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Throwback Thursday - The Newsroom - We Just Decided To

We all have our hills to die on, and mine is The Newsroom.

Time and time again, there are a lot of things that draw me back to Aaron Sorkin’s 2013 HBO series, time and time again, moreso even than its more famous sister, The West Wing. Some of the reason is, admittedly, my own Narcissian attachment to a glamorous depiction of journalism. Ss a writer and aspiring journalist, it’s nice when the Spotlights and The Posts of the world tell you you’re doing the real work. Some of my attachment to The Newsroom stems from my passionate obsession with Jim/Maggie’s will they/won’t they/mostly they really don’t/but occasionally they smoulder at one another from across the room relationship, and on that note, some of it can also be attributed to my insatiable crush on one John Gallagher, Jr. However, I think one of the biggest reasons that I stand behind this show - and make time annually for a rewatch - is because if I don’t, who else will?

Unlike The West Wing, which sits in the hallowed halls of beloved television history, The Newsroom’s legacy is primarily from the memes it generated. Dubbed "the worst Sorkin show," The Newsroom's keyed-up approach to its fictional journalists covering actual news events led to moments that come off as cringe and/or hilariously self-important, like the scene where the ACN team celebrate that they were the only network to not misreport a congresswoman’s death, or this scene where producer Don, stuck on an airplane, informs his pilot of the death of Osama Bin Laden. The Bin Laden clip especially hits as a dated display of blind patriotism, a signal of a writer out of touch with reality on a grand scale, and it’s more than likely that Sorkin truly is.

However, separating art from artist and even from original intention, if need be, I think The Newsroom still stands for something useful all the same. So for this Throwback Thursday, I wanted to rewatch the show’s preachy but promising pilot episode and work out exactly what it was that made this show special to me in spite of its next-level pretentiousness.

One of the things that I think catches people off-guard about The Newsroom is its take on very recent news events. Unlike The West Wing, which would sometimes use its plots to reflect current events but hardly to ever reference any outright, The Newsroom's fictional crew report on actual events, and, what’s more, ones that only preceded the episodes they were depicted in by a few years. This first episode, aired in 2012, tackles the team at fictional cable news network ACN as they report on the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Taking on such painfully recent events in this way, and more importantly, creating fictional heroes to report on them perfectly and in a way that beats out the other, corporate-controlled networks, can come off as a self-important flaut of reality. However, the underrecognized key to The Newsroom is that it does not depict real events in order to reflect reality. Instead, it acts as a yearning; an unattainable ideal for what we want our media makers to look like - a ragtag bunch of selfish, silly, witty and irksome but ultimately kind and fair and well-meaning journalists inarguably excellent at their jobs.

Still, the question of who is Aaron Sorkin to tell us what to idealize is fair and valid. The Newsroom, even in its first episode, has many obvious blind spots and comedy beats that, if they ever hit correctly, certainly don’t hit well now. Both The Newsroom and The West Wing were excellent at making it seem like they had found a solution to difficult, nuanced problems in the span of 45 minutes, and The Newsroom especially rings with the unmistakable tone of a writer that knows about a lot more than he’s actually had to experience. This makes the show flawed, yes, and inhibited somewhat in its idealistic goals, but not necessarily obsolete.

The Newsroom has often been laughed at for its over-the-top depictions of news production. However, I think the inanity of the events of every episode acts as a fun kind of camp. News-camp, realism-camp, whatever you want to call it, those over-the-top moments like the “Fix You” montage are a stretch toward a universe where everything is a bit more exciting than it used to be. Thematically, this idea fits with the rest of the show perfectly. The pilot presents Jeff Daniels’ Will as a spitfire who has lost his fire, an incomparable intellect beaten down by a hungry ego and a desire for a fat pocketbook into a likable everyman on-camera, and a monstrous tyrant off. After a mass staff exodus, the pilot episode has him met with a foil in the form of the most dedicated, honest and hardworking team of journalists ever to walk the earth all looking to him for leadership.

