I don’t usually criticize a programme or film heavily online, in large part because I’ve never made one. But I had to write about this, because as a writer, I was pretty darn unimpressed by what Sorkin did with this wonderful opportunity to create an original show for a company known for quality programming and innovation - HBO…
There are many issues I could take with Sorkin’s new drama, Newsroom, and not least that I enjoyed Newroom until 7min17, when lead character Will (Jeff Daniels) says that the USA used to be great, because we ‘acted like men’, because we were informed ‘by great men, men who were revered’, thereby alienating half the population. Of the world.
It’s not a new thing to note that Sorkin’s misogyny, sexism and lack of understanding of women undermines his ability to produce good programming that appeals to all genders. In this case, perhaps, since his character was talking about history, when physical vulnerability due to childbirth and lack of contraception, and a lack of basic civil rights did prevent many women from being involved in government, or such grand pursuits as building a country, Sorkin would argue that what he was right to forget women in Will’s opening speech, that it’s true that ‘great men’ and men alone built the USA, except they didn’t, and it’s not true.
What about Jane Addams (1860-1935) - Social Activist, founder of Hull House, charter member of the NAACP, Nobel Peace Prize winner and labor union organizer., Marian Anderson (1902-1995) - First African American to sing leading role with Metropolitan Opera, delegate to U.N., Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) - Napoleon of the women’s suffrage movement, mother of the 19th Amendment, abolitionist., Josephine Baker African-American international star, civil rights activist, World War II heroine, Ida B. Wells Barnett African-American educator, newspaperwoman, anti-lynching campaigner, founder NAACP, Clara Barton (1821-1912) - Civil War nurse, founder of the American Red Cross, to name but a few? (more here…)
I guess Sorkin didn’t research for the scripts, because if he had, he might have also found out that our flashy, ‘hip’, ‘groovy’ postmodern generation features quite a few women in suits wandering into the offices of Newspapers and TV News, and, unlike his execs, it isn’t obvious that the office males are men and the office females are women just because the men are witty, logical and have their stuff sorted, while the women are flustered, crushing on the guys and are unable to use Microsoft Outlook.
HBO must just not be paying him enough.
It’s also not new to suggest that Sorkin’s view is narrowed further, that he sits on his hilltop, lonely not just because he doesn’t understand women, but because he doesn’t understand that people of colour can be featured in a television programme without drawing attention to their colour. He asks a black aide ‘Is your name really Gary Cooper?’, as if he expected him to be named Mguwe Ngumbe. Let me remind everyone, this show is set in New York, in 2010.
[ Just received the feed that this line refers to Gary Cooper, famous 40s and 50s film star, so it is not an old WHITE guy reference, but an OLD white guy reference. I will thus, instead of this ambiguous citation of bad interracial etiquette between Will and his culturally-diverse staff, offer another of many examples here: Will, on the search for Dev Patel’s character, first calls him an ‘Indian stereotype’, then shouts across the newsroom ‘Punjab!’ to get his attention. Hint: that’s not his name. It’s Neil. Another hint: just because you think you’re satirising racism, doesn’t mean it’s not technically still racism. It’s the 21st century. There’s no need to point out the ‘Indian’ character is Indian. He’s also British. I’ll say it again: This is the New York. ]
New York. One of the most diverse cities on the planet.
We are also all familiar with Sorkin’s unreal, stilted dialogue. When an interviewer says to Will: ’I want a human moment from you’, one wonders momentarily if he is reading stage directions, or perhaps Sorkin’s edit notes, aloud. When Sloane (Olivia Munn), an economist on another show by the same network is offered a job by Mac (Emily Mortimer), the female exec that cannot work email, she offers up this information, referring to Mac’s past relationship with Will: ’We have something in common, we were both cheated on’. Sloane says this, not because she is stupid enough to blurt this out in a job interview, but because women are emotional, and like to talk about men. Mac seems not to notice that this is an inappropriate overshare, but becomes adamant that Sloane understand Will did not cheat on her, and flustered when Sloane calls Will an ‘arse’, insisting he’s ‘gruff but loveable’, a wonderful moment, because we understand what Sorkin really thinks of his sexist, racist, offensive, ugly character.
In Sorkin’s world, the rich, white arsehole is ‘gruff, but loveable’, and it is obvious that we are supposed to think the very best of Will, and his boss, the aging Charlie (Sam Waterstone), an alcoholic who, in the first two episodes of the programme, threatens to ‘punch’ two staff, one whose teeth he promises to punch out ‘one by one’ if the staff member says anything bad about Will again. We get it, Sorkin. You love Will. We’re supposed to love Will.
But we don’t love Will.
The above is all old news to the viewing public, and to critics, who have given almost all terrible reviews, deeming it a ‘muddled critical flop’. There were so few good reviews, the publicity team behind Newsroom have had to steal the smallest quotations from the bad ones (notably, as the linked article will attest: ‘The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley mentioned the show’s “wit, sophistication and manic energy,” a quote printed on ads, but her review is mostly negative, saying the series “chokes on its own sanctimony” and that “the piety is so thick it casts a pall on the humor.” ‘)
But I’d like to add a clause to the above anti-Sorkin argument, and this is it: he is boring and unoriginal.
He is unoriginal pie, with a squirt of boring on the side.
A programme where an unlikeable, rich, white guy who takes credit for the work of all the women and people of colour on his staff, without treating them as equals or thanking them at all, is not new. Not at all. And it’s not new that we are supposed to like them either. Sorkin, like many writers and producers, thinks it’s original to have an unlikeable character be at the forefront of a television programme. Well no, the stereotype of the gruff, flawed, male, white, binary individual who has a problem with alcohol or drugs, who is arrogant, who is somehow smarter than everyone else, who gets the girl in the end (although logic would never let this happen in real life), who solves the crime, gets the big story, who has sharp corners that never got rubbed off, maybe a failed relationship in his past, the lonely warrior is NOT new. Again, not at all.
Look at Kevin Bacon in Fox 2012 pilot The Following, Don from Mad Men, every western ever shot, Jack from Without A Trace, most police detectives in cop dramas including Southland, CSI, the ex-president in new drama Political Animals. Some of these shows I like, some of these characters are better written than others, but it’s a stereotype none the less, and we are being asked - over and over again - to find these guys charming.
We are supposed to be seduced by their masculinity, their smell of sweat, grain alcohol and cigar ash.
But we’re not. The story of the rise and fall and rise again of the arrogant male antihero is old hat. We know where it’s going, we know the trajectory, we don’t buy it. It looks nothing like our lives, and everything like every other show we’ve seen in the past - except it has fewer redeeming features.
We’re bored. May the programmers see this, and react accordingly.
Meanwhile, Sorkin should take his own advice, doled out by Maggie in Ep2 of Newsroom:
“You should shut up more than you do. Has anyone ever told you that?’