Now Hapless And Helpless

Heather Havrilesky applauds the rise of TV characters who are pushing the typical tropes forward:

On the vast majority of family shows, "Dad" isn't a person so much as a shapeless halfwit, fumbling confusedly with modern appliances, sputtering hopelessly in the face of tiny marital challenges, and just generally underwhelming friends, family and foes at home and at work. Strangely, though, this subhuman of limited charms, very little wisdom, and almost no capacity for grasping complex emotions is, nine times out of ten, remarkably smug about himself and his abilities. …

Thankfully, Louis CK came along and endowed the Hapless Dad with the self-loathing that he rightfully deserves.

On FX's "Louie," our hero embodies all of the fumbling and emotionally stunted behaviors of the standard idiot dad, but with generous servings of spite, dread and learned helplessness ladled on top. Instead of chuckling and shrugging and waving off his wife's nagging, Louie long ago alienated his wife, who pops up as his ex now and then, mostly to marvel at how lazy and disgusting and useless he continues to be. Louie doesn't blame her, because he himself is in a perpetual state of despair and horror at his own vileness and ineptitude.


… is perhaps best illustrated by this clip of the network providing a spoiler for its own coverage of American swimmer Missy Franklin's dramatic race:

Millennials are in open revolt over NBC's tight control over its coverage, especially the long delays between the events occuring in the UK and their airing on American TVs:

At the centre of controversy was NBC's attempt to leverage maximum revenue from the Games, for which they paid almost a billion dollars, by foregoing live coverage of high-profile events. Instead, it intends to footage on time-delay during evening prime time, when brands will pay a premium to advertise. The tactic may very well be the most lucrative for NBC, but it's the least satisfactory for viewers, and seems to blithely ignore the advent of the internet era. It meant, for example, that Saturday's titanic swimming clash between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte wasn't broadcast in the USA until several hours after it took place. Adding insult to injury, NBC had already announced the result on its own evening news bulletin.

And the time delays are creating all sorts of spoilers via social media:

What's different in these Games isn't the time-shifting itself; it's that time-shifted coverage is no longer the only coverage available to us. "Real time" is now a default option in a way that it wasn't back in 1996 — or even, given the rise of Internet connections, in 2008 or 2010. That London 2012 is the first real "Social Media Olympics" is a cliché because it's true:

We consumers are experiencing these Games not just on our couches, but in our cars and in our offices and in our city buses and in our neighborhood Applebee's and in any other locations we choose, because the point of our connected mobile devices and the point of the Internet overall is the utility of omnipresent access. We're experiencing the Games not — or not merely — as a media event, but as a social event. And we're experiencing them, crucially, not just as entertainment, but as information.

Meanwhile, 64 countries are able to watch the Olympics live on YouTube, but not in the US. Heidi Moore says NBC is ignoring the shrinking cable TV market:

Forcing viewers to subscribe to cable TV can be compared to forcing an entire nation of viewers to give CPR to a corpse. A growing movement of "cord-cutters" in the US have chosen to dispense with the empty and expensive wasteland of cable programming, instead opting for more bespoke TV viewing by downloading TV shows and movies from iTunes, Netflix and Hulu. These cord-cutters are not just teenagers or cranks. With the American economy weak and households buried under debt, many Americans have economized by cutting out their cable subscriptions. The trend has accelerated in 2011, when about 1 million viewers cancelled their cable or satellite TV service, and another million are expected to cancel this year…

Naturally, most of the criticism of NBC's coverage is being aired via Twitter:


But NBC could get the last laugh: its ratings are on track to break records for Olympic coverage.

A Show They Loved To Hate


When promoting Sorkin's show, HBO abuses ellipses:

Time’s James Poniewozik, summarizing his views on "The Newsroom" for non-subscribers, flatly declared, "I was not a fan." Yet the ad makes it sound like he was, burbling, "The pacing is electric…captures the excitement." Salon’s Willa Paskin is quoted in the ad calling "The Newsroom" "captivating, riveting, rousing." Here’s what she actually wrote: "The results are a captivating, riveting, rousing, condescending, smug, infuriating mixture, a potent potion that advertises itself as intelligence-enhancing but is actually just crazy-making."

“Why People Hate Liberals”

Pareene isn't a Sorkin fan:

He’s a smug, condescending know-it-all who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. His feints toward open-mindedness are transparently phony, he mistakes his opinion for common sense, and he’s preachy. Sorkin has spent years fueling the delusional self-regard of well-educated liberals. He might be more responsible than anyone else for the anti-democratic "everyone would agree with us if they weren’t all so stupid" attitude of the contemporary progressive movement. And age is not improving him.

