November 3, 2010 – the darkest of days. Republicans, propelled by the Astroturf movement known as the “Tea Party”, unseat a large number of Democrats. Ostensibly, these Democrats were not returned to Congress for enshrining into law what is written on our hearts – every child should have the option of being on their parent’s insurance until age 26. I’m a survivor, not a quitter. So, I did what any good progressive does – I got up and wiped the tears from my iPod. Green Day would have to wait, today was not the day for melancholy. I woke up and went to a wonderful little (nearly avant-garde I would say) coffee shop, ordered some Fair Trade coffee and popped open my MacBook to browse my RSS Feed while listening to Dave Matthews Band on my iTunes. Oh, Nate Silver, so smart but so blasé! Next!
I need some red meat (the figurative kind – I care about the environment after all). Oh, my daily dose of DailyKos – there we go. A community blogger has posted movie clips about being proudly progressive. One of the clips is of Michael Douglas in The American President:
The other clip is of Joan Allen in The Contender:
BRAVO! BRAVO! BRAVO! I am nearly causing a commotion in the coffee shop. I’m sure the barista gets it – she strikes me as someone aware of our current predicament. Though feeling slightly euphoric, I still feel not quite right. The only sensible thing to do is call into work sick. My manager answers the phone without a care in the world – doesn’t he know what transpired last night?!? – but sounds skeptical regarding my sudden illness with his seemingly curt “get better” at the end of the phone call.
Inspired, I go home and open my The West Wing: The Complete Series Collection and decide to spend the next 16 hours watching some of my favourite episodes. I witness President Bartlett destroy the pretence of the Christian Right’s political influence in the White House kitchen or when he proudly uses military force not for oil, but purely for humanitarian reasons. This show formed my political consciousness and I have moments where I want to replace my “Co-exist” bumper sticker with that of a “Jeb Bartlett is my President” bumper sticker. I hope my fellow West Wingnuts will oblige me this joke, but, this feeling lasts shorter than the amount of time Leo McGarry was sober during his time of service in the Bartlett Administration. I need something current, something fresh.
I was in the dark for over a year until I started to see bits and pieces about a possible Aaron Sorkin show on HBO that would center on a cable news production. Could this be the left-hook needed to send Rightwing Media to the mat after the hard right-hook of the Colbert Show and Daily Show? As 2012 was approaching, HBO released a teaser of new series – among them Sorkin’s new project called the Newsroom. A tingle reverberated through my body as I thought, “From the fount of Aaron Sorkin’s pen comes another fearless fighter!” I called up some people I had met at a Progressives Meetup.com group and asked about possibly pooling monies together to purchase a subscription to HBO. Money was tight – Congressional Republicans were obstructing needed stimulus measures after all! – but we scrimped and saved to get the extra $20/month for the HBO add-on to my cable package.
As the premiere date approached, we all knew that we were about to experience something truly wonderful – even if our expectations differed in matters of degree. But then June 24 came. We gathered in my urban loft, squeezed onto my old sofa set and furniture assembled from old Penguin Classics paperbacks, and ate the whole-grain almond granola bars (gluten-free of course) that Atticus had assiduously prepared. No one said a word – but it was clear everyone appreciated the gravity of the situation.
The opening scene shows two people arguing – the supposed conservative makes dumb points regarding President Obama and socialism and the liberal makes smart and insightful remarks showing the tenuous nature of common conservative claims. In the middle, is Will McAvoy – seemingly distraught by the argument’s tenor. McAvoy is finally given his chance at the bit and gives responses designed not to offend anyone.
However, McAvoy then gets the question that is a diet staple of every ethnocentric commentator around and is forced to honestly answer: What makes America the greatest country on Earth? All of my friends, of course, laughed at this question. We’ve read our Zinn and Chomsky. As everyone should know, America is not the greatest country on Earth – and McAvoy cites a litany of metrics to demonstrate why. Suffice to say, we were throttled by this stunning admission.
Most of my progressive friends will privately agree with McAvoy, but it is the rare progressive who goes public with such an admission other than the errant Tumblr post after a few too many wine coolers. Publicly admitting what we all knew to be true was the catharsis our collective soul needed to recover from the Tea Party movement.
Alas, the myopia of the modern media elite is shown when McAvoy returns from a brief hiatus and founds that his crew has jumped ship. The audience is introduced to the remaining cast of inexperienced newspeople and particularly to the new executive producer, MacKenzie McHale, McAvoy’s old flame. In the following episodes the audience is slowly introduced to the new crew along with various personal dilemmas that fester over time and influence their abilities as journalists. The path ahead, suffice to say, is seemingly forbidding for the Newsroom crew.