The fact that Will has a romantic past with Mackenzie, his equally intelligent but unrelentingly positive-thinking new EP, is not just a dramatic plot point. The show’s greatest enemy is a media industry run on cynicism, money-grabbing and people-pleasing, and Will and Mackenzie’s former relationship is meant to show that, at one time, there was supposedly a world where practicality and optimism could meet and work together harmoniously. Once again, this premise has an air of Sorkin groaning “back in my day” at clouds as they pass by. It admittedly seems like a wildly one-dimensional take on news production, especially considering that there has quite literally never been and could never be a television news program that was not first and foremost made as a product (or the packaging to show off other products). But I would argue that, somewhere, The Newsroom understands that it is not suggesting a reality but dwelling on a fantasy. In this first episode, Mackenzie compares her goal of creating a news show with a single goal of informing its viewers to the mission of Don Quixote. Quixote comes up quite a bit throughout the rest of the show, a connotation that implies a purposeful disconnect from reality. For all of Sorkin’s faults, uneducatedness is not one of them, making this motif unlikely to be a mistake or coincidence.

It’s a weird comparison, but, as I watched this episode again, it reminded me quite a lot of Pablo Larrain’s recent film Spencer. Like The Newsroom, Spencer took a very real and arguably too recent event - the fabled weekend at Sandringham where Princess Diana supposedly chose to divorce Prince Charles - and transformed it entirely. The film is not a biopic, and is instead filled with the speculative and surreal; it’s revisionist history and it’s historical fanfiction. Most importantly, it’s a cry into a void for a form of justice that physically cannot exist, a symbolic cutting loose of a woman-turned-myth by someone who did not know her and had neither the right nor the proper means to actually cut her loose. Both Spencer and The Newsroom, in my eyes, are a self-indulgent statement of “I could’ve fixed this'' and a desperate longing for a better universe than the one we find ourselves in.

Something I’ve missed in Sorkin’s recent directorial outings is his ability to build us a hero out of the people we hate and the ones we cannot trust. Even if they are an illusion; heroes are crucial to human society. We always need a pedestal person to look to, and Sorkin’s early works offered one that was raised higher than the standards we had set ourselves in the real world. The 2010’s, on the other hand, were the peak of the “gritty realism” trend in television, where the comedies had to be dramatic and the dramas had to be depressingly somber, and the more “realistic” it all felt the better. And looks however deceiving, Aaron Sorkin has never made a TV show that was in any way supposed to be realistic. The Newsroom is not realism; it’s hyper-fantasy; it’s camp; it’s nearly science-fiction. You’re not supposed to watch this show to see what a newsroom looks like, you’re meant to watch it and see what you wished it looked like; what it would be more fun and more hopeful for it to look like. It’s a concept that, to be frank, worked directly against everything 2010’s TV tried to stand for, possibly accounting for the brutal pushback the show recieved upon airing.

But that was then, and this is now. The biggest question I'm left with after rewatching The Newsroom's pilot is not why people didn't like it in 2012, but instead, what place does this show have now, in this weird, gelatinous, almost-post-Covid world? Does it act as an annoyance or a balm? Is it a pretentious sermon or a blissful fairy tale? It’s easy, even as a fan, to watch The Newsroom and see beneath its glassy surface a once-celebrated writer growing old, dragging his feet along the ground and whining for the return to the uber-optimistic view of the American people (one that is remarkably white male-centric). And it can easily and effectively be argued that this is what the show is doing, period. But I think now more than ever, it’s useful to see this show as more than that; as phenomenal escapist fare. Wouldn’t you love to be able to do your job every day knowing that you've done the absolute best you could, and your effort is going to make a positive impact; a marked difference? Wouldn’t you absolutely love to yell out “You’re a f–king newsman, and if I ever tell you otherwise, you punch me in the face!” underscored by the riveting guitar solo in a Coldplay song? Wouldn’t you love to be the one that breaks the news to your airplane pilot that-eh, well, that one’s still pretty cringe.

Regardless, I implore you to reconsider your stance on The Newsroom. At the very least, I would rewatch it a billion times over just for Jim and Maggie’s slowest of slow burns, a romance so full of mutual pining, awkwardly sweet exchanges and horribly-timed misunderstandings that it puts even Jim and Pam to shame. But that aside, the rest of the show, when looked at under the right lens, is a wonderful ride. No, it's not perfect, and it's certainly not realistic, but I think we all could use a little distance from reality right now, don’t you?