An especially sharp dig:

He hates everything frivolous — "frivolous" is womanly things like gossip and fashion and television not created by Aaron Sorkin but explicitly not, say, sports …

Recent Sorkin coverage here, here, here, here and here.

Why Pay For Channels You Don’t Watch? Ctd

Derek Thompson thinks the end of cable TV may finally be near now that Direct TV and local-TV-on-the-Internet provider Aereo are challenging the industry's bundling practices:

The debate between DirecTV (a provider) and Viacom (a "content" creator) is about finding the right price that providers should pay for content that most people don't watch. That's where bundles are useful. They disguise the price of things we don't use. But with pay TV growth slowing, we're at the edge of a revolution. "DirecTV thinks video streaming is eating away at the ratings of channels like MTV and Comedy Central," Jeff Bercovici writes at Forbes, and the company has "demanded that Viacom give consumers the right to select channels a la carte."  The Aereo story is different. It's not about cable. But it is about distributing broadcast networks online. Once sports fans can get the Olympics and NBA and other shows without a cable package, whenever they want it, it could serve alongside Netflix, Hulu and other services to replace the cable bundle.

Previous Dish on the subject here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here

(Full disclosure: IAC, which employs the Dish, has invested in Aereo.)

TV Binges, Ctd

Jim Pagels frowned upon watching TV series too quickly. James Poniewozik counters:

[T]he episodic structure of TV exists because of commercial considerations, not storytelling ones. Episodes end on cliffhangers to bring you back the next week. Subplots are resolved in an hour to give you a sense of completion as you wait for the next installment. "Acts" end on dramatic notes to keep you from channel-flipping through the commercials.

TV, in other words, takes its form from the conditions of its creation—which makes it no different from any other art form, such as the novel. Narratives changed when they went from lyrics, meant to be remembered and recited orally, to devices printed mechanically. Their subjects changed as more people became literate and had access to print. All of that matters–but it doesn’t mean that I’m spoiling The Iliad by reading it rather than having it recited to me by an old Greek man, or that if I’m not going to read Dickens once a week in the newspaper as he meant me to, I may as well not read him at all.

Sorkin’s Girl Trouble, Ctd

Readers push back on this post:

I'm not going to defend the whole show – I too have been surprised at how easily flustered the female leads can seem at times in "The Newsroom" – but stopping there is literally only part of the story. This week McHale was thrown off balance by McAvoy's parade of women, sure, but that merely served to setup the kicker, where it becomes clear what an inconsiderate ass McAvoy has been, and how decent McHale was.  We're left thinking a lot more highly of McHale than the "great man." Maggie's panic attack scene, as I saw it, was about how Jim treated her no differently than the best men he's ever known, who can have the exact same kind of attack. There's also, of course, the new female CEO character who by all appearances is quite the confident and commanding presence.

Another writes:

I confess to being a sucker for the idealism of "The Newsroom", and the mouthpiece for that idealism is a character I'm beginning to love and others have maligned: MacKenzie McHale. 

Let me start defending her by pointing out that occasional inarticulateness is shared by nearly every character Sorkin has ever created.  That's his idea of funny: having smart people sometimes sound stupid.  What the critics are missing is Sorkin's tendency to have his male characters say something stupid at the moment they are acting most superior.  The opening scene from The Social Network is the classic example. 

However, there are more subtle examples which suggest an almost pathological tendency on Sorkin's part to undercut his male characters.  For instance, in the first episode of, when MacKenzie McHale refers to Don Quixote's horse, Will McAvoy interrupts her to say that Don Quixote rode a donkey.  It was Sancho Panzo, of course, who rode a donkey.  I don't think the mistake was an intentional plant by Sorkin to undermine the character, but it is uncanny how often these flubs happen to male characters when they are at their most condescending.  Just one more example: in "The West Wing", President Bartlet chides a high school teacher for not having her students read Beowulf in the original Middle English.  Beowulf was, of course, written in Old English.

I mention this tendency because it ties together a couple themes you've explored about the show.  The first is obvious: this could be proof that Sorkin is good at sounding intelligent but isn't himself very intelligent.  More interesting: Sorkin seems to struggle when men act superior to women whereas he has no problem whatsoever having women set men right.  Indeed, we see it over and over in The American President, A Few Good Men, "The West Wing", and yes, "The Newsroom".  Woman are in nearly every story Sorkin tells the moral center, and we can see in The Social Network what happens when women are pushed to the margins: men act badly. 

