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The Comfort of Fantasy

Alternate realities do very little to change our actual world.

I still remember the day the trailer for Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom came out. It was 2012, I was an editor at the college newspaper, and I fucking loved The West Wing. In recent months I had realized that I wanted to be a journalist, like, as a career, and that my dream was to work for a magazine or a newspaper or a big cable news outlet and cover global conflicts and politics and human rights. The show was, in other words, specifically designed to be exactly my shit.

Typing this eight years later is deeply embarrassing, of course. The Newsroom is a short-sighted, overtly sexist, and politically stunted TV show that did little more than let Aaron Sorkin pretend that if HE were a big news anchor everything would be better, just as The West Wing let him tell the entire country how good things would be if he got to be president. The show’s fictional network, ACN, nailed all the big stories of the early 2010s — Deepwater Horizon, Occupy Wall Street, the 2012 Republican primaries. They never got things wrong except when a bad producer manipulated interview tape and got fired. The Newsroom lived in a strange parallel universe where One Good News Network existed and the people inside it made the Hard Choices to do Good Journalism and defeated all the other Bad Networks who did Propaganda and also the Blogs who did Clickbait.

There was, and still is, an enormous market for this kind of schlock. Our current politics have rarely been so dystopian, so content studios are eager to churn out content that gives people an escape. The best recent example is this, from today:

The series is based on Curtis Sittenfield’s novel Rodham, which is based on the premise that Hillary dates Bill but does not marry him and eventually leaves him after a stand-in for Juanita Broaddrick tells her that Bill sexually assaulted her. (It also contains graphically descriptive sex scenes between Bill and Hillary.) A later core plot point revolves around Bill — who, in this universe, becomes a Silicon Valley playboy tech billionaire — running against Hillary in the 2016 Democratic Primary. From the Vox review of the book:

In fact, freed from the Clinton baggage, Hillary Rodham’s entrée into politics is scandal-free. In the alternate history of Rodham, she is never first lady, and Bill Clinton is never president (his 1992 run is unsuccessful), so she never gives her infamous “superpredator” speech. She does not have to stand by her husband in the face of accusations of infidelity, sexual harassment, or sexual assault. The Iraq War never happens, so Hillary never votes in its favor.

You can see why this fantasy can be so seductive. What it offers is a chance to briefly live in a world that has cheat codes turned on: our mistakes either didn’t happen or will be righted by the all-seeing eyes of hindsight to create a future in which none of the current depravities exist.

There is room for prescriptive fantasies based on a better version of the world we live in. I think, charitably, what the Aaron Sorkins and Curtis Sittenfields of this world want to do is present a version of the future that inspires people to see what our world could be. But if creating that world involves erasing our current reality, rather than building from it, there’s really not much that their stories can teach us. The West Wing depends on a theory of grand respectability politics that has time and time again been proven to be false. The Newsroom leaned heavily on a vision of journalism that questioned the toothless objectivity of mainstream media without also questioning the sexist, racist, and elitist power structures that enable it. In reality, Hillary Clinton didn’t leave Bill for the pain he inflicted on Juanita Broaddrick. She stayed with him, she voted for the Iraq War, and she lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump. I would love to see a show that imagines a better future built out of things as they are now — that has something to say about how we can turn the rising tides of fascism and capitalism and pain that are grinding our country and the world around it into dust. To me, the only fantasy worth dreaming of is one that could actually come true.

Photo: HBO