At first, I wondered if my negative reaction to the latest episode of Aaron Sorkin’s TV drama “The Newsroom” was that as a progressive, I was getting a taste of my own medicine. Sorkin Smackdowns are generally reserved for the religiously intolerant or the willfully unintelligent, but in the episode “Unintended Consequences,” the victim was anything but. Shelly Wexler (Aya Cash) was a fictional representative of the very real Occupy Wall Street movement, and anchor and lead character Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) obliterated her during an interview on his nightly news program with smug satisfaction, taking swing after swing to prove his point that the movement doesn’t have one of its own. As the episode progressed and other characters such as Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) and Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) stepped forward to offer half-hearted apologies to Wexler — so they could get her to reveal a potential source for another story, not because they felt she deserved an “I’m sorry” — each in turn only made matters worse because they couldn’t keep their egos in check. More importantly, they couldn’t keep their cynicism in check, and in a Sorkin feature, that is a troubling development.
Sorkin’s hindsight-heavy summation of OWS as a failure through and through is disappointing, but that’s not my main beef. I can appreciate the presentation of varying viewpoints, and Will, as a conservative, often pokes holes in his more liberal co-workers’ arguments and assumptions. A challenge is a good thing. An outright refusal to engage in a healthy debate is another. Will somewhat acquiesced to Shelly, visiting the young professor at school to not-technically apologize for not having given her a chance to make a case for the movement. The episode began on Oct. 3, 2011. The OWS protestors weren’t forced out of New York’s Zuccotti Park until Nov. 15, but previews for this Sunday’s episode refer to the Trayvon Martin shooting (Lord, give us strength) on Feb. 26, 2012. My guess is we’re done with Occupy, and can any viewers who weren’t familiar with the movement provide a decent assessment of it other than to parrot Will’s general distaste? What was the point?
The point may very well be that Sorkin isn’t interested in producing — or perhaps is unable to produce? — the same level of inspiring characters as he did in his earlier TV drama “The West Wing.” That series is where he peaked, and what separates the moving, sweet, funny, intelligent drama from “The Newsroom” (we’re skipping over “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) comes down almost entirely to tone. President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and Will are different people, to be certain, and the actors playing the roles are equally excellent. But while Bartlet has his demons to wrestle, he is mostly a comforting, fatherly presence and nowhere near as damaged as the frequently bitter, cutting Will. Bartlet shut down his fair share of people, but his attacks weren’t aimed at just anyone he disagreed with. His opponent, Gov. Robert Ritchie (James Brolin), got a nice verbal slapping as the two debated, Bartlet having no patience for Ritchie’s folksy reliance of empty talking points, not actions, to win over voters. A radio talk show host, Dr. Jenna Jacobs (Claire Yarlett), received perhaps his most memorable speech for her use of selective Scriptures to back up her anti-gay agenda. Would Bartlet have done the same to Shelly as Will did? This wasn’t a politician, someone responsible for authoring bad legislation or contributing to the toxic environment of lies and obstruction that permeates Washington. This wasn’t an influential member of the media using her platform to promote bigoted beliefs, encouraging listeners to call her “Doctor” even though her advanced degree is in English. No, this was a young, motivated activist who wanted to make a difference in the country she loves. Since when is that worthy of derision?
Shelly wouldn’t have been treated as poorly had she garnered a slot in Leo McGarry’s (John Spencer) Big Block of Cheese Day, not that a movement to bring to justice those responsible for the Great Recession would belong there. Bartlet’s staff always grumbled about his Chief of Staff’s welcoming of the masses to the White House for a chance to pitch their crazy ideas, but they always changed their tune once they listened to their fellow countrymen. C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) learned to stop and pay attention to one group’s plea for a wolf-only highway, or the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality’s request to change the world map. Even Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) got stuck thinking about one man’s idea to abolish the penny. The Funnel People got their say, and everyone was better for it. Bartlet himself summed it up best:
I remember watching OWS coverage that fall; I wasn’t confused about the message. But I am confused as to why Sorkin appears to have lost his spark, his desire to inspire and to create characters worthy of praise. Will and therefore Sorkin may be on a “mission to civilize,” but without inspiration, the attempt is dead in the water. Don’t tell us what needs to happen; show us. “Unintended Consequences” got me thinking about “West Wing’s” beautiful two-parter from Season Four, “20 Hours in America.” (The episode starred a young John Gallagher Jr., aka Jim on “The Newsroom.” Mind = blown.) After a national tragedy, Bartlet delivers and moving ode to the individuals brave enough to run “into the fire”:
This came in the midst of a whirlwind 20 hours for some members of Bartlet’s staff who missed the motorcade and found themseleves stranded in middle America. Bartlet is running for re-election and his staff is on the campaign trail, talking with voters and arguing amongst themselves about the best method for winning. Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) learn along the way, however, not only that they need to listen when voters talk but that they need to in turn put their own words into action.
Start at 4:40:
The episode perfectly captures the kind of inspiration needed — stirring words paired with a call to action. That’s what Shelly was trying to give, and although she could have performed better on screen herself, Will’s refusal to give her a shot sealed her fate. If this is the story Sorkin wants to tell now, then OK. If Will’s behavior is reality and Bartlet’s is fantasy, then OK. The fantasy is over and we have another anti-hero on our hands. But that’s not what we need.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.