I've been trying hard to organize my thoughts about The Newsroom; I seriously enjoy watching it (something I'll say several times in this post) but I knew it had been panned in the press, and Jay Smooth had some mean things to say about it, and amid what NPR's Linda Holmes describes, "Hearing a Sorkin character forcefully argue something you believe to be true is like bathing in a tub full of champagne while you listen to a CD of affirmations called You Are Great And Smart, And No One Understands You," there's an overwhelmingly uncomfortable sub-... Something. And that's what I keep slamming into. It's not subtext, it's not a double meaning. And it's certainly not the deep, pervasive cynicism of the show. That, I'm fine with. And it isn't the preachyness. I love that, too.
But I think I've figured it out. It's the nostalgia.
A Love Letter to the Great Men of History
The show opens with a beautiful rant, inspired by Will McAvoy hallucinating his ex in the audience[1. I know that (SPOILER!) it turned out she was actually there, but I liked it way better when I thought he was imagining it.]. The first half of the rant is awesome. He rattles off all the statistics that I wish were printed in a column on the front of every issue of every newspaper. Especially the thing about the defense budget.
Then he starts talking about the way things used to be. When we "Never beat our chests," and "Acted like men," and "Aspired to intelligence," and "Didn't scare so easy."
The show has rightly been called on how much bull████ that second half is made of. The past was not a superior time, we were not a better country back then. Although, in episode three, they do start to defend the claims in what I think is a pretty coherent way. And, again, I seriously enjoy watching this show.
MacAvoy, the great hero of the show, is sexist, racist and xenophobic, and MacKenzie's glowing endorsement that he's secretly a nice guy doesn't really make up for that fact. It hurts, too, that the structure of the show supports that mythos. You can pretty well rank the importance of the characters by arranging them by distance from the pinnacle, white-male-anglo-American.
It also portrays positive movement in news as a strictly backward trajectory. I'm glad that someone mentioned WikiLeaks, but the fact that it was Neal, the Indian guy who writes McAvoy's blog (to his shock and disgust), and in the context of Jim (the white, male Batman producer) mocking him for suggesting that the internet is important. Meanwhile, the model for the new program is Appeal to the Transcendent Model of the Great Men of Brodacasting History.
On the other hand...
I mentioned the bull████ about the greatness of American history earlier. But I also mentioned about episode three, where McAvoy points out to his boss, Charlie Skinner, who is easily my favorite character so far, that even at the height of the Hippie movement, the mainstream Democratic candidates were not interested in associating themselves with the Hippie leadership.
This is contrasted with the Tea Party, which now actively gets elected around the country. I believe that McAvoy and Sorkin are right to raise the alarm, and to point out that this is something new. Or, at least, something that hasn't happened lately, and should be getting more negative attention than it is. I hope that the Tea Party aren't the major targets of the whole show, but it was a good defense of a hypothetically better past.
And the past they refer to in the show seems to focus more on the methodology than on the facts of the environment. In many cases, McAvoy and Skinner seem to be nostalgic, not for a time when everything in America was awesome, but for a time when America was not so divided, when the methods by which change occurred were more organized, and better suited to rooting out bad change.
Indeed, the correlation between heightening scientific and philosophical understanding and heightening coherency in legislation seems to have... well, drooped. Things may not have been better in the past America they're nostalgic for, but they were at least worse in ways that were proportional to their historical context.
The Newsroom is not the greatest show in history, but it's a good show. I seriously enjoy watching it, and I think that its arguments are more cogent than not -- and more cogent than many of the critics are saying.
I hope that in future episodes, the show gets more optimistic about the internet, and takes on the entertainment industry, copyright law, and student debt. I hope the non-white and the non-male characters get fleshed out better, and get treated with a little more complexity, and I hope Jim ████s up, in a meaningful way, at least once -- and gets called on it.
I don't think there's much hope of getting away from the show's fetish for the Great Man, but I can suck that up. It's a narrative thing, anyway.[2. Not that narrative isn't important. Narrative is the most important thing.] And I'm not bothered by its preachyness, or the past-setting, "This is how the story should have been" mechanism. If the show's going to help present-day viewers become informed, it needs to give them the appropriate context about where our country is and how it got there.
So, I recommend it. It's clever and informative and truer than the news media is likely to admit (though it's not totally true) and its cynicism is well-earned by its setting. And I seriously enjoy watching it.