Does Aaron Sorkin have a woman problem?

In the space of three shows - <em>Sports Night, Studio 60</em> and now <em>The Newsroom</em> - Aaron Sorkin's female television executives have gone from clever and competent to ditsy and childish. What's going on?

Does Aaron Sorkin have a women problem? In the early years of this century when The West Wing’s CJ Cregg was the poster girl for modern womankind such a question would have seemed unthinkable. But then came Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which the two female leads were respectively "angry and incompetent" and "ditsy and repressed" and The Social Network, which ran into a storm of bad headlines about its negative depiction of women.

Sorkin vigorously refuted those claims, insisting that in The Social Network: "I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people." In other words just because characters are sexist, don’t presume the writer is as well.

It’s a fair point but what then about The Newsroom? Sorkin’s journalism drama, which returns for its second season this evening wears its heart on its rolled-up, ink-stained sleeves. It’s Sorkin’s funny valentine to the good old days of news before the internet came along and ruined it for everyone and it wants desperately to pay homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.

There’s just one problem – those screwball comedies knew that there was nothing like a dame. When we think of His Girl Friday it’s Rosalind Russell’s smarts and savvy which springs to mind as much as Cary Grant’s savoir faire. In Bringing Up Baby the pratfalls are shared between Grant and Katharine Hepburn just as Hepburn and Spencer Tracy trade the one-liners in Pat and Mike. These are relationships of equals, of sparring partners, where no one loses. By contrast The Newsroom is a show set in modern day America that allows its female characters less agency than Mad Men, a period piece that explicitly addresses sexism in the workplace.

Thus one of the first things we learn about Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie McHale is that’s she’s an award-winning war correspondent who has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Frankly I’m glad that Sorkin tells us this because you would never know it from her behaviour in the opening episode which includes panicking, dithering, asking the nearest men for help and dithering some more before accidentally sending an email to the entire staff announcing that she was once in a relationship with Jeff Daniel’s character, Will McAvoy. No, this wasn’t a lost subplot from 1990s sitcom Ally McBeal, although I do understand the confusion.

Similar evidence that Sorkin has confused screwball with simpleton can be found in Alison Pill’s Maggie. Maggie is a young reporter and makes the odd mistake, which is understandable. Less understandable is her inability to separate her work and love life, ensuring that she spends each episode flapping, flailing and floundering until an obliging male walks by to bail her out.

Then there’s the fiercely intelligent, super sharp economist Sloan Sabbith. Lucky Sloan is actually allowed to deliver the odd zinger but only if she then redresses the balance by worrying about whether her (extremely pert) arse is too big or obsessing over her lack of broadcast experience.

While season two appears to address some of these issues and the arrival of a smart lawyer played by Marcia Gay Harden is welcome, Sloan’s fears cut to the heart of Aaron Sorkin’s biggest problem. His male characters might have flaws but they are always explained. In The West Wing we know Josh’s commitment issues stem from his sister’s tragic death, that Toby has a complicated relationship with his father and that Sam’s sense of himself was shaken by his dad’s long-term affair. By contrast, as website pointed out in 2006, CJ’s mistakes are silly and often rather demeaning: in season one she doesn’t know what the census is, in season two she sits in wet paint. These aren’t things that illustrate her character, they’re little scenes to pull her down a peg or two. You might think: "Oh come off it, these are pretty minor moments" and, yes, they are, but can you imagine Josh not knowing what the census was? Sorkin will allow his male characters many flaws but never incompetence. That’s something for women. 

And this attitude has worsened. Somewhere along the line – perhaps as he became more successful and thus less open to advice - Sorkin has stopped writing men and women as equals (as he did in both Sports Night and The West Wing) and instead started to write relationships where men are wronged but righteous and women need advice. As TV critic Jace Lacob astutely noted: "In Sorkinland men act (nobly!) and women support (comically!)."

Thus MacKenzie McHale, Studio 60’s Jordan McDeere and Sports Night’s Dana Whitaker are all the executive producers of their respective shows but only Dana, an early Sorkin creation, was allowed to be funny, clever and good at her job. Dana stood up for her workmates, fought her corner in a male-dominated world and made her own decisions. She had flaws but they were believable and never affected her professionalism, plus she was a grammar pedant, and who doesn’t love them?

