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Aaron Sorkin and 'The Newsroom's' Biggest Problem: The Cad At Its Center

If only I was watching the show Aaron Sorkin thinks he's making. The show that Sorkin thinks is "reaching high" and full of "idealistic" aspirations is dismissive of anyone who isn't a white heterosexual male.
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When it comes to "The Newsroom," one thought keeps occurring to me: If only I were watching the show Aaron Sorkin thinks he's making.

This is a common phenomenon at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. In interviews and during panel discussions, creators and writers and actors describe their projects, and they almost inevitably and understandably gild the lily a little (or a lot). They're promoting their product, and of course they're going to try to make it sound good or even great.

But the disconnect between the show Sorkin thinks he's making and the one I've seen for the past six weeks is particularly profound. And that might be one reason that the TCA panel for "The Newsroom" on Wednesday was not as contentious as some might have expected.

If one side of a debate genuinely believes that two plus two equals five and the other side is pretty damn sure it equals four, a half-hour debate isn't likely to change anything.

One of the most disorienting moments of the panel (which is quoted extensively here) was when Sorkin said that "the female characters on the show are, first of all, every bit the equals of the men."

Examples were traded back and forth between Sorkin and the a couple of critics, but, all due respect to the valiant efforts of those critics, examples could be exchanged for the next six months and it would probably be in vain. A substantial number of critics and viewers think the women on his show are consistently depicted in ways that demean, belittle and undercut them not just as professionals but as human beings. The show's creator thinks that MacKenzie McHale is "extremely deft and a great leader," but to me she's just a pile of insecurities piled atop a bushel of inconsistent personal and professional behavior.

Sorkin doesn't see it as problematic that his lead male is a basically noble "Don Quixote" who is "a broken guy who is trying to fix himself" (Sorkin's words), and the lead female is a woman who is "overcome with remorse and guilt -- it's one of the reasons why she apologizes so much... she feels she deserves punishment" for having cheated on Will.

It's hard not for me to see "The Newsroom" as a chance for Will McAvoy's news team to teach the rest of the news industry a lesson about how to do things right. But Sorkin thinks that the characters interact in ways that recall classic movies and screwball comedies. I find the instances of them resembling fully fleshed-out human beings of any era rare. Much of the time, they're basically walking, talking Op Ed pieces who filibuster and yell and gesticulate. They make me think Sorkin should have written a book about the State of the Nation; the people on the show have all the liveliness and spark of earnest essays about The Difficult Times in Which We Live.

When it comes right down to it, as I said in my original review, "The Newsroom" is almost impressively pure cognitive dissonance on almost every level. The people who are advocating for more civil discourse in our society are constantly badgering and berating each other. The show that calls for a more educated and enlightened discourse is unsubtle and broad. The show that Sorkin thinks is "reaching high" and full of "idealistic" aspirations is dismissive of anyone who isn't a white heterosexual male.

But weirdly enough, in the last couple of weeks, I've realized "The Newsroom" has an even bigger problem, and it's not its lead character's blowhard qualities or his tendency to lecture, hector and otherwise coldly correct everyone else.

Will McAvoy is boring.

Television is full of interesting narcissists and compellingly dark people. He is not one of them.

He's a garden-variety, well-to-do egoist, one that you could meet in any board room or bar that sells wine for $15 a glass. Will's most reliable tendency is to make everything about himself, and that -- along with the show's reliance on events of a year or two ago, which sucks the drama out of 70 percent of the show -- makes "The Newsroom" extremely predictable.

Sloan Sabbith screws up? Ultimately, that's all about Will. MacKenzie feels she should be punished? All about Will. The Internet is full of anonymous meanies? Will will fix it. The news business needs someone to save it? Guess who's on the case? It's boring that every question on this show ultimately has the same answer, and that answer -- Will McAvoy -- is ultimately so pretentious, shallow and self-absorbed. Will suffers the most of anyone, nobody understands him and he has the answer to everything. Didn't we all feel that way when we were 19?

"Hubris on this show is always punished," Sorkin said on Wednesday, but for me, that was just another jarring disconnect. Isn't the not-so-secret agenda of the show to get us to find Will's hubris ultimately heroic? The treatment of Will, no matter what he does, more often feels like burnishment, not punishment.

Will's narcissism is baked into the character, but it's amplified by Jeff Daniels' sour, monochromatic performance. I have no interest in what happens between Will and Mac, partly because her abject adoration and need for his forgiveness makes for a weird and troubling mixture, but partly because I've lost patience with the man's infinite self-absorption. "The Newsroom" might have been OK if the characters were complex or if the show were truly interested in how news is gathered or in the entertainingly weird people who (in my experience) disseminate it.

None of those things appear to be compelling to Sorkin, who, contrary to the guiding principles of some of his past projects, apparently hasn't felt overly obliged to entertain or emotionally move an audience, or even to hew to the basic fundamentals of drama (something I will fully and gladly admit he's done in many of his past projects, some of which I've enjoyed).

Maybe the show Sorkin describes is the one you're seeing. If it connects with you, instead of inducing massive and dislocating cognitive dissonance, I'm genuinely glad for you. But, as was the case whenever Sorkin spoke during "Newsroom" panel on Wednesday, we will have to agree to disagree.