For that reason, Glynnis MacNicol is not entirely wrong to say that women are nothing more than helpmates, but not for the reason she argues.  McHale is the antagonist in her relationship with McAvoy because her character is fully formed: he's the one who needs to change, not her.  In Sorkin's world, men are typically the ones who get things wrong.


Glynnis MacNicol needs to take a deep breath, relax and realize she’s watching a TV show.  She should also look for more plausible reasons for certain character motives.  For instance, MacNicol attributes every possible negative motivation to Sorkin’s portrayal of McHale.  Yes, she’s awkward and a little nattering and she really flubbed a few things.  Does MacNicol get that McHale is still in love with McAvoy?  Or has she missed that completely… I mean who among us hasn’t reverted to a nattering teenager when confronted by an ex’s new beau?  If anything McHale is more realistic for her weaknesses rather than being a caricature of a strong military woman.

I personally love "The Newsroom", the dialogue pops, most of the characters are likeable and all of them are compelling.  It also appeals to my inner Philosopher King and let's face it, this day we could use a Philosopher King.

One more:

Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy is an arrogant, needy, and insensitive bully – he's basically a stereotype of a powerful white man. He is portrayed as such, and though his appeal to the masses is frequently noted, it is done as a sort of backhanded compliment, as if people like him because they don't know him. It's as if his anger and egotism comes from a place of insecurity – that he knows he's hiding his light under a bushel for the sake of money and comfort, and this troubles him. We saw the same struggle with Pres. Bartlet, though his didn't manifest in cruelty, but in milquetoast leadership (remember "Let Bartlet be Bartlet?).

I feel like the female characters (at least in the 1st episode) come off as more authentic. They are strong enough to convey vulnerability and emotion. In the worlds that Sorkin creates, the workplaces demand so much of the characters' lives that there is an unavoidable mixture of the professional and personal (see: Josh & Donna, CJ and Danny, Casey and Dana). I'm not sure that Sorkin can be accused of not creating strong female leads (Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg, Felicity Huffman as Dana, freaking Stockard Channing as Abbey Bartlet!).

All of the major characters in the first displayed some weakness (jealousy, arrogance, addiction) except for Allison Pill's character, whose tears and flustered nature are an expression of perfectly natural nervousness and hurt (she's understandably mad at her boyfriend on the most stressful day of her young professional life). I don't believe that writing a character that cries under those circumstances is done so to make them appear weak.

I think folks get a little too worked up about the make believe worlds that he creates, and it's hardly newsworthy that a wealthy, successful and powerful creative brand like Sorkin's might be the work of an asshole with a tendency toward misogyny toward a young blogger who challenges him.

I think the criticism is good, and valid, and a good reason to watch.

Further discussion at our Facebook page. Most of the commentary is critical of Sorkin. A representative sample:

I had high hopes for Sorkin's new show, love his writing. But his portrayal of women in the show is nothing short of amazing. They're like no professional women I've ever worked with. The lead and Executive Producer of the show is supposed to be this incredibly experienced war correspondent, etc., thought of as the best producer in the news business, and yet she's portrayed as bumbling, emotional and immature. Along with the second female lead. And just keeps getting worse with each new episode. Totally cringeworthy. I'll keep watching as love the subject matter, but boy is it revealing about Aaron. Some deep issues goin on there.

Another commenter goes deeper:

The Newsroom is a Sorkin fantasy-world populated by former high-school debate team superstars, perfect SAT-ers, and red bull-ed ex-Ivy Leaguers who can miraculously spout detailed data on any relevant topic as if they were reading the information off a teleprompter. The main character, though obviously unpleasant, is nonetheless adored (nay, worshiped) by a younger, beautiful, almost obnoxiously idealistic woman, who spends most of her time all but begging to get back in his pants and stroke his…ego. When Sorkin dies and goes to heaven he doesn't get 72 virgins in a garden, he gets the Newsroom.

(And I LIKE Aaron Sorkin!)

Update from a reader:

Sorkin is no more sexist than the person who labeled this thread "girl trouble" when not one child, tween or teen has been involved.  Girls are minors.  The cut off for girl is 17 at the latest.  After that, we become women.  Legally responsible, accountable, fully competent, employable adult women.

The use of "girl" in the title is in reference to Sorkin calling a female reporter "Internet girl", which is prominently illustrated in the first part of our thread.