Let’s talk about The Newsroom and let’s talk about Girls.
I wanted to like HBO’s The Newsroom. Even as the pans started piling up (none of which I’ve read yet, by the way, though the general sentiments surrounding the show are hard to avoid when you almost exclusively follow television critics on twitter, as I do), I wanted to love it. Because I do love so much of what Aaron Sorkin has done, The West Wing and Sports Night, The Social Network and The American President…I even love a good bit of Studio 60, though I can see its many failings, and because I read the pilot script months ago and I liked what I read.
But then I sat down to actually watch the episode.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t dislike everything about it. I like most of the cast, though I don’t necessarily like most of the characters, and I like the Sorkin-y verbal rhythms, that stylized speechifying he’s known for. I love Jim Harper, with his brains and his fumbling and his earnest sense of responsibility in journalism, and the last half hour of the pilot, when they actually start reporting the news, is invigorating. Most of the episode coasts on condescension, though, and I’m the person being condescended to.
See I’m female. I’m also young. Aaron Sorkin’s writing is full of young women, like Natalie on Sports Night or Donna on The West Wing, like Lucy on Studio 60 and now Maggie on The Newsroom. And these young women have a lot in common. They’re all beautiful and fiery and intelligent and funny, in many ways they’re great characters–they all also work directly under men who are, so the narrative tells us, more intelligent. Men who can teach them things. (To be fair, Jeremy wasn’t technically Natalie’s professional superior on Sports Night, except in the way most of the stories played out.) These men are also generally their romantic interests. And this is only the beginning of the way that Aaron Sorkin talks down to his female characters.
The Newsroom opens with its main character, Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy, participating in a college seminar event, going off on a rant about all the ways that America is not the greatest country in the world. It’s a long rant and its overloaded with Sorkin-iness, from its lists of statistics (including the percentage of Americans who believe in angels, which I know he referenced on Studio 60 and probably elsewhere) to its turn towards sentimentality and nostalgia at the midpoint, and it’s all inspired by a question from a girl in the audience, a young college student.
This rant is supposed to be the inciting incident of the show, the moment that turns Will McAvoy, the “Jay Leno of news,” into a journalist with a mission statement. Here he’s supposed to realize that he can’t be great if he walks the fine line between two sides of any opinion. Mostly though, he just comes across as a mean old man. His rant is not really delivered to the room or to the world at large, it’s directed at this young woman, a college sophomore, someone he calls “sorority girl” and a member of “the worst period generation period ever period.”
Hey, that’s my generation.
Aaron Sorkin’s never had a great relationship with the internet–the fact that he won about a zillion awards for writing “the facebook movie” is actually quite ironic. (If you want the whole backstory I’d suggest a google search for “Aaron Sorkin” and “Television Without Pity.”) The pilot for The Newsroom, though, is littered with references to Twitter and YouTube, blogging and Wikipedia, as if someone reminded him that, hey, this show is supposed to be set in 2010–YEAH, 2010!–and these sites play a vital role in the way journalism works now/then.
There’s a character on the show, Sam Waterston’s older, drunk network executive Charlie Skinner, who gives a speech to a young woman (of course) working in the newsroom about how she should be tweeting about what she’s witnessing, the impressive broadcast that News Night with Will McAvoy is putting out. He tells her everything she should be saying, a full Sorkin speech, and she responds with a line about how you only get 140 characters. Sorkin shows always have white-haired men like this delivering speeches like this, but I think this may be the first time I’ve seen that character as a Sorkin surrogate–there’s always a Sorkin surrogate or twelve, too–the man getting left behind as the world moves on without him. On The Newsroom, though, the goal is to embrace Charlie Skinner’s journalistic values, to cling to the way things were before. The Newsroom wants to drag journalism back into its golden age, not look forward to whatever is next–even if that may be better.
The Newsroom, of course, is taking the Sunday night time slot vacated, a week ago, by the first season of Girls.
“I think I may be the voice of my generation,” said Hannah Horvath in the most noted scene of Girls‘ pilot. “Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” And then she fell on the floor.
Much has been said about this line since Girls premiered three months ago. A lot of people took it way too seriously–in spite of the fact that Hannah was falling-on-the-floor stoned when she said it–and believed it was a point that Lena Dunham, the creator and star, was trying to make, believed that Dunham created the show as a universal representation of Sorkin’s so-called “worst period generation period ever period.” I took it somewhat differently.
I talked, when the show first premiered, about the fact that I found Hannah very relatable, and I stand by that, but I wouldn’t begin to think she’d be relatable to everyone. I happen to share a situation with the Girls, I’m the same age and race and gender and in the same city, I have many of the same aspirations and almost all of the same bad habits (not the drugs though, Mom and Dad, I promise!). I have referred to Hannah Horvath as my worst self several times over the last few months and I’ve meant it. It’s probably why I have a much easier time sympathizing with these ladies than most seem to.
But I also don’t think Girls really expects you to sympathize with Hannah et al. Or at least, I don’t think Girls expects you to sympathize with them any more than you’re supposed to sympathize with the male characters.
The show did something very specific in that it built its ensemble out from Hannah. You get to know her first and you get to know her best, but as the season progresses you get to know Marnie and then Jessa and then Shoshanna (though not enough Shoshanna! Petition for more Shoshanna in season 2!), and then you get to know Charlie and then Adam–Adam, who I tossed off with “‘I wouldn’t take shit from my parents, they’re buffoons, but my grandma gives me $800 a month,’ he says, and that pretty much tells you what you need to know” in reviewing the pilot. How wrong I was!–and even, a little bit, Ray (petition for more Ray in season 2!). It’s not a show about a generation, it’s a show about people.
Girls contains infinite individual worlds, but its characters have trouble seeing past the walls of their own lives, even as they orbit each other, which is why Marnie doesn’t step foot in Charlie’s apartment until after they’ve broken up, and why it takes more than half the season for the audience to learn anything real about Adam–Hannah doesn’t even know anything real about Adam.
But is anyone not consumed by their own internal dramas? Is Will McAvoy not so distracted by his ex-girlfriend that he loses focus during a seminar? Or fails to notice that his staff doesn’t like him/his assistant isn’t really his assistant so much as an intern he believed to be his assistant/someone whose name he doesn’t know is writing a blog under his name? The Newsroom wants you to believe selfishness is generational. It’s not. It’s universal.
You can’t make TV shows about perfect people, because they wouldn’t be interesting, and you can’t make TV shows about imperfect people and tell you they’re perfect people, because they wouldn’t be honest. I think this is my biggest problem with The Newsroom. It wants you to see Will McAvoy as a hero, a great man stepping out from behind the non-partisan, non-opinionated wall he’s been hiding behind to report the news (because in an Aaron Sorkin show the stakes, whether you have the nuclear launch codes or are trying to get a late night sketch show on the air, can never be high enough), despite the fact that they can’t even be bothered to portray him as a good man. Girls, meanwhile, is a show about exclusively imperfect people, all of them stumbling constantly over their own imperfections, none of them ever really changing that much. You get to know more about them and maybe the way you see them shifts, but they themselves stay the same.
Right now I plan to keep watching The Newsroom, because I don’t believe in judging a show exclusively by its pilot, and because, as I said, there is stuff going on that I like. Maybe something will change my overall opinion of the show–I certainly hope so.