By contrast Jordan McDeere was outwardly competent but secretly ravaged by neurosis and prone to rubbing people the wrong way while, rather than producing Will, MacKenzie tends to hang adoringly on his every word coming across like a precocious child hoping for a pat on the head from daddy.

In the space of three shows featuring female television executives, Sorkin has gone from the competent, clever Dana Whitaker to the less competent and less clever Jordan McDeere before ending up with the almost entirely incompetent MacKenzie McHale. If that isn’t a law of diminishing returns then I’m not sure what is.

The Newsroom is on Sky Atlantic from Monday 2 September at 10pm

In The Newsroom: Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale and Alison Pill as Maggie.
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Happy Valley is that rare thing on British television: an excellent revival

From Sally Wainwright's fantastic writing to its peerless cast, Happy Valley is a quietly powerful gem.

British television, whose tsars seem not to care much for planning ahead, has a pretty bad track record when it comes to the recommissioning of hits. So it was with slightly sweaty palms and a mild sense of doom that I sat down to watch the first part of the second series of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley (Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC1). I knew it would be OK: Wainwright, at her zenith as a writer, couldn’t turn out dross if she tried. But, still. Could it ever match the sombre brilliance of its first outing? How would the series maintain its astonishing sense of jeopardy with Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) safely behind bars?

As it turns out, Wainwright has given Royce the rapist a proxy in the form of Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson), a creepy woman who visits him in prison and appears to be in love with him. Perhaps he is going to move her around his old stamping grounds from afar, or perhaps she, off her own bat, is going to exact “revenge” on his behalf on Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), the police officer who finally caught him. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty.

Even without this connection to what went before, the new series would still be a triumph. Happy Valley’s intricate plots and subplots aren’t the only reason for its success. Wainwright’s tendency to melodrama – as well as the sinister Frances, the new series comes with a crazed perfume saleswoman called Vicky (Amelia Bullmore), who is blackmailing an ex-lover who just happens to be a detective in Catherine’s nick – is always tempered by the unity of her vision, by the way she somehow tethers everything, no matter how wild or extreme, to humdrum reality. Happy Valley comes with an exceptionally vivid sense of place; unnervingly naturalistic dialogue; humour that’s coal black; and an almost 19th-century sense of the endless filigree connections that exist between people who grew up together in a small town. Lots of TV shows do some of these things some of the time. But very few do them all, all of the time.

Among the many human frailties Wainwright seems instinctively to understand is the often pitiful nature of our longing for love. How feeble it makes us, and how stupid. The first episode of the new series was fat with revelation: Catherine discovered a decaying body; DC John Wadsworth (Kevin Doyle, in wonderfully shifty form) discovered that Vicky had compromising pictures of him; Royce discovered, courtesy of a terrified chaplain, that his mother had died.

But however much heat these scenes gave off, they weren’t half so quietly powerful as the moment when Catherine’s sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran), a recovering junkie, bumped into Neil Ackroyd (Con O’Neill), a boy she’d known at school. She was pleased to see him, and he was, apparently, pleased to see her, but even as she glowed, having asked him round for tea, you felt uneasy. The invitation was too easily given, and too easily accepted, and she talked of him too enthusiastically afterwards, as if she was a teenager again. Clare’s vulnerability and her girlish selfishness are inseparable, and they make her silly sometimes – and yet Wainwright knows better than to spell this out. She never tells. She only ever shows. My hunch is that some of her characters come with backstories she knows she’ll never reveal to us, the viewers. But she makes them up all the same, chasing authenticity.

The casting is peerless. These are supremely talented actors and, thanks to Wainwright, no one has to work to make a dud line sound convincing. But Lancashire still stands out, blazing over the cobbles in her high-vis jacket and bulky stab vest, folding herself into a plastic chair for a fag and a shaggy-dog story. Her performance is so committed, so generous, so utterly lacking in vanity. When she wandered down a hilly backstreet to tell a couple of junkie prostitutes to look after themselves – there’s a weirdo on the loose – I couldn’t get over the low-key tenderness she put into her voice. In her hand was a bag of sandwiches, which she duly handed out. Impossible to believe, I thought, that this had come courtesy of props: that she hadn’t just dashed, on the spur of the moment, into Tesco herself. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle