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.
But in the middle of the interview, Sorkin offers another McAvoy-esque comment that's even more telling: "I think I would have done very well, as a writer, in the forties. I think the last time America was a great country was then, or not long after. It was before Vietnam, before Watergate." For the many, many troubling things about the second part of that statement, I suspect Sorkin is right about the first bit: He would have fit in nicely in the '40s. Sorkin has somehow managed to brand himself as a dangerous and incisive writer, but his stagey, idealistic scripts are almost defiantly old-fashioned. His best work feels more like Frank Capra than Oliver Stone.
Or at least, that's how he was for most of his career. Sorkin was in his mid-20s when he wrote the script for A Few Good Men, but he's 51 now, and his "back in my day..." cynicism is starting to show. In April, Vanity Fair's Juli Weiner wrote a terrific piece explaining how The West Wing inspired a generation of idealistic young viewers to enter politics. Whether fending off political rivals or deciding which turkey to pardon on Thanksgiving, The West Wing's main characters had intelligence, depth, and passion about both their jobs and their president. The West Wing made politics look exciting—and, more to the point, made idealism look cool.
Any young viewers of The Newsroom, on the other hand, will be greeted with the message that they're the "worst - period - generation - period - ever - period" within the first ten minutes of the pilot. Sorkin's work has always been old-fashioned in tone, but rarely in setting, and his best works (The West Wing and The Social Network) feel both high-stakes and aggressively contemporary. The Newsroom shares a key problem with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: It treats the television show at the heart of its narrative with life-or-death importance at a time when millions of Americans are switching off their TVs and turning to the Internet. The Newsroom's opening credits juxtapose pictures of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite with clips of its leading characters in a desperate (and unconvincing) attempt to suggest some kind of historical continuity.Who replaced the Sorkin who wrote The Social Network just a few years ago with the Sorkin who scoffs at the very idea of Internet news? When he goes out of his way to call out liberals, conservatives, millennials, and the rest of the world in The Newsroom's opening scene, it doesn't feel brave—it feels tired, and crass, and defeatist, in a way that Sports Night, The West Wing, and the rest never did.
Based on his largely-defensive comments, this cranky, negative posture may be the new Sorkin status quo—but it's an unfortunate evolution, and one that makes his flaws as a writer far more apparent. Dan Rather's review of The Newsroom opens with the line, "any television program that has its main characters quoting Cervantes can't be all bad." That's Sorkin—and the majority of his defenders—in a nutshell. Sorkin is a cultural mash-up artist; he references literature to stroke the egos of the literate, and references politics to affirm the intelligence of the political. Rather is right—The Newsroom isn't all bad. Sorkin is never all bad. But his brand of comfort food has never tasted so bland.