Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, on HBO, has been torched by the critics as too preachy and unrealistic a presentation of a cable news show that decides to give ’em the real news for a change, gosh darn it, and ratings be damned.
So much fault has been found with the show’s female characters that Sorkin must be delighted; the energy and level of detail in all those complaints about the brainy-but-klutzy MacKenzie and the promising-but-anxious Maggie suggest some of the flyspecking boils down to what BuzzFeed political reporter Andrew Kaczynski tweeted during last Sunday's show: "The Newsroom sucks... can’t wait for the next episode."
My own complaints? Well it isn’t remotely true that all Grade A journalism requires is we stop being so lazy and craven and just decide to commit it; journalism also costs money, and plenty of it, which is why the bottom line does matter.
The pontificating, bourbon-loving suit played by Sam Waterston — "News organizations are a public trust, with an ability to inform and influence the national conversation! — would have been fired in the ’80s, probably after a stint in whiskey school. If the two main characters behaved any more like seventh-graders, they’d be lobbing spitballs and passing notes in study hall.
None of these minor inflammations have kept The Newsroom from being my new favorite show, though. And I completely reject the idea that a woman (or man) can’t be smart and kind of a ditz; it’s a combo that does exist in nature.
The best female character is indeed the toughest, the cable network owner played by Jane Fonda.
"What in God’s name has happened to News Night over the last six months?" she asked in her debut last week. "What happened to human interest stories? Breast cancer, hurricanes, older women having babies, iPhones?"
But the Mac character works, too — or will, once the writers let her settle into herself. As the show’s executive producer, just back from the war zone, she’s at least as intelligent as the male anchor (and ex) she props up, but unlike him has some people skills, too.
Alison Pill’s meek Maggie — who tells us she once hid under a dorm-room bed while the guy who made her hide there has sex with an old girlfriend who’s shown up unexpectedly — is, yes, a more annoying version of Donna from Sorkin’s West Wing, who we will get to watch grow, and grow on us.
Or must all the women on the show be strong as well as brave and true? To those who complain about how often the male characters tell their female counterparts what to think and do, I’d just say that’s been known to happen in real newsrooms, too. And aren’t those characters being painted as big jerks, and compared unfavorably to the much more collegial women in the newsroom?
Of course the show is a rescue fantasy — Mac rescues Will from moral decay (and in the future, from dates with women he doesn’t care about). The country is rescued from the no-good, corrupt MSM by a few true-believing newsies who decide to defy the odds and do news instead of good television. The cable network may or may not be rescued from itself by Jane Fonda, but is going down showing ’em how it’s done.
And back here on Earth, I’m just glad there are at least 2.2 million Americans who think this high-flying discussion about news — an "aria of facts" the New Yorker said disapprovingly — was worth tuning in for last week.
Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer.
—The Washington Post