There would be no “getting to know you phase” for the crew as they were flung head first into reporting on the BP Deep Horizon rig explosion. In a matter of minutes, the news crew has pinned down the central causes of the issue – Halliburton ignoring failed test results for the substance used to block oil flow and the Mineral Management Service being unable to adequately perform its oversight role of Big Oil due to inadequate funding. The impactful reporting is a rousing success and my friends and I were left breathless by the renewed vigor of Will McAvoy.
If the skeleton crew of Will McAvoy could find this information, one wonders why the mainstream media could not have done the same. At the end of the show, my friends and I discuss our reactions. The group consensus is that McAvoy closely resembles Lawrence O’Donnell, host of “The Last Word” on MSNBC, and Ed Schultz, host of “The Ed Show” on MSNBC. Both these anchors are aggressive, do not put up with lies, and are ultimately hurt in the ratings by their unpopular but necessary stands.
In the course of the next several episodes, the audience discovers that having an inexperienced crew will be a source of strength for Will McAvoy – the staff is enterprising, bold, and hold to the belief that “nothing is sacred”. Moreover, the inexperience of the crew allows for McAvoy to have more flexibility in terms of what stories are covered and the angle in which they are presented. There are moments which McAvoy is at his finest – when he personally pays for the release of a news source in Egypt – and his worse – the cringe-inducing confrontation with a homosexual staffer of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. But, while McAvoy frailty is shown in each episode, Sorkin delivers a news anchor who shows that an imperfect man can light the way to a more perfect union.
More importantly, Aaron Sorkin is back with writing that dispels the madness of the modern Republican Party. At the same time, Sorkin reveals his pragmatism. By having the crusading lead role as a registered Republican, we know that this is not a partisan hatchet-job. Rather, this show is directed at forces within the Republican Party that govern from fear and prejudice.
It was with pride that I stole the following line uttered by McAvoy as my Facebook status: “I’m a registered Republican. I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage”. The number of “likes” I accumulated within a short period of time showed the general discontent among my friends of the modern Republican Party – and hence, the need for a show like The Newsroom.
With the House Republicans making up controversies – such as Benghazi, the IRS scrutiny of certain organizations, and “Fast and Furious” – at a quickening pace, I look forward to Will McAvoy exposing their chicanery in the second season. Nonetheless, Aaron Sorkin has brought me back from my self-imposed solitude after the mid-term elections 2010 with a news anchor that resists the conservative media zeitgeist.
Though there have been dark days, such as Google discontinuing Google Reader and Obama’s continuation of the Bush-era national security apparatus, Will McAvoy gives me hope. Moreover, given the dialogue-centric nature of Sorkin’s work, I feel smarter for watching it as I feel smarter for reading Mother Jones or having studied English Literature in college as opposed to ‘more practical’ options.
I will end on a few sour points from a committed progressive. The portrayal of women within the show was weak, at best, insulting, at worse. Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), promoted from an intern role to an associate producer role upon the mass exodus, is portrayed as emotionally weak and dependent upon her emotionally detached boyfriend Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) and her seemingly object of forbidden affection, Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.). This “Mister-May-I” approach makes for an interesting dynamic in a high-pressure work space, but is ultimately a disservice to the message that Sheryl Sandberg has been bringing to the C-Suite. Where is the Aaron Sorkin that made the West Wing’s CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) a powerful and influential role-model to young women interested in government?
Moreover, the show’s commitment to diversity and avoiding ethnic stereotypes is disappointing. The most prominent minority in the show is Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) who is, sotto voce, portrayed as the stereotypical techno-evangelist Indian-American with quirky interests (Neal’s obsession with the existence of Big Foot is equipoise with conservative’s obsession over President Obama’s birth certificate.) The dialogue slips in mocking remembrances of McAvoy referring to Neal as “Punjab” and as the Indian stereotype of an IT guy.
But, in each episode, the script mocks Neal for this very stereotype Sorkin wrote into the script – the blog administration, the ‘trolling’ experiment, and not to mention the recent Season Two trailer where his distressed by the lack of cell reception. Sorkin is much a too talented writer to rely upon cultural stereotypes as convenient crutches to aid in the creative process. Shame on him.
Nonetheless, for people distressed by the ignorance displayed daily in their Facebook newsfeed, the general ignorance of the American electorate, and the seemingly casual disregard for truth in reporting (I’m looking at you Faux News), The Newsroom is the perfect antidote to what is troubling you.
Rating: 9/10 Michael Moore’s.