In the opening scene of The Social Network, writer Aaron Sorkin is quite blunt about his intentions to alienate you through his script. You don’t listen to the dialogues, you have to glean from them. And it’s not the velocity of every character’s delivery that’s intimidating, it’s the mass of information packed with that velocity. Now transform this into 25 hours of a newsroom — where every character wants to win the Grand Prix of dialogues, everybody one-upping each other, the whistle top repartees and the famous Sorkin monologues. You have to absorb Sorkin’s momentum and once you do, you become witness to his genius.
The Newsroom, created by Sorkin, is the story of a fictional news agency having a mid-life crisis. Inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the agency revamps itself as a harbinger of change — in a mission to civilise media and journalism by just actually reporting the news. The news isn’t curated by capitalism anymore, it is integrity that does so. Even the show acknowledges how quixotic this idea is, to report the news by content and not ratings. The characters are overtaken by a fit of madness (consciousness actually but let’s be real), just like the demented Don Quixote with his knight-errantry. And perhaps, that is exactly why this show is so depressing — their elusive idealism is too Herculean a goal to achieve. Either that or we’re in the age of a decadent, corrupt media.
The episodes hinge on actual events — the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Boston Marathon bombings, and the 2012 US Presidential Elections. And amongst all this, it grapples with current forms of journalism — gossip columns and its takedown pieces, incentive-based reporting. A reporter haughtily says to the news producer, “I wasn’t aware of what was going on with the McRib sandwich.” The characters in the show, and the show itself crusade against that, rather smugly (They called themselves the “media elite”) but not without reason. The show’s emphasis on the degradation of journalism cannot be overstated.
If The Newsroom is the portrayal of a screwed up media, The Social Network is the perfect prelude for the descent of media into nonsense (that’s being euphemistic of course). This, here, is Sorkin’s poetry.
But this show never turns into a didactic woke brigade, it reflects on this descent, coming to terms with the truth the characters already knew, what we already know. In the first scene of the series, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, the leading anchor of the agency, is at Northwestern University for a panel where he is asked a presumptive question, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” He, a Republican news anchor, for obvious reasons, unleashes a tirade against America and everything that’s wrong with it — using facts, not sentiment. For a moment there, McAvoy’s debilitating need to please everyone did not fuel his actions.
The Newsroom asks a simple question — why can’t good news reporting be popular? — and answers it as well, “People choose the facts they want now.” It’s not so much the grim worldview they take that can get depressing as a viewer, it’s the realisation that the fourth estate utopia they build around their news agency is probably never going to happen. When asked whether he believes humans are preternaturally stupid, McAvoy says that they are. And in that fleeting second, that question is actually directed towards you, to which many will have a middling answer.
Even when the show is varnished with its fictional media gloss, its ideology is steadfast. It’s never meant to be revolutionary either. And within this tenacity and simplicity lies a dejected creator. Sorkin’s version of news media is so otherworldly that the only form in which that journalistic system can exist is fiction. I share a similar cynicism as McAvoy. So when I finished the series, my crisis was not existential, it was contemplative — that my current favourite piece of television is a Disney fairytale. As I rewatch the show, my conviction in The Newsroom’s ideology grows and with it, that depressed state of mind.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.