Maybe it was the Funny or Die video. Or the article on Newsbusters. Or the constant stream of attacks on Twitter. Who knows? But at some point today, it became impossible for me not to write about “The Newsroom,” the best show that smart people treat like crap. I am going to attempt to be the voice of reason, but since purely logical and unexaggerated argumentation is a foreign language to me, I’m sure I’m bound to screw at least some of this up.
Before I dive in, you should know I don’t pretend the show is perfect. Every series has its ups and downs episode to episode and season to season. Hell, “Sherlock” is so divine it turned a man with the last name Cumberbatch into a ladies’ man, and I’m unimpressed by two of the six episodes. A show doesn’t have to be flawless to be great. And yes, I said great. Critics rampantly dismiss the show as “good” and then project bizarre personal vitriol onto the program, condemning its supposed implicit discrimination and then turning on a show about a meth-maker or one that romanticizes an era of sexism and racism.
I’m not doing too well on the logical, unexaggerated argumentation, am I? Sorry.
Okay, let’s do this in as organized a way as is possible for someone like me.
These aren’t all of the criticisms I’ve seen, but I’m not here to persuade someone who is loathe to trust Jeff Daniels since he agreed to make a Dumb and Dumber sequel. Let’s get to it.
Criticism one: The Women
Far and away, and I do mean FAR and AWAY, the biggest and most frequent criticism of the show has to do with the women. Of course, when it comes time to actually talk about why the show has “THE WORST FEMALE CHARCTERS ON TELEVISION,” the complaints come back to virtually the same comments one can make about any modern television show created in a patriarchal rape culture and ignores the fact that Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) is potentially the greatest female character currently on television.
The complaints center around two women primarily: Mac (Emily Mortimer) and Maggie (Allison Pill). It’s almost impossible to swat back all of the complaints about these two, and the last thing I want to do is fall victim to the “mansplaining” the show is accused of frequently. So, let me just tell you why I think those two women are great, fully realized female characters and then talk about Sloan friggin’ Sabbith.
Let’s start with Mac. One of my favorite scenes that introduced her showed her talking through an earpiece to Will (Daniels). She explicitly tells him that she “owns him” during the taping of the show. It’s a reminder of her power, which doesn’t just reside in her position (executive producer) but in her intellectual command. She’s frequently the smartest character in the room, almost perpetually on the right moral side of every issue and single-handedly thwarted this year’s enemy, Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater). And yet, people point to her character’s idiosyncrasies as shameful and misogynistic. When she screwed up the email reply, people threw up their hands and claimed it showed her to be a moron who needed men to explain how to work things to her. That’s in no way what I saw. What I saw was a woman so laser-focused on trying to help and do the right thing she overlooked the details. She’s like a lot of super smart people I know who can solve all the world’s ills in one blisteringly brilliant conversation and forget to zip their fly. If she wasn’t highly praised for her intellect, I could see the complaint. Or if the show hadn’t shown female characters explaining things to her in a non-insulting way, like when Sloan educated her on economic basics, maybe I’d get it. But it certainly feels like people using past issues that Aaron Sorkin has had with female characters where it doesn’t apply.
Take the scene where Will explains the playclock in football to Mac. Almost every critique of the show pointed to that scene as classic Will mansplaining. Except…she’s British. And the point seemed to be that she didn’t get the playclock because she follows soccer. A point underscored by Will specifically mentioning that she doesn’t understand because she loves soccer. And this whole playclock angle was only a plot point to be used later.
In episode after episode, Mac is shown to be a competent boss who delegates things well, makes tough calls, acts with moral authority and sometimes makes mistakes. In short, she is a smart, capable woman who is expertly crafted to have good points and bad. Even her infidelity in her relationship with Will has served to show HIM a flawed man incapable of moving forward more than showing HER to be somehow whorish.
And then there’s Maggie. People blasted the triangle between her Jim and Don as if literally every show in the modern era doesn’t rely on having its young attractive characters in a romantically compromising situation. The attacks on Maggie mostly center around her willingness to be walked on by male suitors and (again) her incompetence at times. Oh, and her grief haircut, but we’ll get there.
Maggie is shown early on to be completely unprepared for the job she finds herself in. Every single person around her had trained for their position, worked for their position, desired their position. Maggie was thrust into being an active producer when she started as more or less a secretary. When she screws up at her job, it’s not some kind of indication that because of her sex or gender she can’t do her job, it’s a reminder that she was thrust into a situation and has managed to do pretty damn well, all things considered.
