Good News From ‘The Newsroom’

Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Social Network featured a collection of duplicitous wonks backstabbing their way to the top of the Internet heap. (A more accurate, if less artful, title would have been “The Unsocialized Network.”)

Sorkin’s script was blessedly free of the cumbersome liberal pieties – and I write as an impious liberal – which have dogged his work since “A Few Good Men.” His annoying habit of preaching to the unwashed from an Olympian politically correct height intermittently undermined the undeniable pleasures of “The West Wing.” Whatever global or national predicament confronted President Josiah Bartlet and his staff, they always managed to come down squarely – sometimes tediously – on the fashionably left side.

One would think that 7 years of exposure to tawdry Beltway wheeling and dealing would have left Bartlet’s people a smidge disillusioned. Although a few ideological lapses were thrown into the series for dramatic value, most of the team left Bartlet’s White House with their liberal enthusiasm undimmed.

The hero of Sorkin’s HBO series “The Newsroom” is Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), anchor of a fictional evening cable news broadcast. McAvoy’s substantial popularity resides in his affable charm, trustworthy good looks, and staunch on-air avoidance of controversial issues. Off screen, he’s a stressed-out, intimidating loner, who’s been seething for years over the degeneration of quality reporting into mindless, celebrity-oriented infotainment.

At a college lecture, a fatuous request to anatomize America’s greatness provokes Will into a furious anatomy of the nation’s imminent decline and fall. Afterward, he refuses to apologize for his eruption. Instead, over the objections of the network boss (Jane Fonda in virago mode), he rams through a new show in aid of resurrecting the Ed Murrow glory days of broadcast journalism. He wants strong coverage and searching analysis of vital issues, rather than critiques of the latest Lady Gaga hairdo or Lindsay Lohan contretemps.

He assembles an unlikely cadre of the few pros who haven’t deserted him and idealistic young talents. For his executive producer, he chooses another pro, Mackenzie “Mac” McHale (Emily Mortimer), recently returned from a grueling foreign correspondent stint. Mac’s not only immensely able: she’s also Will’s ex-fiancée. He terminated their relationship several years ago after discovering her affair with an ex-lover.

“The West Wing” afforded the delicious impression that one was getting a fly-on-the wall view of the White House’s hectic milieu and inner circle. The show cleverly articulated Bartlet and his staff’s handling mundane and crisis-ridden events alongside the mundane and stressed-out circumstances of their private lives. In “The Newsroom,” Sorkin has likewise sought to capture the extravagantly hectic milieu of high-profile newscasting, articulating the responses of its participants – notably Will and Mac – to public crises and personal dilemmas.

In poker lingo, a ghost hand is the anemic shadow of your previous cards, resulting from an insufficiently shuffled deck. It’s particularly aggravating when a ghost hand follows a stellar profitable one. The first five episodes of “The Newsroom” seemed like a ghost hand of “West Wing.” Will and Mac were quickly established as strong, attractive personalities, but the subsidiary characters frequently seemed sketchy clones of “West Wing” staffers.

Sorkin intended each episode to pivot around a critical news event. But as the series unfolded, national or world crises increasingly took a backseat to the newsrooms’ plethora of personal conflicts – Will’s being accused of unseemly conduct by a gossip rag; the staff’s trivial romantic imbroglios. Instead of the engaging give and take of true debate, Sorkin served up his usual heavy-handed liberal encyclicals, delivered as received truth. In my case, he was preaching to the choir. I expect many conservatively minded viewers felt they were being talked down to.

Then Sorkin – himself a former script doctor – brought a fictional doctor, psychiatrist Jack Habib (David Krumholtz), on board for the sixth episode, “Bullies.” Not only has it given the series a much-needed boost (the scripting is as fine as the best of the “West Wing”), it has also unexpectedly presented one of the most accurate media portrayals of a modern psychiatrist, savvy about every aspect of our work – medical and psychotherapeutic. In cinema and TV, that’s as rare as a peek at a Romney tax return.

Will visits Dr. Habib because of terminal insomnia. Turns out he’s had a standing, unkept appointment for 2 years since Habib treated him successfully – or so he thought – for post breakup blues. Butthat Dr. Habib is dead. His son Jack has inherited the practice and reviewed his father’s ample therapy notes. Despite Will’s disgruntled disclaimers, he intuits Will wants talk, not hypnotics. Dr. Habib is also blessedly not intimidated by Will’s fame. No VIP syndrome here.

Habib treats Will as a near-alexithymic, ornery late adolescent. He deploys a finely honed mix of confrontation and empathy, leavened by winning good humor. Sorkin adroitly interweaves Will’s therapy session with his neurotic newsroom behavior toward a colleague and the subject of an interview amid unfolding critical events, which triggered his guilt-stricken sleeplessness. In “Psychiatry and the Cinema” (Washington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 1999), Krin and Glen Gabbard describe how screenwriters use psychotherapists to facilitate storytelling through enabling flashbacks, dramatic revelations, and so on. In this regard, Habib helps Sorkin out as much as he does Will.

I’ll only reveal that Will’s guilt stems from abhorrence of and complex identification with his alcoholic father’s cruelty toward young Will and his sibs. Habib is crystal clear with these dynamics and their acting out to patient and viewer. He also makes Will realize he’s still mourning Mac’s loss, wins his grudging consent to further sessions, and ends the session by telling Will that his insomnia stems as much from wretched midnight food chemistry as neurosis. A compleat doctor of mind and body, indeed.

A few inevitable cavils: Habib does allow Will to interrupt another patient’s session for a hallway consultation. He’s also accepted payment for countless missed sessions without question. But this is small stuff, compared with the blatant distortions and boundary violations that still abound in Lalaland’s depiction of the dubious profession I’ve elsewhere called “cinetherapy.”

I don’t claim that Dr. Habib’s entry is chiefly responsible for the new vigor of “The Newsroom.” As is often the case, it may simply have taken Sorkin six episodes to get the series’ act together, and Habib’s introduction is a function of that process.

One notes that the subsidiary characters have become far more three-dimensional. Thankfully, Will and his cadre have left off their ponderous platitudinizing, with the intriguing effect that Sorkin’s liberal arguments are more gripping and command more serious attention. In any case, one hopes Dr. Habib will continue to do well for his patient and for our profession, because the second season of “The Newsroom” is already in production.

Originally Published on Clinical Psychiatry News

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