After taking a long pause from compulsive watching to focus on publishing (and vacationing), today I treated myself to the first two episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. I had read mixed reactions to it and was a little dubious to follow what I thought would be a self-congratulatory show overburdened by Sorkin’s trademark windiness, but my friends assured that it was good TV and it was too hot to do anything else, so I gave it a try. And it was good, indeed.
I had fun watching The Newsroom because it is well-acted, well-cast and has a pretty decent photography. Jeff Daniels’ acting the manic, self-centred Will McAvoy convincingly monopolised my attention, demanding the same amount of intimidated consideration from me that he seemingly imposes on his subjects at Atlantis Cable News. Sam Waterson, as Charlie Skinner, ACN’s division president, also won my favour by being very good at playing a closet-patronizing wacko, while Dev Patel (as Neal Sampat) was just too cute a geek not to love him as he did his best to respect everybody’s privacy by shrinking in his family-guy cardigans, or tip-toeing around the office always a minute too late not to overhear some gossip. Yes, those characters seemed to work and have potential for further development. McAvoy is evidently as bad a pain in the neck as he is because of some unknown event that has befell him in the past; with Skinner we might have less to investigate, but he needs to be there to take Sam by the hand and box his ears from time to time; and Neal, we all know that his stereotypical, subcontinental intelligence and technical knowledge will become invaluable at ACN.
So The Newsroom was good, as I said. I watched the pilot and then I felt like watching a second episode because it seemed to me that it got action. The built-up to the first airing of the new newsshow planted seeds in terms of characters’ background, and it also involved a little scheming that suited my summer needs. Yet, something else did not do it for me, and I am not referring to McAvoy’s grand lament about how America used to be the greatest country in the world, because that was just too sappy and biased and I am sure a lot of people have already rubbed that in Sorkin’s face. But yes, in part I am also referring to that because one of the things that made me want to write this post in the first place is how nostalgic the show is.
I don’t need to go over the plot of episodes 1 and 2 since the opening sequence self-evidently encapsulates my argument, broaching also on the asphyxiating sexism of Sorkin’s writing.
The intro is a 1:30 minute long tribute to the ideal of journalistic integrity, uncompromised by ratings and political partisanship, as it was embodied by anchors the likes of Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite (the latter being mentioned by Charlie Skinner as responsible for ending the Vietnam war [or something along those melodramatic lines]). After an establishing shot of a satellite hovering over the Earth, the first half of the intro mainly shows black&white archived footage of old newsrooms in slow motion, enhancing the ‘vintage’ look of the shots by carefully foregrounding the customary horizontal bars that appeared on old television sets. Accompanying an extended pan over individual figures caught as they greet the audience, rehearse or prepare to go on air, a somber string/orchestral theme elevates them to the iconic status of emblems of a long-gone world and long-lost ‘morality’ (the episodes often referring in a derogatory tone to the turn news have taken towards ‘gossip’ and ratings-driven content). Furthermore, the slow motion and some other trick that I can’t name allow these figures to emerge from the background looking like papercut pictures, the better to aid a nostalgic approach to what they did and stood for. To contrast the unhurried quality of these first moments, the second half of the sequence cuts to more rapid shots from the actual show, resuming its colour and digital quality by allowing multiple images and typecast to overlap and dissolve, as to emphasize the hypertextual and multi-media context in which the characters move. Unsurprisingly, the second episode is entitled “The Newsroom 2.0” and revolves around an accident involving McKenzie McHale’s apparent ineptitude at managing her email account.
Which brings me to my second point: what’s with the women of The Newsroom? And more importantly, what’s with Sorkin’s sexism?! Again, look at the credits: not only is the time reserved to women on screen much shorter than that given to men, but 90% of the times the women we get to see are either flushed, distressed or competing for a man’s attention. The names of Alison Pill and Olivia Munn, acting respectively as Meggie Jordan and Sloan Sabbith, are both superimposed on scenes that represent them in moments of implied difficulty; Munn strutting out of an office frowning with a nervous look on her face and Pill acting the stereotype of the goofy college girl who wants to do good at all costs in spite of being unschooled, as her male supervisors/crushes apparently never cease to remind her. Then, a few seconds later, there’s Emily Mortimer (McKenzie McHale) talking over the phone with her head in her hand, and then more males: men’s hands and silhouettes and bodies just monopolising the screen. For the sake of fairness I should add that we get to see women three more times, in passing, once there’s a blond one doing the countdown and after that a few more more Mortimer moments.
You really don’t need to be a feminist to question Sorkin’s views on gender equality. A superficial comparison of shots with women and shots with men would demonstrate that the guys most of the times are either smiling or being satisfied with their work, as when Patel is shown looking at something on his computer with a look of pure awe on his face that reminds me of Bastian Bux of The Neverending Story.
Thus, if we want to stick to the opening sequence and treat it as a piece of cinematography that establishes the salient features of the show while “wetting the appetite” of viewers for more, then what we learn from The Newsroom’s intro is that journalism and integrity are not the province of women. They suggest that not only is this a drama series about how cable television and newscast should learn from the past, but that it is run by men who, although subject to incredible loads of work, manage to stay focused while women stray the office looking something between self-indulgent, frenzied and distracted. The fact that the credits intersperse typecasts among the shots, blaring “news alert,” “special bulletin,” and “breaking news” in bright yellows, red and blues, links Sorkin’s gender politics to emotive issues of emergency and critical management where men seem to fare much better than women. After all, we do get to see McAvoy in distress, banging papers on his desk, but we are reassured that he knows how to cope with his anger when the next best shot is of him greeting his audience with composure from behind the same desk.
I can only hope that, in spite of Sorkin’s effort at passing male’s disembodied rationalism as a cure of idle gossiping in journalism and other fields, I will get to keep some of my unhealthy and unmediated passion for watching sexist TV in the next few days. August is going to be long, lonely and hot, better make do with what FATHER seems to know best for me.