And this point gets driven home in Season 2, when she doggedly works to become an African expert. Demonstrating insight and research beyond literally any other person working at the network, Maggie convinces Mac to let her go to Africa. Oh, hey, did I mention that this show frequently clears the Bechtel Test weekly? Because it does. And it’s one of the few shows to do so. Mac sees the fire in Maggie and greenlights her trip. As viewers know, it’s a trip that does not go well. That leads us to Maggie’s hair.
After a tragedy, Maggie cuts her hair off. Herself. And then she dies it. Much ink was spilled over Will’s dismissive comment (to a female lawyer who absolutely dismantles most of the staff) that “girls do these things.” That comment made Will look like a dick. It did not somehow make Maggie look weak. It was an obvious indication that Will doesn’t know anything about women, is insensitive towards females in general and is a bit of an ass. People who claim that the show holds Will up as some kind of God somehow overlook the copious times he’s shown to be somewhat of a douche.
Oh, and Maggie cutting her own hair was brilliant. In my life, I have known no less than four women who have cut their hair themselves in response to personal tragedy. It’s seen throughout antiquity. Cutting one’s hair is an outward sign of grief, specifically among women. This wasn’t a display of weakness but an effort to speak in a language of sympathy women understand. I could go on, but I’m like 1000 words in and I’m on point one.
So let’s talk about Sloan Sabbith. Supremely educated, culturally sophisticated, powerful, willing to stand up to any sass-mouthed mansplainer, owner of her good looks, delightfully awkward and many more adjectives that I could pile on here, Sloan is just the absolute best. She frequently pantses her male counterparts, so much so that Don frequently overtly states she’s the smartest person they have. And she is. For all the “mansplaining” people lament, Sloan probably spends more time than anyone on the show educating other people about what’s up. And not just on economics; her rant on drones was insanely biting. Hell, she even takes on slut shaming and the “sex pic” culture, hopefully making every male viewer feel just a bit like a pervy douche for googling those leaked pictures of Olivia Munn. Oh, did I not mention that her signature storyline this year spoke out against a horrifying incident that actually happened to the actress playing her?
Sloan is an absolute revelation. Fearless, razor-sharp and completely brilliant. I legitimately can’t think of a character this good since CJ Craig on “The West Wing.” Hey, look at that…
Criticism two: The Bias
I knew this would be long, I didn’t know this would be this long. Apparently I have some feelings to share. I promise to be quicker on these other points.
The second biggest complaint is easily the show’s liberal bias. Confession: I have an unholy liberal bias. I realize that means you’re likely to just dismiss the rest of this defense because of that, but please don’t. Pretty please…
There was an article today that pointed out how “The West Wing” was better because that show depicted the other side as reasonable and well-intentioned at times. True. But that was a different “other side.” That was an other side that didn’t call the sitting President racist names. That was an other side that compromised every once and awhile. That was an other side that didn’t go on talk radio or Fox News and blatantly misrepresent facts, distort truths and work in every way possible against the Democratic Party as a matter of principle.
In the last 5-10 years, the shift culturally has been for uber-conservatives to say batshit insane things and for uber-liberals to more or less take it. The article that tackles this issue points to an obscure congresswoman I’ve never heard of and Alan Grayson, who is literally the one outspoken liberal member of congress. Aaron Sorkin quite clearly is responding to a void in actual newsprogramming. Pretending MSNBC is equal to Fox News is hilarious. MSNBC has a liberal bias. Fox News is fact-bending propaganda. And Sorkin saw this and decided to respond in the best way he knew how.
So he gave us Will McAvoy, a lifelong Republican who frequently speaks out against illegal immigration and government intervention. He’s disillusioned with the party that the GOP has become. And he has good reason to be. The show, and Will in specific, isn’t coming with guns blazing for the Republican party. It’s coming after the Tea Party with a nuclear bomb.
Since the rise of the government-hating, conspiracy-believing, frequently racist Tea Party, congress has been less productive than how unproductive congress usually is. They’ve done less than the “Do-Nothing” Congress. A fact I first discovered on “The Newsroom.” This isn’t Sorkin’s sloppy wet kiss to liberalism. This is Sorkin’s fictional rejoinder to real-life Limbaughs, Becks and Hannitys. To take the show to task for a one-sided depiction (when it isn’t) is silly if only because of how many one-sided depictions are out there filed under nonfiction for the conservative side. To fault it for this is to slight the show for a noble intent: bringing balance to the conversation by expressing the absent liberal view.
Criticism three: Love stories/pretense/plot
I’ve gone off for nearly 2,000 words, so I’m going to wrap these critiques together. The show’s admitted smugness should be laughed off. BREAKING NEWS: Aaron Sorkin is smart as shit. As such, he sometimes comes off as smart as shit. But it’s only because he’s smart as shit. When you have a show that tries so hard to delve behind the scenes of complicated, intelligent, real-world issues, it’s sometimes going to come across as a bit glib. If that’s the show’s worst sin, being proud of itself for being as smart as it is, I’m good with that.
And the next two points are linked together: the love stories and plot are so commonly blasted. The former because people felt the love triangle was slow developing and agonizing and the latter because they wanted a season-long narrative. Love triangles are often slow and irritating. I liked how Don was both a dick and a nice guy, how Jim was both perfect for Maggie and totally wrong and how Maggie couldn’t decide between two flawed options because they were TWO FLAWED OPTIONS. It felt…real. I’ve known so many people in that exact situation. That is how they handled it: ride it out until the decision makes itself.
And to blast the plot is to ignore the point of the show. There is a drama on television (albeit cable) that uses actual news, ACTUAL IMPORTANT NEWS STORIES THAT REALLY HAPPENED, as plot points. Sorkin found a way to use often overlooked or ignored reality as a fictional catalyst. It’s brilliant. Each week he has us engaging facts of consequence, begging us to engage our world even in our entertainment. It’s the rejoinder to “I shut my brain off to watch TV.” Screw that. That’s maybe our biggest problem in America. We try so hard to divorce popular culture and entertainment from intellectual issues. Or worse yet, we glamorize things that are terrible and praise them instead of critically engaging what’s actually out there.
I haven’t watched “Breaking Bad.” I realize this makes me a horrible human being and culturally irrelevant. But the reason is that I struggle with a show about bad people doing bad things. “The Newsroom” is a show that wants us to be better, that tries openly and nakedly to be better, and it’s crucified by people who watch a show on another network the same night that dramatically engages a meth dealer. I know, I know. It’s brilliant and well crafted. I’m not poking holes in “Breaking Bad,” I haven’t seen it. But unless it ISN’T about someone selling drugs and DOESN’T feature copious murders, I can’t quite grasp how people moralize and tut-tut “The Newsroom” and then praise their murder/meth show.
I know that “The Newsroom” doesn’t follow dramatic norms. I know that it’s more concerned with flitting about recent history than building huge character arcs. But that’s goddamned groundbreaking if you think about it. There is no other show doing this. No other show that pushes for us to use critical reasoning on our media and to appreciate and understand our world. Flaws and all, that’s special.
Why “The Newsroom” Rules
Again, granting that it isn’t perfect. Here’s just a bullet-pointed list of why it’s special.
- It passes the Bechtel Test damn near weekly.
- It treats audiences as intelligent consumers.
- It makes economic issues fictional plot points.
- It has a crazy diverse cast without calling that fact into light every minute.
- It tackles issues of privilege and classism.
- It WANTS TO TALK ABOUT THE NEWS.
- It has complex, frustrating but lovable characters.
- It has a hell of a cast.
- It exists in a world where women are executives and owners of huge companies or high-powered lawyers and doesn’t treat them like anomalies in those positions.
- It is frequently laugh-out-loud funny AND cry-out-loud sad.
- It is reliant on dialogue, which is a lost art.
And so on and so forth. I think that Sorkin has made missteps in the past. I think that he has short-shifted female characters before. But the sins of the past don’t negate the brilliance of the present. Give me a show about real people trying to understand and cope with the world around us over a show about a serial killer who kills serial killers any day of the week. Imperfection with this noble of an aim and this smart and talented of a team sure feels a hell of a lot better than almost everything else.
Even if it isn’t the single greatest show on TV, which I’m not suggesting it is, it is a good sight better than it gets credit for by smart people who use it as a pinata because it sticks its neck out. Opinions are opinions and they vary, but I think it’s unfair to depict the show as misogynistic or poorly crafted without a response. This is the response. I hope it was good enough.