I’ve been dreading this assignment all semester long, because apparently I’m supposed to write 500 words on one single character from The Newsroom, when one of my major gripes about the show is that I don’t like the characters and that they don’t change in significant ways and just repeat themselves over and over again to the point where they are utterly predictable. You know, that whole definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? That’s basically every character. Until maybe the season finale when a couple of them tried something different just because someone must have sent them a memo that it was the season finale and they should stop pulling the same old crap.
I can just picture it:
Network executive: “Y’know what we were thinking would be great? If you could have these characters behave in a way we haven’t seen before. Like, have an arc. Make progress.”
Aaron Sorkin: “Like what?”
Exec: “Well, you could have Maggie stop being an annoying wide-eyed idiot who’s in denial about her feelings for Jim and have her break up with Don for good this time?”
Sorkin: “Hmmm. I see what you’re saying. Maybe the denial part could change a bit. But we can’t have her break up with Don. She’s far too insecure to leave a man, and besides, we need to have that in place for next season or I might have to come up with an entirely new storyline for her.”
Exec: “Ah. Flawless reasoning. Well, maybe then you could have Jim stop being such a sad sack and actually try to move on with his life?”
Sorkin: “No, don’t you understand? Sad sackiness is Jim’s entire appeal. He has like nothing else going for him. Ladies love sad sacks. Take that away and he’ll be just another boring dude.”
Exec: “Well, I’m sure you know what the ladies like; far be it from us to question that. So never mind Jim and Maggie. How about Mac? Do you think maybe you could have her work on getting her meltdowns under control?”
Sorkin: “But that’s what makes her relatable to the viewers. No one can empathize with a coolly professional, endlessly competent woman — it’s all her constant screw-ups that earn sympathy, and her hysterics are adorable.”
Exec: “But do you really think it’s realistic that a person so prone to hysterics in stressful situations would have been able to earn two Peabody awards for work in Afghanistan?”
Sorkin: “Hmm, what did you say? Sorry, I was counting my money.”
Exec: “Maybe her hysterics are a manifestation of PTSD. That could be explored, right? In therapy? You like putting characters in therapy, right? Will MacAvoy in this show, Josh Lyman on The West Wing. . .”
Sorkin: “I suppose. Maybe next season. But Mac in therapy would take time away from Will’s therapy screen-time, and Will’s the main character so we can’t have that.”
Exec: “But it would be a great excuse to have more David Krumholtz on the show!”
Sorkin: “Can’t argue with that. Ladies love David Krumholtz.”
Basically, the only character that seemed to have a substantial arc was Will. Two basic arcs, personal and professional.
Professionally, he started off in the first two minutes of the show being blandly inoffensive, then exploded and we saw his true opinions on the state of American journalism, then was convinced by Mac to become a crusader for the Greater Good of News. This held true for the entire season, where every episode was essentially more of the same of this idea of Better News, whether that meant bashing the Tea Party or insulting people for watching trashy reality TV, until the season finale, where Will was forced to doubt the effectiveness of his actions for this cause. That lasted about half the episode before he returned with renewed conviction. The finale also contrives to show him that he is having his desired effect by bringing back a character from the beginning of the show who has now been inspired and fundamentally changed because of Will’s proselytizing. So this arc was designed to test Will’s beliefs and reaffirm them. Kind of like high school was for me, not a transformative experience but more of a, “Yup, I was right all along. Glad I never have to go through THAT again.”
Personally, he started off insisting that whatever he and Mac had in the past was completely and utterly over and that he hates her to the point of taking a pay cut in order to ensure that he can fire her any time he wants, although it is obvious to the viewers that he will never fire her and that he has unresolved feelings for her that he sucks at dealing with because he’s a repressed, arrogant jerk who will never admit to weakness, and forgiveness is weakness. Will thrives on self-righteous anger. I am of the opinion that if no one in the world ever did anything wrong or stupid again, Will would implode for sheer lack of anyone to lambaste and feel superior to. I can’t say I don’t understand that — life is easier when you feel like you have a better handle on the world than the people around you — but it’s not pleasant or entertaining to watch, at least not in the way it’s been portrayed here.
Will makes incremental progress on his relationship with Mac throughout the season, progress that is so incremental that it often seems completely frustratingly absent. It’s clearest when Will confronts his psychiatrist, David Krumholtz, toward the end of the season and demands, “Why can’t I forgive her?” At that point, he had heard enough apologies and been around Mac long enough to know that he still has feelings for her and she still has feelings for him and that they might still be able to have a relationship, and part of him wants to forgive her, but he can’t. And by the end of the season, it’s unclear if he has still not forgiven her or if he is simply too proud to tell her.
So sad, y’all. And yet I completely lack sympathy for Will. I’ve talked about this with my brother and we can’t figure out if it’s the writing or the acting — is the character just so fundamentally obnoxious that no matter what Jeff Daniels does as an actor, he can’t make him sympathetic? Or is Daniels’ completely warmth-less performance partially to blame? Or maybe it’s because I just can’t stand Mac and can’t root for anyone to be with her.
The crux of the matter remains this: as with the rest of the show, the characterization contains a lot of interesting ideas. Sorkin is an incredibly talented, smart, articulate, witty guy — let that be stated for the record. But in this show, his ideas, in plot and character, never cohere into a satisfying and entertaining whole. As Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com puts it: “I understand wanting to believe in the message here. I just wish I didn’t dislike so many of the messengers.”