I have a love/hate relationship with the works of Aaron Sorkin – to be more exact, his television shows. It began when I started watching “The West Wing”, a series about a president of the United States that could only exist in Sorkin’s fairy tale view of the world. President Bartlett, as played by Martin Sheen, was the kind of guy we’d like to see in the White House, but, in all reality, would have been chewed up and spit out by they power brokers within the Beltway about a week after taking office. Bartlett was the ideal – a leader who could be tough when he had to be and as tender as he needed to be. He wasn’t intimidated by power, no matter where it came from or how mighty it was, even railing angrily at God himself when Bartlett’s loyal and lovely secretary was killed in a car accident. He even delivered his message entirely in Latin, making sure that the man upstairs understood every word.
Now Sorkin is delivering his own message about one of my favorite targets – the people who bring us the news – as told through the show that premiered a year ago, “The Newsroom”. His new picture of perfection is Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) the anchorman on ACN – a smart, savvy, albeit world-weary and flawed, real, honest to goodness journalist. See what I mean. Sorkin is still writing fairy tales. Good thing I like to watch programs about fantasies and what could be in a world where everything is just the way it’s supposed to be. Will McAvoy, together with his executive producer and former girlfriend, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), have declared a new way of doing business, by delivering the news as it should be delivered. And that means only the news, not that tabloid stuff that so many of our networks have sold their souls and integrity for. Will has some other people in his corner like Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) who’s the president of the news division at ACN.
On the other hand, there are forces who would like nothing better than to see Will McAvoy fail, fall on his face, and leave in disgrace. His boss, the owner of AWM, parent company of ACN, is Leona Lansing, played by Jane Fonda, who serves up her character to us with every deliciously wicked ounce of acting chops she can muster. Ms. Lansing, together with her sons, are obsessively concerned with the bottom line, and Will’s style is not falling in line with what they have in mind for the network and their empire. Leona’s company also owns a tabloid and she’s not above using a few well-placed pieces of gossip, even if they fall a little outside of the truth, to try to put the anchor man in his place.
During this show’s first season, Sorkin dealt with issues we’ve seen on the news. He also presented these stories with a look at how they were handled by the main stream media as they unfounded. In one episode, the people at ACN fought like cats and dogs over how to report the shooting in Arizona in which Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was severely injured. While other networks blithely and incorrectly reported her to be dead, McAvoy held off, waiting for something real, not rumor and innuendo. Calls were made for Will to make the same announcement that the other anchors were making, screaming that as each second passed, viewers were changing their channels and turning off ACN. “Only a doctor can pronounce some dead” was the argument by Will and Charlie, and, as we all know now, they were right.
As he did in “The West Wing”, Sorkin has Will McAvoy engaging in what could be called “speechifying” – delivering long-winded but thought-provoking responses as to how he views the world. In the very first episode, Will told a group of college students how The United States of America was no longer the greatest country in the world, but that it could be. On another occasion he took on the Republican party. McAvoy, a moderate Republican himself, said that the fractured nature of today’s GOP was not what he had grown up believing in for the party of Abraham Lincoln. He went on to say that factions such as the Tea Party were akin to the American Taliban. You might take umbrage with his words, given your own political leanings and ideology, but there is some truth in there. All you have to do is watch as State by State, the strides made by women, the very existence of unions and the basic rights of the American people as a whole are being compromised, chipped away at, every day.
This season promises to bring us more of the same – stories that we’ve already watched other networks bungle, and news that’s happening right now. Some sites have mentioned the events in Newtown, Connecticut from last December and the growing and continued unrest in Egypt and Syria as possibilities for the show’s topics. Unless Will McAvoy has gone under some awful transformation during hiatus, I look forward to seeing how he reports these stories, stories that were and are being treated no better than Gabby Giffords’ was by the likes of CNN, MSNBC, and the other major networks.
Critics have not been kind to “The Newsroom”, with detractors and fans running nearly neck and neck. Some of them have called the show, and Sorkin, naive and sanctimonious. Even that seems to be sort of amusing. The media calling out a show that calls out the media. It’s ironic and telling at the same time. I can almost – not quite, but almost – understand their perspective. Then again, I don’t mind some measure of naivete and sanctimony, and I’ve probably been guilty of both at one time or another. As I said, Sorkin can piss you off, but he also gives you more than enough food for thought. He’s both a genius and an insufferable and egotistical snob. I don’t always understand or agree with his point of view, but that’s why I started this whole thing off by mentioning my love him and hate him problem. Television doesn’t offer this kind of show or writing often enough. If you get a chance, and you get HBO, take a look for yourself at “The Newsroom”. (For those of you who have HBO and missed the first season, all of the episodes are available on HBO GO.) It’ll be back this Sunday night and I’m sure it’s going to give some critics plenty to complain about. Now that’s a good thing.