A few weeks ago when I described The Newsroom as “nearly devoid of value,” I clearly did not anticipate Emily Mortimer spontaneously breaking into a Groucho Marx impression. It was an unexpected comedic surprise from Aaron Sorkin that truly transcended the episode (and might have been his first successful pop culture reference of the series).
Unfortunately, it was not all sunshine and puppies on the set of News Night as Sorkin regressed to the mean. A few critics and the legions of Sorkinites have suggested the show’s greatest achievement is its writing. And it’s true that the dialogue is quippier, and one-liners are able to enter and leave conversations with previously unknown freedom. The meat and potatoes of the series itself is also quite a bit smarter than most; instead of penis jokes, Sorkin’s characters intelligently (most of the time) and didactically (all of the time) discuss vital political matters.
All that said, we cannot simply overlook how egregiously sexist Sorkin’s scripts and characterizations are. In this episode alone, Sloan Sabbith’s resolve is reduced to jelly at the mention of Gucci, and Maggie recounts a story in which she, a woman in her mid-20s, preposterously thinks LOL means “lots of love.” It’s not that these foibles are merely stereotypical or wildly unrealistic, it’s that the men simply don’t have them. Even when Sloan stands her ground against Sam Waterston’s wrath with a defiant, “Don’t call me girl, sir!” both Waterston’s Charlie Skinner and McAvoy refer to her as “girl” four more times. It’s clear when the only flaw of Sorkin’s Perfect Men is their male chauvinism, he doesn’t view it as a flaw at all.
Elsewhere in the newsroom, Will declares that he’s going to “fix the internet,” which sends him down a Tony Soprano-sized rabbit hole into his subconscious. In a quest for sleeping pills, McAvoy visits his psychiatrist, Dr. Habib, who he hasn’t seen in four years and who is now the elder Habib’s son filling in for his deceased father. The episode is structured around their session and Will’s flashbacks to potential sources of anxiety, including a death threat in his no-longer-anonymous comment boards and his abusive alcoholic father. McAvoy makes some incredible—dare I say, improbable—breakthroughs for his first session with Habib II, the most important of which is that Will is a little crazypants (he bought a ring four years after the fact to trick MacKenzie into thinking he had intended to propose before her indiscretions) and is still in love with her.
Also revealed within The Habib Hour was Will’s on-air bullying of a black, gay Rick Santorum campaign strategist. McAvoy pushes the man, Sutton Wall, very hard about how he can work for Santorum who considers both Wall’s blackness and his gayness to make him less of a man. Wall’s response very clearly answers the question, and when Will presses harder, Wall fights back and refreshingly refuses to be used for Will’s agenda. It is important that McAvoy gets knocked down a few notches, but it still came as a direct result of Sorkin’s hyper-awesome fantasy that runs directly counter to the show’s attempts to harness reality. This does not invalidate Will’s (important) tumble toward mere mortality, it simply underscores a persistent flaw in Sorkin’s writing.
“Bullies” did not make the same progress that “Amen” did. Sorkin took two steps forward by abandoning foresight benefitted by hindsight, but he’s taken three steps back by resorting to his old tricks.