2013-07-15 23:16:58

Ecce Homo Sorkinia

The word in the press is that The Newsroom has improved in its second season. The advance reviews—which, when the show premiered in 2012, were as close as you could get to a typed transcription of people pointing fingers at their TV sets and cackling with wild derision—have been kinder. The show has hired high-profile consultants (Chris Matthews, a former Bush operative, etc.) for the new season, signifying that the famously controlling series creator Aaron Sorkin might be admitting voices other than his own into the room. And Sorkin has so far mercifully refrained from making his clueless sexism a matter of public record, as he did last year when he called a female newspaper reporter “internet girl” to and advised her to “pick up a newspaper once in a while.” There was even a chance that, given the plentiful coverage of sexism in The Newsroom’s first season, he might have done a course-correction.

Which is why, at 10PM Sunday night, I tuned into The Newsroom for the very first time, ready to see Sorkin's new and improved vision of How Journalism Can Save The World. Though I've mostly avoided Sorkin's fictional worlds—his storytelling style, which consists largely of Men, Men, Manly Men delivering speeches to anyone and everyone within an eight-block vicinity, at high speed and preferably while walking, has never held any intrinsic appeal to me as a viewer—The Newsroom is a show that purports to tell the world something about how political journalism should operate. And, as such, it's worth looking at, if only for its eerily un-self-conscious dramatizing of a particular political fantasy.

And, shiny new credits aside, the tone of that fantasy remains more or less un-altered: The first sound we hear in the second season of The Newsroom is intrepid newscaster Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) needlessly correcting a woman on a mistake she hasn't actually made. They're discussing a misreported story about a Black Ops project by the name of “Genoa.” Will really, really needs to make sure that she refers to it as “Genoa.” The woman—his lawyer, played by Marcia Gay Harden—has, in fact, referred to it as “Genoa.” But Will needs to really, really, really stress that its correct name is “Genoa,” because he can sense, with his mutant touch-typing detection powers, that her assistant has transcribed the word as “Geneva.”

“I don't like to talk about it, but I know things,” says Will, explaining his newfound ability to see directly through laptop screens. “Ever since I was a boy. People call it a gift, but it's really more of a burden.”

Welcome, my friends, to the Wonderful World of Sorkin. The Newsroom's second season will apparently be framed around a court battle, as the staff of Sorkin’s fictional news show attempt to defend their take on the Geneva—oops!—story, which they got drastically (and libelously) wrong. But the heart of the season premiere—and, I suspect, the season—is devoted, fully and ardently, to once more exploring Aaron Sorkin's ever-hopeful vision of a world saved by the humble American Brogressive. Although Will is supposed to be a Republican—a fact which theoretically makes his regurgitation of Sorkin's own moderate liberal politics “brave,” or perhaps “shocking”—Will is just the latest iteration of Homo Sorkinia, otherwise known as The Mansplainer. He talks fast, he talks often, and he has all the answers for how the Left, America, and the known world should operate, which he would gladly share if you ladies would just pipe down and let him continue his lecture.

As soon as we blow past the legal plot, we get to the real story, which opens in the glorious Fall of 2011, as Will is working (as always) to “civilize the news” and “speak truth to stupid” through his program, News Night with Will McAvoy. And, as always, the “news” part of the title seems slightly less important than the “Will McAvoy” part. It's the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and it's all about Will, Will, Will!

More specifically, it is about Will's incorrigible habit of dropping truth-bombs. In last season's finale, Will referred to the Tea Party as “the American Taliban,” which is the sort of hokey, bland provocation that Michael Moore would post on Twitter after one too many boilermakers. But it has been established that, in the narrative reality of The Newsroom, every journalist who is not Will McAvoy spends his or her entire day writing unflattering stories about Will McAvoy. Therefore, Will's comment is an enormous scandal, resulting in News Night's network, ACN, being excluded from Congressional hearings on internet piracy specifically to punish Will for dropping his truth-bombs so recklessly. And when the network, in the person of Sam Waterston, reacts to said scandal by refusing to let Will cover the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is clear that, in Will's mind, this is a bigger tragedy than anything up to and including the actual 9/11; it is equally clear that we, the viewers, are meant to agree. For truly, everyone in the world of journalism is a weak, pathetic garden slug who dissolves into a gooey mess of excuses and politicking when sprinkled with the table salt of Will's integrity.

Does Will have a way out of this injustice? Does it involve sabotaging a female colleague's career? Would I be asking these questions if I did not intend to answer them in the affirmative? Yes, yes, and no. But first, we pause to contemplate an eternal question: Why don't women get Occupy Wall Street?

