Aaron Sorkin's new HBO series "The Newsroom" opens with the lead character, cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), elegizing the America that once was. “We reached for the stars; acted like men,” he says. “We aspired to intelligence — didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior,” he says. And with a sigh, he continues, “We were able to be all these things, and do all these things, because we were informed, by great men, men who were revered.”
In short, McAvoy harkens back to a time without news pundits — and apparently without news women.
The opening credits echo this sentiment: video reels of news legends like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite lead into still images from studios and control rooms of the ‘50s and ‘60s, all set to the inspiring music we have come to expect from a Sorkin series.
But if Sorkin is portraying a modern-day newsroom, his introduction leaves us wondering: What about the women?
Viewers eventually learn more about the female characters who appear onscreen. First comes McAvoy’s assistant, Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), a kinetic combination of nerves, ambition and loyalty. Unfortunately, the scene that first delves deeply into her character cheaply features Jordan crying at her desk, plagued with boy troubles. Insert cheesy “There’s no crying in cable news” joke here.
Next comes the female executive producer and McAvoy’s former/current love interest, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer). Sorkin quickly qualifies her leadership role as viewers learn that McAvoy has the ability to fire her at the end of each week if he so chooses.
Viewers later meet on-air financial analyst Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), who MacHale hired because she was just as attractive as she was qualified to report financial news on air, along with a female producer named Kendra (Alina Porter), whose character is barely developed.
As if to compensate for this, Sorkin offers Leona Lansing, CEO of network parent Atlantis World Media, played by recurring guest star Jane Fonda. While it’s a treat to see Fonda roar onscreen as a Chanel-suit-wearing power player, her first appearance in The Newsroom is a letdown. Her fiery conversation with Atlantis Cable News (an AWM subsidiary) president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) seems focused more on developing Skinner’s character than her own. Lansing is there so we can hiss at her lust for ratings, not so we can really examine her as a character.
Worse yet, the power dynamic on display during their first scene together is out of whack. “I thought you got where you are by being fearless,” Skinner says to Lansing. Would such a statement ever cross a boardroom table if the CEO sitting on the other side of the room were a man?
“It’s not important to me that something be real, but it’s very important to me that it feels real,” Sorkin recently told Huffington about The Newsroom. Ultimately, though, Sorkin’s female characters — the foxy financial correspondent, the boy crazy tear-prone assistant, the producer in a relationship with the leading man — are little more than caricatures. Even worse, the show’s female CEO screams through her scene, the latest in a long line of threadbare “ruthless female executive” stereotypes. It’s a shame. If Sorkin is trying make a point about the cable news industry (which admittedly remains all too sexist for comfort), his efforts are thin and underexplored at best. More likely, Sorkin is unwittingly making a point about himself — and how he views the role of women in media.
This story originally appeared in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.