I am currently addicted to The Newsroom. As with anything created by Aaron Sorkin, the show is smart, funny, and pulls at the heartstrings. So far as I know, it is also the only HBO series that does not contain ridiculous amounts of nudity and violence (even the profanity is light). Newsroom is both engaging and entertaining. Seriously, it’s a really, really excellent show.
Now for the “but”…
But, while the premise is wonderful, it’s also a bit fake and self-refuting. Let me explain.
Jeff Daniels leads the cast as Will McAvoy, the anchor of an hour-long cable news show on the invented network ACN. Will is a registered Republican with “moderate” political views. He is a “ratings whore” who is described as the Jay Leno of cable news. In other words, he has a large audience and goes out of his way not to offend anyone. The opening scene of the pilot episode has Will on stage at a college event, flanked on either side by a liberal and a conservative pundit. He zones out as these two pundits spout off the usual meaningless talking points, barely engaging with the audience questions. And he just started taking vertigo medication. When the moderator refuses to let him off the hook with a fluff answer to a student’s question, “Why is America the greatest nation on earth?”, he responds bluntly “It’s not”, and then launches into a classic Sorkin diatribe that leans liberal but manages to take shots at both sides and then culminates in emotional and rhetorical greatness. (Incidentally, Sorkin tried this exact same opening trick with his failed show, Studio 60. It didn’t work that time).
Will’s rant has major consequences (obviously), and behind-the-scenes network politics plays a big part in the show’s drama. The punchline is that Will is forced to get an entirely new team, and a new producer (his ex-girlfriend) who decides that Will needs to stop being an entertainer and start being a genuine news anchor. This is the aforementioned wonderful premise of the show. News (especially 24-hour cable news) has become a parade of sensationalism and distortion run by special interests and networks trying to turn a profit. Will and his new team decide to take their show, News Night, back to its roots, to inform the public with unbiased facts, no matter the political cost.
This is where Sorkin pulls a clever bait and switch. In episode two, Will takes his new agenda and…immediately starts to attack the Tea Party. The set up is brilliant. Will is a “registered Republican” (a fact Sorkin makes sure to remind us of every 15 minutes or so), but comes to realize that the Tea Party, which he acknowledges was a spontaneous grassroots movement, has been taken over by the “radicals”, and in turn the radicals are taking over the base. Over the course of several weeks leading up to the 2010 elections (when Tea Party candidates won an incredible number of races and Republicans took control of the house) Will makes a point of going after every radical Tea Partier he can, exposing them as dangerous ideologues who are deposing moderate (read: sane, rational, good) Republican incumbents.
I’m only on episode five, but so far the pattern is the same. Will (who, by the way, is a registered Republican), goes after some conservative group or issue and confronts the “crazies” with a healthy dose of common sense and facts. This gets him in loads of trouble, both with the network heads and the conservative media, who continually try to paint him as having “gone liberal” (to which, Will continuously replies, “I’m a registered Republican!”).
Sorkin’s genius is that his show is nothing but liberal propaganda, continually reinforcing liberal ideology on immigration, gun control, etc, yet it appears to be about nothing more than unbiased facts and moderate politics. Because Will, who is a registered Republican, is merely attacking the fringe of his own party from its center, every blow appears on its face to be sensible self-criticism, when it’s exactly the opposite.
If Sorkin was genuinely interested in nothing more than “taking back the news” from sensationalism and divisive politics, he ought to balance his criticism of conservatives with criticism of liberals. In reality, Newsroom is nothing more than a critique of Fox News, and acts as though no liberal bias exists anywhere in media. Now I understand that Sorkin is a liberal, but the thing is, he wouldn’t even have to criticize actual liberal policies, or even candidates, only unbalanced news coverage. Anyone who tries to say with a straight face that MSNBC is never guilty of biased and sensational “reporting” is a hopeless Leftist ideologue totally disconnected from reality. Which, as it happens, sort of describes Aaron Sorkin.
But (there’s that word again), dawgonit’, what can I say? Sorkin is a brilliant writer, and he balances character drama and hopeful idealism so amazingly well, I can’t help but love every episode. I want to want to believe what Sorkin believes, not only because his idealism is so contagious, but because it’s so obvious that he loves America. He shares with Conservatives the belief that the American project is the greatest ever attempted by man, even as he differs strongly on where that project should be and where it needs to go. The reason, in my opinion, that Studio 60 failed so miserably is that its subject matter was not at all compelling, and so its hard left agenda was not palatable. I have no sympathy for or interest in the liberal idealists who make up the cast of SNL and think they will change American society by pushing the envelope of late night comedy (which means, naturally, making fun of conservatives and Christians). The Newsroom manages to capture the importance and severity of The West Wing, and so I can watch with great interest as people, with whom I strongly disagree, strive to genuinely make America a better place for everyone.
That, and Will McAvoy is a registered Republican.