In the first subplot of the episode, Neal (Dev Patel), who runs News Night’s website, has stumbled onto a big story: Someone has registered the domain name OccupyWallStreet.com. Neal pummels executive producer Mac (Emily Mortimer) with the sort of breathless ad copy that clogged everyone's Twitter feed in the fall of 2011—“America is starting its own Arab Spring” this, and “they call them general assemblies” that, and, most puzzlingly, “the e-mail went viral within 15 minutes.” Mac rolls her eyes, balks, and, finally, grudgingly gives Neal permission to attend one of these “general assemblies,” a phrase she appears to regard as a bizarre conjunction of nonsense words.

Once Neal arrives at the general assembly, however, he finds a young woman running it, and because objective journalism is very important, he promptly asks her out on a date. Once she has been safely sexualized, he begins lecturing her about the failings of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Movements need leaders! Horizontal power structures will “give power to people who shouldn't have it!” The Occupiers don't have a coherent list of demands! Also: “You can't have a protest without the media,” says the man who was lecturing his female employer about the organizing power of social media not 15 minutes prior to this exchange.

Meanwhile, in another subplot, Sloan, the financial reporter played by Olivia Munn, wants to report on drone strikes. You can tell because every line assigned to her in the episode’s script either begins with or contains the phrase “drone strikes.” At one point, Sloan just wanders into Will's office and begins saying the phrase “drone strikes,” over and over, in a conversation that she ultimately concludes by saying “drone strikes.” I believe we are meant to gather that Sloan is passionate about drone strikes. There may be some subtleties here which escape me.

And yet, Will is interested in a different kind of bombing: Truth-bombing! Though preferably not about drone strikes. Also, he is concerned about the fact that no one will let him truth-bomb as much as he would like, because they are all a bunch of garden slugs who hate truth, and journalism, and America. But rather than attend to Will's all-important feelings, News Night arranges a panel, on which Sloan will be debating—can you guess?—drone strikes. The debate seems to be going very well for Sloan, until someone other than Sloan actually begins speaking, at which point Sloan begins sputtering incoherently and staring into space. And this is when Mac begins begging Will, through his headset, to come in and save Sloan with one of his patented Will McAvoy truth-bombs.

And yet, Will refuses. Instead, he cuts to commercial, with Sloan still staring blankly and tripping over her words like a small child. After the fact, Will acknowledges that he did this specifically because he was angry about being criticized for his “American Taliban” comment. And so, at last, the world has learned the peril of restricting Will McAvoy's ability to drop remote-piloted truth-bombs on the American public: If you don't let Will yell at you, Will cannot save you.

So there you have it: When women aren't interested in Occupy Wall Street, they're doing journalism wrong. When women are interested in Occupy Wall Street, they're doing Occupy Wall Street wrong. When a grown woman with experience in broadcast journalism and a well-defined, well-researched stance on a particular issue shows up to debate it, she's incapable of pulling off more than thirty seconds of sustained coherence without a male superior swooping in to save her. Journalism, particularly left-leaning and intelligent journalism of the sort that Sorkin achingly longs to believe the News Night crew is doing, depends entirely on women keeping their traps shut and acquiescing to whatever men want or need.

This matters. We still live in a world where women are underrepresented in journalism—and particularly in opinion journalism, which, whether Sorkin likes it or not, is essentially what Will is doing. Men are still seen as brave and authoritative when they passionately defend their own ideas; women are still framed as shrieking harpies and emotional train-wrecks for doing the same. And, when it comes to the progressive movement, we are still dominated by men who believe that they are the utmost authorities on how to make the world a more tolerant place, and that all of those people currently being “tolerated” ought to calm down, stop derailing conversations with frivolous issues, and listen to the damn lecture. The “liberal fantasy” that Sorkin's peddling isn't just unoriginal and clumsy; it's built on affirming those tendencies. It cannot work unless Will is the world's Only Sane Man, and that requires the people surrounding him, particularly those who happen to be women, to be stupid and irrational whenever the script demands it.

This fantasy is destructive for reasons that reach far beyond its sexism. It yearns for a future in which the Left is not reliant on the work of collectives, movements, or an engaged American public, but on the work of just one guy. This politics of narcissism leads, naturally and inevitably, to the politics of radical individualism and conservatism at its most toxic: If only one person can do any useful work for Truth, Justice and the American Way, then Truth, Justice and the American Way are (a) doomed, and (b) pointless, since the only people who could conceivably benefit are a bunch of useless morons (that's us). But hey: When the world burns and democracy crashes, at least Will McAvoy/Aaron Sorkin will get to feel like the smartest dude in the room.

But, then, there's always hope. The series began, infamously, with Will cursing out a young woman for asking him a simple question. In the second season premiere, he's actually hired her. She's his intern, presumably unpaid, and she handles his laundry and Googles musical theater facts for him. The American Brogressive has found his next target, one who will presumably be saved from herself, along with everyone else, by learning to obey him. This should be fun.