odd of the choice to play Coldplay's "Fix You" over a montage of the SCN staff scrambling in the wake of the Tucson shooting that killed six people. The song, from what I can gather, is about a controlling boyfriend who wants to change his weak partner. It played in its entirety while the staff argues over whether they should run with the news that US Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been shot. The song was released five years prior to when the episode was supposed to take place. I remember it being prominent at my junior prom. Why was this choice made? Why this song? I had no one to discuss this strange decision with, except for a creature that really was only in the room with me due to thousands of years of evolved symbiotic dependence.
"They keep referencing Don Quixote dies at the end, recanting everything he believed in!" I shouted at my dog, to no real answer. "I know they want a return to chivalry but when Quixote died, his breed went extinct. Is that what they're insinuating?" Again, mostly silence from the canine segment of the audience.
The thing is, I kept watching. I don't really understand why. From what I can tell, I didn't enjoy or look forward to it each week, but it was done with out question. It was ritual. Every Sunday night I'd settle in my darkened living room to yell complaints to my dog.
In the final episode of the season Will, while high and vulnerable I guess, leaves Mackenzie a voicemail saying that he never stopped loving her blah blah blah, which is already eye-roll worthy. However, Mackenzie never gets the message because her phone was hacked. (Although she could have deleted it by accident, considering that she spent much of the season apologizing for sending an embarrassing email to the entire company. There is no question that Sorkin finds his women the most charming when they're fumbling.) Will refuses to tell Mackenzie the contents of the voicemail and we, as an audience, are asked to believe that this man is unwilling to confess his love to this woman--a woman with unwavering loyalty and immunity to his verbal abuse--but will continue to work with her professionally for 80 hours a week. How are we supposed to root for people whose motivation can only be justified with a shoulder shrug and a comment like, "I don't know, maybe they're masochists or something?" It's not believable or relatable and thus it becomes unimportant, much like the show itself.
By the time we reached the title card, we had already lost two people from our viewing party.
We later see the gossip columnist Nina Howard, played by Hope Davis, sitting alone at her home computer. She seemingly has run out of celebrities to write about in New York and has turned her attention to a cable-news anchor and his producer. With a glass of wine in hand, she clicks on the MP3 file of Will's voicemail (spoiler alert) to play it one last time. It should be noted that it is the only file on her desktop. She then drags the file to the trash, right clicks, and selects "Empty Trash." To show that she means business, I guess. This small action angered me to no end. It showed such attention to a microscopic and ultimately unimportant detail, while the overall plot unravels instantly under logical questioning. But hey, at least there is one woman on the show with at a base understanding of how a computer works.
Despite all of the frustrations, though, I'm going to keep watching. In general, if a show starts to drag or if a character gets amnesia or something, I'm out. Yet Sorkin has created something perfectly infuriating, where I'm not sure that I'm enjoying it, but I am completely engrossed. I want to see what he going to do next, what new inanimate objects Maggie will trip over. Quite frankly, I'm really looking forward to rolling my eyes so hard I'm worried they'll fall out of my head when Will and Mackenzie inevitably get back together. The performances are either brilliant--Jane Fonda, Olivia Munn, and Sam Waterston's bowtie--or embarrassing, as with every other female character on the show.
With Season Two premiering on Sunday, we can expect to see Gaddafi's downfall, Occupy Wall Street, and someone refusing to eat at Chick-Fil-A. Maggie will be chased by two men and will undoubtedly keep choosing the wrong one. Will and Mackenzie will torture each other while Fonda sparkles. Most likely, there will be a montage of election footage set to Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars."