Newsroom episode 3: “The 112th Congress”

Sorry I’m an episode behind, guys. I caught up last night and should have my ep 4 recap up soon.

Watching Newsroom (and I am ignoring the existence of a “the” in the title because reasons) is a strange experience for me. The highs are mountainous. The lows are Marianas trenches. Much like season four of True Blood, it is exactly half a good show (and half a television nightmare), and the pace at which it moves from the good parts to the parts where I have to take off my glasses because if I see the show clearly the second-hand embarrassment will crush me beneath its weight is so fast that I think I might have actual whiplash.

Let’s talk about what I like first, because I am still watching this show and not just because it’s a nice thing for me and my parents to do as a family (though that’s part of it) nor because I like watching car wrecks. I am still greatly enjoying Neal (Dev Patel’s cute face) and Jim (John Gallagher Jr.’s also-cute face) and Sloan (Olivia Munn). Jane Fonda’s Leona Lansing, the network owner or something I don’t actually know she’s the Big Boss, is a wonderful stone cold bitch. When the characters are actually producing news, they are a delight to watch in the same way – though not at the same level – as when the West Wing characters did politics. Sorkin is very, very good at writing people doing their jobs well. I still love the writing, and have been pleased to find that critics agree with me on this point.

Linda Holmes at NPR:

[Sorkin] writes better go-get-’em speeches than anyone else currently working in Hollywood. Hearing a Sorkin character forcefully argue something you believe to be true is like bathing in a tub full of champagne while you listen to a CD of affirmations called You Are Great And Smart, And No One Understands You … [He] remains my favorite writer of dialogue in American television and film. His workplace-banter scenes are like perfect little songs; there are times when I think he is as good at playing with words and rhythm as Cole Porter … [He] has an almost unmatched ability to build sentences and scenes that hit you like the Rube Goldberg machines in OK Go videos: You look at them in wonder and almost want to clap your hands when they’re over, simply because they have been executed with such love, energy and style … I fully and firmly believe the guy’s a genius.

Alyssa Rosenberg for Indiewire:

… Aaron Sorkin can write a barn-burner of a monologue …

So that’s the stuff I am still enjoying about this show. It’s not a long list, but I enjoy the things in question quite a lot. What I’m not enjoying – what I’m not enjoying the most – is the staggeringly bad treatment of women in Newsroom. Sorkin’s always had woman problems, but for all that Dana on Sports Night was chronically insecure and had atrocious taste in men, she was confident where it counted and did her job with aplomb. Mackenzie, by contrast, seems constantly on the verge of a nervous collapse, and while we’re told she’s a great producer we’ve seen very few examples of her greatness in action. (Seeing the great show she makes is not the same as seeing her make it great.) Mostly we just see her frothing at Will or being completely manic at one of his many dates. As for Maggie, watching her is not unlike peeling off my skin and salting the exposed area. Alison Pill is bad, but Maggie is atrociously written. Like all Sorkin women, her standards for a romantic partner are brushing rock bottom (Don, who isn’t even that bad but is made to seem like the devil) and she just can’t see the Great Guy right in front of her (Jim, whose avowed “no swooping in on Maggie” policy is Dana-Casey-dating-plan levels of dumb). The panic attack scene, where Maggie goes and hides on the balcony and Jim uses his War Zone Medic Skills to de-panic-attack her, was particularly headdeskifying, not to mention insulting and minimizing of the seriousness of panic attacks. You can’t flirt someone out of a panic attack, guys! Not even if you’re really, really cute! They are serious business! That is why Maggie typically takes Xanax for them!

I’m also over how closely aspects of Newsroom parallel Sports Night. The scene in this episode where Mac brings her new boyfriend, Wade, into the studio and he sort of creepily creeps around and introduces himself to Will was almost identical to a scene in Sports Night where producer Dana brings her new boyfriend Gordon around to the studio and he meets anchor Casey (with whom Dana has a romantic history, not unlike Mac and Will (though less dramatic)). Not only is Wade, like Gordon, a high-powered government attorney, the two actors even look similar. I don’t know if Sorkin’s ex left him for a strong-jawed brunet attorney, but I’m beginning to strongly suspect it.

In preparing to write this recap I came across a prodigious amount of truly stunning writing on Newsroom‘s woman problem (and on Newsroom in general), only half of which was by the incredible Alyssa Rosenberg. Rather than reinvent their beautifully invented wheel, I’m simply going to link them with little clips. They are all worth your time.

Sorkin’s ‘Newsroom’ Is No Place For Optimism by Linda Holmes for NPR

…In [Sorkin’s] world, it’s not that our problems have grown so ingrained and complex that they overwhelm even the well-meaning; it’s just that nobody will sit down and look at a few simple pie charts and come to their senses because they’re all off watching reality television. He posits that our problems are actually relatively easy, because our failure to solve our problems is entirely the result of our inattention, lack of engagement, and intellectual laziness … and not to any degree because they are hard problems … The women who are here exist, quite simply, on the theory that nothing is more dramatically important than a man becoming great, and men cannot become great without women to inspire, provoke, and drive them. Alison Pill … [plays] a quivering baby who has to be constantly tended to but to whom several men are inexplicably drawn anyway, because of how women are crazy but enchanting, see also almost every woman Sorkin has ever written.

HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’: Aaron Sorkin’s Woman Problem by Jace Lacob and Maureen Ryan for The Daily Beast

It’s hard to know what’s more infuriating: that MacKenzie is written as though she hasn’t even heard of a war zone or that she’s presented as alternately hysterical and incompetent. Her email gaffe in the second episode is unbelievable and galling. If you’re thinking, well, who hasn’t sent an errant email? Why does it have to be some symbol of misogyny? Then picture a male character in Sorkin’s world who doesn’t know the difference between the “*” and “s” keys on his BlackBerry. Impossible … That’s what’s so jarring about these women—it wouldn’t take much to make them just a little deeper and just a little more coherent. But Sorkin doesn’t appear to be interested in that.

Why Aaron Sorkin’s Woman Problem Makes The Newsroom So Boring by Alyssa Rosenberg for Slate’s XX Factor

When you’ve got a setup where women exist to serve men’s needs, as they do in The Newsroom, you don’t just end up with the kind of sexist mess that Sorkin has here, where women are neurotic, tech-incompetent emotional morons who snap into professionalism just in time to make the men they bolster look good. Sorkin’s imposed an unnecessary, perhaps crippling, dramatic limitation on himself. Whatever MacKenzie and Maggie (a woefully-served Alison Pill) do in the course of the series, it can only reflect on the men they interact with, not back on them … At a moment when there are vigorous discussions about the byline gap and how to encourage young female journalists to cover hard news, Maggie’s character could be an opportunity to explore the choices women face as they’re pursuing media careers. Instead, the show mocked her the only time she brought up questions of work-life balance and the possibility that she’s perceived as a lightweight by her colleagues … Sorkin keeps peering back through the mists of the past to commune with the ghosts of morally upstanding men, rather than contending with flesh and blood women.

The Newsroom Recap: We Don’t Do Good Television and other recaps by Chadwick Matlin for Vulture

Sorkin’s women? Silent bearers of sexism. First there’s Sloane (C.J. from The West Wing + Erin Burnett + a Ph. D. + an impeccable sense of grammar), a woman whom Sorkin has tried to make strong — “I know I don’t really look like it, but I’m an economist” — but is actually so deferential that she tries to give the biggest break of her career away to some stodgy professor. No wonder: MacKenzie, knowing how to make a lady feel like a lady, convinces her to take the position by hinting she’d rather hire a man, but “the thing is, they’re not going to have your legs.”

In ‘The Newsroom,’ something to be sorry for by Glynnis MacNicol for Capital

McHale, whose own impeccable war-zone credentials we were assured of in the first episode, flubs and natters her way through various confrontations with a series of women McAvoy parades through the office. We can all be grateful McHale didn’t fall in love on the battlefield; she gives a whole new meaning to I.E.D.

In Sorkin’s world women are helpmates, entirely emotional beings, always just one tick away from an explosion. They are worthy of being feared, the way a small child fears its mother; they must be constantly soothed. The result is less offensive than exasperating and quickly becoming boring to watch.

Newsroom Recaps by Alyssa Rosenberg for Indiewire

Sorkin, and by extension MacKenzie, Charlie, and Will, may not like that news is a business, particularly not part of a large international conglomorate with interests that require Congressional approval and working relationships with major industrialists. But in the absence of an alternative model to pay Will’s staff and get him access to the airwaves, this is the environment he has to work in. Being obsessed with ratings, as Will was before MacKenzie got to him, may have been unattractive. But pretending that they don’t exist, or that Atlantis is a business rather than a non-profit, is to ignore that Leona’s interests and the show’s overlap. Leona has a duty to the shareholders to keep bringing in revenue, but she also needs her business to make money so she can keep paying out Will’s fat contract and the decidedly more meager salaries of his employees. And as we see in this clip, she’s thought through the business end of this proposition more thoroughly than Will, Charlie, and MacKenzie have…

And, bonus: The unreal dystopia of Aaron Sorkin by Glynnis MacNicol for Capital

In real life, newsrooms were also closely watching the social web to gauge the “code red” stories, and so the real “Newsnight” newsroom would likely have been a lot quicker to respond as a result, whatever importance the Associated Press attached to the news. But in McAvoy’s world, the social web is just another silly contemporary diversion from the serious work of capital-J Journalism, as it is, presumably, in Sorkin’s. (Twitter gets no serious mention on this show, instead being broadly mocked once or twice, including a joke on Twitter’s 140-character limit that is so stale it evaporates.) …. The one thing that is good about cable news, the one thing it rarely bungles, is breaking, real news. Cable news is very good at breaking news. Excellent even. It’s what it was built for … And while we’re on the subject of breaking news stories out of Louisiana it’s worth noting it was, in fact, cable news that sounded the alarm that things were amiss in the early moments of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, not the great, revered men of the network evening news. Ironically, they had the story precisely because their reporters were lined up along the gulf coast for the length of the storm doing those much-derided hurricane stand-ups cable news is infamous for. (“As you can see, the wind is blowing that traffic light, really hard.”) So again: Has Aaron Sorkin ever watched cable news?

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About Sara

I like to talk about media, food, and gender.
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One Response to Newsroom episode 3: “The 112th Congress”

  1. CitizenE says:

    I’m not such a fan of the writing myself. Everyone has monologues. But when he is commenting on the state of cable news, the bit about the Giffords shooting was especially strong, then I am with him. It’s a soap with great actors, though the screwball dramedy of the romances is so achingly unreal and stilted, it gets in the way. I’d like to see Allison Pill’s character really uncover some really important uncovered bit of news, but as of yet she comes up with things that folks do know about and are page 5 items. The real problem is this: 5 seasons into it Mad Men basically has become a parody of itself or at least it doesn’t take much imagination to parodize every episode and all the characters. If this show does not get more even, if the dialogue does not run from operatic monologue to b movie romantic comedy and back without ever ringing true, if some of the actors, mostly the women, don’t start demanding more realized personalities, more natural dialogue, and better direction, before the season is out, anyone watching will be able to predict what is going to happen with regularity and snark one scenario after another. I am hanging in there, because Sorkin does have a point to make, and the actual newscasts are pretty darn good, but for the rest…I keep thinking of how damn good Allison Pill was during her season on In Therapy.

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