Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series NEWSROOM has several detractors, and I have to admit that I agree with some of the criticism. But watching Aaron Sorkin stumble and screw up is far more interesting than the perfect pitch performance of many other writers—writers who may be content to master a tamer television universe. For fans of WEST WING like me, hoping for another series with people we could root for, the episode that aired last Sunday, titled “Ill Try To Fix You,” gave us reason to believe that Sorkin was back in good form. The rapid-fire dialogue and high-energy scenes that have become a trademark of his writing were all there, along with personal and political stories constantly inter-woven.
It didn’t hurt that the director, Alan Poul, was also in good form. Up to now there has been a distinct lack of energy in scenes where the newsroom is full of people. In WEST WING I always believed that all those characters in the background had real jobs—that there were events and people pressing in on their time. Before last Sunday night in this new series, there was a sense that the people who comprise the newsroom staff were adrift and not really engaged in the business of the day. It’s the director, not the writer, who is responsible for giving that current of energy to the non-speaking players. Director Poul stepped up to the plate in the fourth episode: the New Year’s Eve party had some buzz and the final breaking story that closed the hour had urgency and intensity.
The on-going theme in the fourth episode—of Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) being “on a mission to civilize”—probably gave those who think that Sorkin has a “woman problem” more fuel for the fire. McAvoy is still hurting from the break-up with his producer, Mac (Emily Mortimer) and Sorkin portrays him as a serial one-night-stand man. Will introduces himself to a woman at the New Year’s Eve party and learns a few minutes later that she’s a gossip columnist. He doesn’t care, it’s a party. But it turns out that he does care. He ends up confronting her because she’s doing a “take-down” piece about a reality show celeb. He insists journalists shouldn’t be doing stories about the private lives of others, and definitely shouldn’t be setting out to be deliberately mean. She says it’s entertainment, he comes back with, “Gossip shouldn’t be entertainment. What you do is a form of very bad pollution that makes us dumber and meaner and is destroying civilization.” No surprise that she throws her glass of champagne in his face.
During another night out with yet another woman, Will ends up confronting his date because she’s interested in the same reality show celeb, and fascinated by the same gossip. Once more, he gets a drink thrown at him; this time it’s a cosmo.
Those who point out that the female characters in NEWSROOM are getting the short end of the stick might remind us that there are also men who gossip, and men who make a living indulging the societal thirst for dirt on the famous and almost-famous. But Will McAvoy isn’t likely to be picking them up or dating them. And since Will is relentlessly avoiding women with whom he could share his true interests and concerns, he will probably end up dating women who are either mental light-weights or who want to keep the conversation light, since what they mainly share with Will is the need for an attractive companion for the evening. This is dinner and casual sex, nothing more, thank you. So I’ll give Aaron a pass on his portrayal of these particular women. I was more interested in his commentary about the switch in the media from stories about Elvis sightings to the ever-present inside scoop on the private lives of celebrities.
People have always gossiped, and there has always been some segment of the press—in whatever form it takes—that has made money printing and broadcasting that gossip. We’ve just amped it up in the 21st century. Will McAvoy wants the media to focus on the stories that matter and he wants journalists to deliver the truth about those stories. No doubt Aaron Sorkin wants Americans to stop being distracted by what reality show celebs are doing so they can focus instead on what must be done to fix America. Will’s mission seems futile, arrogant and even ludicrous. But some part of me is glad that Will cares, and that Sorkin is still carrying that candle in the wind.