Sorkin's fans defend The Newsroom by saying critics are too dumb to understand it. Are they right?
In her negative review of Aaron Sorkin's new HBO drama The Newsroom, The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum wrote, "I still occasionally run into someone who insists that Americans were just too stupid to get" his cancelled NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This has somehow become the Sorkin fan's default response to his critics: If you didn't enjoy it, you didn't understand it. It's an argument that held a little water—but just a little water—in 1998, when Sports Night was pushing the boundaries of the 30-minute sitcom, or in 1999, when The West Wing helped to usher in an age of cinematic production values for network dramas. Whether you liked them or not, those shows were breaking new ground, and you could be justifiably skeptical of anyone who couldn't appreciate them.
The Newsroom's defenders have also turned to the "they just don't get it" justification. In a review for Gawker, legendary news anchor Dan Rather says that he believes critics don't "get it," that "they've somehow missed the breadth, depth and 'got it right' qualities—and importance—of Newsroom." The sentiment is repeatedly echoed by the show's many positive user reviews on Metacritic: "A lot of the critics reviews make me angry, they have to remember that it's a television show," or "[Discrediting The Newsroom] simply shows ignorants [sic] and an inability to view something objectively." And there are many people who suggest that critics are panning the The Newsroom out of bias: "If American journalism was still great they would review this material objectively," or "If the Fourth Estate had been doing their job, there would be no reason for this show to exist." Those same Newsroom fans have, somewhat incredibly, made The Newsroom Sorkin's all-time top-rated work among Metacritic users, besting both his Oscar-nominated scripts for The Social Network and Moneyball and his four-time Emmy winner for Best Drama, The West Wing.
Why have viewers responded so defensively to critical attacks on The Newsroom? Because Sorkin's work is the equivalent of an overzealous grade-school teacher: It makes viewers feel special. Sorkin has built a career on TV comfort food, setting up straw men and letting his jaded-but-noble protagonists knock them down. There's nothing wrong with comfort food; The West Wing thrived for years on noble, hyper-articulate speeches by Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlet, a "president we can all agree on."
But the argument that Sorkin's critics don't understand his work is both patronizing and bizarre: Love it or hate it, The Newsroom—like the rest of Sorkin's oeuvre—is not difficult to follow. In fact, Sorkin's ability to take complex concepts and make them digestibly straightforward for mass audiences is one of his best qualities. Could any other writer have made the computer programming of The Social Network or sabermetrics of Moneyball so riveting? Sorkin managed to turn the founding of the Internet's most important company into a boy-loses-girl story, which is incredibly inaccurate - but a lot more interesting to watch. Sorkin's favorite trick, and the one he's particularly adept at, is teasing out an emotional hook in a seemingly dry setting and running with it.
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And Sorkin's style hasn't changed since he broke out in the 1990s: the sharp, reference-filled banter, the walk-and-talks, the didactic parables and political narratives. But Sorkin himself has changed. On the press tour for The Newsroom, Sorkin's interview with the Globe and Mail's Sarah Nicole Prickett—whom he dubs "Internet Girl" before instructing her on high-fiving technique—is probably more revealing than he intended. He comes off as sexist, defensive, crotchety, and—most damningly, given the nature of his new series—hopelessly out of touch with the state of modern journalism. In fact, nearly everything he says in the interview could have come straight from the mouth of The Newsroom's sexist, defensive, crotchety, out of touch protagonist (and Sorkin surrogate) Will McAvoy.