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The Newsroom: “Contempt”

Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer
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There’s a very narrow gap between a hum and a drone, and there isn’t much evidence that Aaron Sorkin can discern the difference. On the surface, the sounds are much the same, occupying that persistent buzzy space in the auditory range. The difference is the pressure. A hum is persistent and curious, where a drone is oppressive and dull. It doesn’t take much alchemy at all to change the former to the latter.

Hum and drone are really the only two modes of writing that Sorkin has wrangled in his years at the craft. When on, the patter of his dialogue is pleasant and persistent, but when miscalculated, that same fast-paced interplay gives way to something significantly more anesthetizing. These are the times when it becomes so clear that his characters are talking past each other to such an extent that even the façade of conversation fails, and it’s clear they’re just delivering patchy monologues to each other without any true suggestion of human interaction at work.

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What makes Sorkin’s worst work doubly ironic, however, is the fact that the way his characters talk past each other in shameless self-interest and indefatigable monologue most similarly parallels the interactions that populate his most reviled venue: the Internet. As many insightful discussions may take place online, there is a harsh tendency for any open forum, be it message boards or Twitter or (ahem) comment sections, to devolve into empty speechifying, devoid of significant interpersonal interaction. Thanks to the divide that exists between a keyboard and a stranger on the other side of the world, it’s difficult to hold on to the thought that one isn’t merely yelling their opinions into the void, and that constructive discourse requires just as much listening (perhaps more) as it does talking. Sorkin’s characters have no such excuse, as supposedly the people they’re yelling at have actual personalities and lives and, if you’re into that sort of thing, souls. They deserve something more than to serve as empty vessels for the screeds that one screenwriter can’t fit into a mere 140 characters.

As The Newsroom enters into the final episodes of its final season, it’s continuing to seem like Aaron Sorkin is taking his (supposedly) final hours on television and grinding his axe about the generation that never really understood him. This appears on several fronts throughout “Contempt,” most significantly with Charlie and the sale of ACN and the continued romantic trials of one Jim Harper, worst person in the world.

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Charlie’s continued battle with Lucas Pruitt, young, eccentric start-up with ideas about journalism, boils over and results in several incidents of the old man screaming at Pruitt that he doesn’t have room for talent or experience or credentials in his plans for new media, and that’s a travesty. And as underwhelming as B.J. Novak’s performance seemed last week, the completely outlandish behavior of Charlie gives Novak’s smirk a sort of winning charm. Pruitt doesn’t have to fear Charlie or Will or Mac or anyone at ACN, because not only do those people have no power, they’re also wrong. Charlie claims that he respects the 18-25 year-old age group more than Pruitt does because he doesn’t believe in dumbing down the news. He believes kids that age are capable of sitting down for an hour at night and ingesting whatever ACN sees fit to churn out. But Charlie is wrong. That generation doesn’t need ACN, because that generation is already constantly plugged into the news. That generation knew that Osama Bin Laden was dead before the mainstream media could get on air, thanks to Twitter. Social media was covering the Ferguson uprising for a week before the major networks could be bothered. While Aaron Sorkin and the old guard may pooh-pooh the viability of citizen journalism, their downfall will come at dismissing it out of hand and refusing to see any potential in what will be the movement of the future, what is already the movement of the present.

Aaron Sorkin disregards this generation because this generation disregards Aaron Sorkin. Undoubtedly, he received notes from HBO on how to make this exact show more appealing to audiences. The show was never the hit it was supposed to be. Critical acclaim was sporadic and always highly contentious. No one loved The Newsroom the way they were supposed to love The Newsroom, and now it’s going away and Aaron Sorkin would like to be very clear about whom he blames about the entire matter.

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As eye-rollingly over-the-top as the show’s portrayal of a new-media mastermind is, it’s really nothing compared to how virulently the show upbraids the swath of first-person essayists that have come to prominence online. As Hallie’s editor at Carnivore asks her to delve into more personal topics with her writing, Jim goes ballistic, implying that her work is the journalistic equivalent of a letter to Penthouse. After she writes a column specifically about the disconnect in their relationship between the ideals of new media and old, he gets drunk, calls her—in the vein of a fashion or sports correspondent (an unbearable correspondent) before winding up his big rant with demanding she at least tell him that she secretly knows that he’s right and just doesn’t want to admit it. Lost in all of that is the explanation of how writing ostensible fiction about the struggle between new media and old is somehow more profound and moving than writing first-person narrative on the same topic but perhaps that will all be explained in the final two episodes.

Most frustrating about these conflicts is that they blend together to completely overshadow the entire thrust of the episode, which is Will’s grand jury testimony, eventual imprisonment, and impromptu wedding. Not that any of that was well executed or meaningful or even particularly moving, but it was, at the very least, not openly offensive like most everything else in “Contempt.” So bland was the six and a half minute musical montage scored to a very mediocre version of “Ave Maria” that there was a palpable sense of relief when Will was finally handcuffed and bodily removed from of the courthouse.

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That’s where “Contempt” leaves us. With one man ruing the fact that he cannot keep journalism locked in 1964, as another man sits newly single after breaking up with his girlfriend in the most belittling fashion he can conceive of, and our protagonist off to prison to protect his morals or his woman or his woman’s morals. (The show isn’t quite sure.) There they are: three avatars reminding us of just how bitter and martyred the mind of a successful white man can be.

Stray observations:

  • Sloan was demoted this episode to Don and Charlie’s helper. Fun.
  • Maggie’s boyfriend called her out for viewing all men as a consolation prize to Jim, and they are probably broken up because there are only two episodes left and clearly Maggie and Jim were MEANT TO BE.
  • Also, how exactly did Maggie’s boyfriend discern that she was in love with Jim given that they dated for approximately 17 hours? (Seriously, though, it’s only been a couple weeks, right?)
  • Mac has a lot of existential crises this episode that weren’t very interesting.
  • Oh, look, all the female characters got relegated to stray observations.
  • I am very disappointed that Mona Sterling didn’t end up buying ACN.
  • Mac bemoans them never getting a win in the face of the document leak story getting killed. At this point, the only win this series will see is if the characters blow up the studio, a la Little House On The Prairie in the finale.
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