People Don’t Really Talk Like That! Except Sometimes They Do: In Defense of the Newsroom

Posted: July 30, 2012 in Politics, Television
Tags: ,

“I don’t give a shit, Madame Butterfly!”

HBO’s new show, The Newsroom, continues to draw the ire of many critics and journalists (although Dan Rather found the show remarkably accurate and the potential to be a classic) who have any number of complaints about the series.  People claim that the dialogue and banter is too intellectual and that people don’t really talk that way (a similar criticism was levied at Sorkin’s other hit television show that you might remember… The West Wing).  The blog-o-sphere is aghast at how the show is misogynistic and fails at creating strong, likable female characters (I would usually provide a link here, but you can just Google any recap from the first six episodes and you will see the same complaints rehashed over and over).  Others complain that the show is too one-sidedly liberal and that Will McEvoy, the main character, is the voice of Liberal TV-God Sorkin himself.  Others just rag on how the drama between the characters gets in the way of the good part of the show, which is the idealized newsroom covering events that are several years or months old with the benefit of hindsight to aid in the writing.

The criticism that the show is too dialogue-heavy and intellectual, to me, should be more a praise than a complaint.  It has to be one of the most intelligently written shows since the West Wing and focuses on two things that I would prefer to banal plot, namely character development (and their psychology) and social/political issues.  The notion that people in this profession do not — would not — speak that way, I think, might be a bit disingenuous.  Has anyone ever watched Rachel Maddow?  She speaks that way, as do many journalists.  She spoke that was a radio host, and she speaks that was as a TV host, and I imagine she speaks similarly if I were talking to her outside her work environment (and very little of The Newsroom is set outside the work environment, so I still think it’s reasonable for them to talk that way).  People who are in environments of very educated people, and who are themselves well-educated, tend to speak in a more formal register of language.  I don’t find it so unrealistic that I can’t suspend my disbelief for the 52 minutes of an episode because Will or Mackenzie are just a bit too witty.

As someone who considers himself a budding feminist (or pro-feminist, if you’re in the camp of individuals who believe that men cannot be feminists), I don’t really understand the critique of the show as being overtly misogynistic (similar claims were made about The West Wing as well).  To believe that the show is an anthem for white male privilege, as many reviews would suggest, means that you accept as a premise that we are supposed to like and agree with the two most misogynistic characters: Will, our protagonist, and Don, who seems to be improving on the likability front these past two episodes.  I find Will to be one of the most interesting (but also damaged) characters on the show, but I don’t think for a second Sorkin expects you to agree with how he treats others.  He’s a bully and a chauvinist, and you’re supposed to dislike those parts about him.  If I had any complaints about the series thus far, it would be that tonight’s episode basically had to spell this out for the viewer as Will admits he’s a bully, and a strong female character shouts “Don’t call me girl!” after being patronized by Charlie (played by Sam Waterston from Law & Order, whom I love).

[Edit, rant to follow: I just felt that, after reading some more reviews, that I needed to elaborate even further on this.  It is true that some of the female characters on the show have serious character flaws.  Some of those flaws are ones that are typically and inaccurately ascribed to all women by society.  Similarly, some of the men on the show have serious character flaws, and some of those flaws are ones typically and innaccurately ascribed to all men by society.  But there are male characters who are not the epitome of patriarchy and masculinity (Jim) and there are characters who challenge female archetypes (Sloan, and to some extent, Mac).  People fail to recognize when railing against this show’s misogyny that these characters are highly competent yet flawed.  Those who lambaste the character of Mac for her technology savvy and being bullied by Will don’t recognize that she’s the same character who embedded herself to cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and that Will is the highest-rated anchor on the air and seems to be a journalistic idyll but whose entire staff left him, hates him, or is afraid of him.  I am just frustrated that people don’t see that these characters are multi-dimensional and flawed as products of an imperfect society and a unique set of experiences, but rather see them as promoting some hegemonic male white privilege.  The whole argument reminds me of people who try to say (and they do exist, I promise) that Glee is homophobic because Kurt exhibits some stereotypes of the gay community.  They try to diminish him as a flat, archetypal gay character rather than looking past that to see one of the more nuanced and complicated characters on the show.]

As for the complaints that the show is too partisan and that Will is Sorkin’s mouthpiece, well, that’s just not really believable.  Will is a Republican (in the traditional New England style, not the radical Tea Party style or the Christian Right Neo-Conservative style).  But again, tonight’s episode pandered to those who didn’t quite get that by giving a Republican character a more likable place on today’s show (though the fact that fictional Sutton Wall is based on real-life ex-Santorum staffer Robert Traynham bothered me as out of line — unless there are other Black, gay, Santorum campaign staffers out there I don’t know about, this man is not a public figure and probably shouldn’t have been castigated in fictional form on HBO primetime).

Also, I love the drama between the co-workers on the show.  I love their relationships and I find the ensemble cast very symbiotic.  They have chemistry and continue to develop week to week.

And it seems like the viewers agree, if only because the show has already been renewed for a second season and is pulling decent ratings.  It’s not for everyone, and it’s not meant to be, but for its target audience it does a brilliant job and I will continue to watch.  I love the dialogue, adore the female cast, appreciate the voice of moderation (though perhaps in today’s political climate, moderate Republican really is equivalent to far-left demagogue), and find the characters compelling.  Sorkin at his best, and it had me from the opening hook:


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