I suppose I should have resisted, but part of me couldn’t not watch The Newsroom’s return to television this past Sunday. And while my initial impulse was to see how Aaron Sorkin’s treating his female characters in a show of solidarity for my fellow young lady journalists, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sorkin’s created a new genre in prestige television as a whole. Instead of characters we root for but shouldn’t, characters we root for but worry about, or characters we love to hate, Sorkin’s critique of cable news has set up a stable of people it’s almost impossible to root for at all.
Let’s start with the ladies, though. The first of the female regulars on the show to reappear on screen is Maggie, who shows up with a haircut that leads Marcia Gay Harden’s high-powered lawyer, Halliday, to compare her to “the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” and Will to explain that Maggie was on a reporting trip overseas, and “It got really bad and she came back a little messed up.” The implication seems to be that she experienced sexual assault or harassment, much like Lara Logan did in Tahrir Square. “If what happened to her happened to you you’d kill yourself for the rest of your life,” Will tells Halliday (though not, of course, until he’s responded to her saying “Well fuck me,” by turning to her male associates and telling them “Would one of you fuck Ms. Halliday, please?”) Apparently, getting attacked overseas — and it seems like what happens to Maggie will be part of the larger Genoa storyline — elevates you from the ranks of Internet Girls and producers’ girlfriends, making you worthy of having Will McAvoy use you as a weapon of Will McAvoy’s indignation.
Within the context of the episode, though, that whatever trauma Maggie experienced is set up as an expiation for her sin, the previous season, of confessing her affection to Jim, a crime that Don uses to accuse her of being a bad journalist and a bad girlfriend. First, he tells her that she’s naive for assuming that no one on the Sex and the City tour bus would have filmed her rant. And then Don tells her that because she spoke her thoughts out loud, she’s worse than him. “I spent this whole time thinking I was the bad guy for not being in love with you,” he says, sorrowfully, missing the point that it’s possible for both of them to be the bad guy, in fact, for them to just be a generally terrible couple. “I should be the one to leave,” Maggie tells Don. Apparently, that means she’ll be getting not just out of their apartment, but out of the continental United States as well, proving she’s both a better journalist and feels sufficiently bad about what will hopefully be their final breakup.
Speaking of Don, before his more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reveal to Maggie, he’s off making things awkward with Sloan, who, to be fair, wants to have it out with him to clear the air.“When you asked me why I was single and I said it was because you hadn’t asked me out, I thought it was my last day,” Sloan tells him. “And it sounded like a good line.” But Don, instead of trying to restore their friendship, insists on some sort of moral superiority. “I’ve got a 13-day streak going of being a good boyfriend,” he tells Sloan. “What do you get if you hit two weeks?” she wants to know. “A healthy conscience,” Don tells her. Though apparently viral videos of your girlfriend confessing she loves someone else help quite a bit, too.Sloan’s in an interesting professional place, too, sparring with Charlie, who tells her “You’re a nerd and I’m a nerd and you make nerds look bad,” and delivers the back-handed compliment “You’ve done a perfectly adequate job filling in for Elliot this week.” The staff around her think some of her coverage priorities are a bit odd: “You heard about the latest drone strike?” Jerry asks Mac when he reports into the ACN offices to cover for Jim. “You and Sloan are going to get along very well,” Mac tells him. But Sloan nails her participation in a panel debate on the drones program. “Aren’t they cheaper?” Will asks her. “I’d prefer to be arguing legality and morality, but no, they’re not,” Sloan slaps back at him, and Will spends much of the rest of the debate in silence, even as Mac begs in his earpiece for him to weigh in.
If there’s one female character who’s experiencing something of an uptick this year, it’s MacKenzie, in part because she spends most of the episode just acting like the showrunner she’s supposed to be. She’s right to ask Jim why he wants to go to New Hampshire when “You’re going to be fighting it out with stringers to get access to low-level staff.” She’s not necessarily wrong to be skeptical of Neal’s conviction that Occupy Wall Street means “America is on the verge of its own Arab Spring,” but she does a smart thing, both for staff management and for the stake of reporting in telling Neal to hit up the General Assembly meeting. And given Mac’s insistence the previous season that cable news be spinach, there’s something refreshing about her head for business when she tells Halliday. “We average about 1.1 million viewers. Genoa got 5.5 million. It was the most-watched program in the history of cable news.” That’s a rare spark of ambition, a sense that Mac wants something other than to make Will an icon of dignity and seriousness.
And it’s a relief because if there’s one thing The Newsroom hasn’t quite worked out in its second season, it’s how the female characters in the show function on their own terms, instead of just in relation to men — and whether its male and female characters are supposed to be heroes, anti-heroes, or deeply flawed people who grow into a measure of integrity and success over the course of several seasons.
At the end of the first season, one of Will’s major spontaneous acts was to hire the young woman he’d insulted in the rant that went viral and made him need to shake up his program in the first place. “You’re the sorority girl!” Charlie says when he first spots her in the office. “I hired her,” Will says proudly. But he’s having her run around researching Broadway musicals and doing his laundry instead of doing substantive research or news reporting work. Is this meant to be further penance for her sin of having been, by Will’s standards, dumb in the first place, dumb assignments for a naive dunce? Is it meant to be evidence that Will is the shallow waster of someone else’s time, rather than the representative of substance he made himself out to be? It’s one thing to allow audiences to make their own decisions, and another to not leave enough material, or clear enough material for them to interpret.
I wonder if some of this is a factor of the structure Sorkin’s set up for himself, which has locked the show as a whole into handcuffs of pomposity, but also that poses beat-by-beat character problems for the show. Because we’re revisiting past events through the lens of Will McAvoy’s show and staff, it’s hard to know how to interpret their missteps. Are we meant to think that Mac is stupid for missing the potential for Occupy Wall Street, given that it turned out to be a huge story? Or is she right to be skeptical, given that Neal’s prediction of a new Arab Spring would prove to be overblown? The show has a relatively weak structural explanation for Mac’s initial hesitation — she essentially just argues that protests are inherently proof of a lack of substance — when if it wanted to be more cutting, she could have talked about ratings, or the dilemma of how to position a mainstream figure like Will in relation to a movement made up of people substantially more radical than he is.
Similarly, how are we supposed to interpret her and Will’s general reaction to drones coverage? Will obviously doesn’t want to appear soft on terrorism after he gets yanked from 9/11 anniversary coverage, telling Mac “I don’t think there’s an immoral way to kill terrorists.” But the show makes this storyline significantly more about Will’s hurt feelings than about Will’s relationship to the actual issues involved. And in a crowded episode, it’s once again not clear if we’re supposed to view this as a critique of Will, or a critique of the news business that might make him defensive in the first place, especially because it’s also an hour of television that treats calling the Tea Party “the American Taliban” as if it’s a cutting observation or an act of political bravery.
An anti-hero show draws us in with a main character’s charm and competence, before testing how far we’re willing to take that affinity, given the bad acts we’ll witness. A conflicted hero show like Justified gives us someone we can root for, but tests our patience with their mistakes and flaws, like Raylan’s impulsiveness. But a common element in both of those types of shows is competence: the characters have a lot to bring to the table, even as the stakes get higher and higher.
The problem with The Newsroom, I think, is that no one comes across as particularly competent, both by design and by accident. Women on the show tend to be dippy, impulsive, prone to attacks on their technology, rants on the street, or attacks of principle that are bad for ratings. But men can be high-handed, obsessive about conspiracy theories, stories without ratings draws, or their ex-girlfirends, or oddly naive, as is the case with Jim’s (or the show’s) lack of awareness that since outlets pay for seats on campaign buses, the Romney staff can’t actually kick him off. What the show identifies as moments of journalistic bravery are significantly driven by the fact that Will McAvoy is based on Keith Olbermann, and so a ranting answer to a question, or a special comment during a broadcast get more points than actual reporting, or driving new subjects into the news stream the way Rachel Maddow did with national security.
There’s a great story in The Newsroom about its most interesting and competent character, Sloan Sabbith, and what should be a terrific arc about the clash between her undeniable talent and the mediocre ambitions of her network and its obsession with old-school white dudes like Will McAvoy. But Sorkin seems so concerned with making his characters flawed in ways that are meant to illustrate the failings of the people making cable news, rather than of the institutional imperatives that they have to work around, that he’s created a lineup of people who are neither anti-heroes, nor heroes. I still don’t like the way The Newsroom treats its female characters. But in its second season, it’s hard to argue that the show’s given us male characters who are any easier to root for.