The much-maligned Aaron Sorkin show has its flaws—and that's OK.
There are, believe it or not, people out there who genuinely like Aaron Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom, which completed its first season last night. It would be hard to know that they exist, thanks to the deafening chorus of raspberries that the nation's television critics and pop culture bloggers greeted the program with back in June, and have continued to sound in the weeks since. "Insufferably self-righteous... a program destined for television's all-time What Were They Thinking? list," wrote Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald. "When The Newsroom isn't obvious and self-congratulatory, it's manipulative and shrieky," complained Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan. "The Newsroom gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping," Emily Nussbaum insisted. Time's James Poniewozik dismissed it as "just Aaron Sorkin writing one argument after another for himself to win."
The reviews only got pissier and more pointed as the show's ten-week run continued; regular commentary was dispersed not only on weekly recap sites like the AV Club and Television Without Pity, but the likes of Esquire, Salon, and Wonkette. The breadth of blow-by-blow coverage on blogs and Twitter might lend some credence to the notion that all of its (on average) two million viewers are "hate-watching." But they're not—or, more accurately, we're not. I'm one of them, and I like the show. A lot.
It's a lonely business, unironically enjoying The Newsroom. You go through stages. There is the euphoria of the pilot episode, with that fabulous rabble-rousing "When you ask me what makes America the greatest country in the world" speech, the intrigue of a new cast of characters, the sheer pleasure of hearing Sorkin's distinctive rat-tat-tat dialogue emanating from your television again.
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Then you get a look at those reviews, and you get defensive—and to be fair, there's something fascinating about the level of hatred in them. It's easy to get a sense, in parsing the sneering, snarking, frequently angry tone of those reviews and posts, that they might not've given Sorkin a fair shake—like the hold-him-up, knock-him-down cycle of critical response (which the writer had already been through once, with his post-West Wing NBC series Studio 60) had coalesced around the notion of taking the recently-minted Oscar winner down a notch or two. And there's an argument to be made that he was just asking for trouble by creating a series about the media—specifically, about how the media in its current incarnation is a gutless, witless, sensationalistic pursuer of the lowest common denominator. A media writer may agree with Sorkin's claims about the industry, but it's kind of like talking about my male pattern baldness or spare tire around the middle: I can say that stuff, because it's me. You don't get to write about my flaws, and you sure don't get to let Jeff Daniels pontificate eloquently about them.
To be sure, you can close-read the Newsroom pans and extrapolate all sorts of subtext, in the specific way that certain writers will key in on Sorkin's dismissal of new media, his attitude towards some of his younger characters, or his attacks on gossip columnists. I've read few reviews of the show that tell me more about The Newsroom than they do about the critic writing about it. But just as I, a Newsroom fan, settled on that as my defense to the hectoring and Twitter hate, the funniest thing happens: the criticism started to get to me.
There's an unsettling sense of self-doubt, a second-guessing of your own gut reactions, that occurs when you find yourself on the other side of common opinion about the quality of a piece of mass entertainment. The Newsroom pilot wasn't perfect—some of the exposition was mighty clunky, particularly that terrible line about Mac and Frank Capra movies—but it left me optimistic about the show. I read the initial reviews mostly out of curiosity, to try and understand what they'd seen that I hadn't. And even after dismissing the criticisms (and the many, many, many that came after), I couldn't help but wonder if I was wrong about the show. Was I just an idiot? Maybe Sorkin was repeating himself. Maybe his dialogue was smug and didactic. Maybe he was writing all the female characters as morons. Maybe the recent-past setting and incorporation of real events was stupid and distracting. Maybe The Newsroom really was awful, after all.
Now, with the first season complete, I can't sign on to that idea. The Newsroom is, all things considered, a pretty fine piece of television. It has flaws, some of them considerable: Yes, Sorkin is guilty of occasionally returning to themes and motifs he's explored previously. Yes, he needs to get his shit together w/r/t the women on the show, some of whom have veered away from the "lovably nutty" ilk of Sports Night's Dana Whittaker and West Wing's CJ Cregg, and into the realm of downright dizziness. Yes, Will McAvoy is our protagonist, but that doesn't mean he always has to be right and virtuous. His shaming by a gay Santorum aide was one of the season's most unpredictable, and thus electrifying, moments—and Sorkin could do himself some favors by toning down the odes to the Righteous White Man (though there's something to be said for the notion that Sorkin is accidently giving a rather informative glimpse into the self-perception of boomer liberals like himself). Yes, the occasional attempts at broad physical (and drug-related) comedy have been almost entirely unsuccessful. And yes, for all of its event-checking and name-dropping, the show could hew a bit closer to political reality—there is, for example, not one person on that staff or at that network who would have believed for a second that the RNC would've gone for a "new debate format" that basically consisted of giving McAvoy license to yell at the primary candidates for two hours.
So The Newsroom's not perfect. Most TV shows (and books, and films, and so on) aren't. Among the shows that weren't perfect: Sports Night and The West Wing, which both became great television, but after initial episodes that found the writer and his team struggling mightily to find the right tone, voice, and style (and if you don't believe me, take another peek at those early, strained, laugh-track laden episodes of Sports Night). But because those shows were created by Aaron Sorkin and not AARON SORKIN, they came on the air with a low enough profile to allow for some stumbling and experimentation. Studio 60 and The Newsroom were not afforded that luxury. They were expected to be masterpieces right out of the gate, and when they weren't, they were dismissed as failures, flops, and bombs.
But The Newsroom has a lot in it to recommend: the crackling wit of Sorkin's duet dialogue scenes; the likable intrigue of the love triangle (square?) between Jim, Maggie, and Don (and Lisa); the goosebump-raising way that the show used on-screen text to reveal the BP spill and the Giffords shooting; the structural flourishes of the 2010 election episode and the season finale; that great scene where Don gives a master class in covering trashy news; the way you can see Olivia Munn finding her bearings as an actress, and how that parallels her character becoming a confident on-air personality; the brashness of Jane Fonda, the patience of David Krumholtz, the deliciousness with which Emily Mortimer says the word "douchebag," the way Jeff Daniels tosses off his throwaway lines, and the way he answered that "sorority girl"'s question the second time.
These pleasures are all there, and you don't have to work that hard to dig them out. But the narrative surrounding the show doesn't afford much in the way of nuance—it's "lousy," "condescending, smug, infuriating," "eye-rollingly ridiculous," a "pedantic exercise," an "epochal failure." The level of vitriol being dished out to a decent-if-imperfect program dwarfs that of something genuinely stupid and dangerous like Jersey Shore. Why? Because, as Mac noted in the season finale, "Being a cynic is easy." To actively, willfully loathe something on a continuing basis is a conscious choice. To be sure, it can be borne out of an honest response, but once that die is cast, you are choosing to look at everything about that object though a prism of distaste, ridicule, and snark. Last May, the AV Club's Noel Murray wrote of:
the need in our culture for everything to be "the best" or "the worst," with no room for "lousy story but terrific lead performance," or "great vocals but crummy lyrics," or "jerky third baseman but impressive starting pitching," or "wrong on abortion but right on tax reform." In our preference for all or nothing—and our tendency to push everything into the slot we've already assigned it to in our heads—I worry that we sometimes miss what we're actually seeing and hearing.
And that's what's happened with The Newsroom: Because Sorkin didn't match "the best" work of his career (The West Wing), he's made "the worst," and now let's see who can most entertainingly tear it to pieces. Take Sorkin down, write about what an insufferable windbag he's become, call his show a miserable failure. It'll get traffic—takedowns get clicks, after all. Which, when you stop to think about it, is part of what The Newsroom is rallying against in the first place.