As television criticism goes, HBO’s The Newsroom probably set a new record for the number of scathing, negative reviews that it received. From its “pedantic lectures disguised as rat-a-tat-tat dialogue” (Grunwald) to its mean-spirited nature “with a hard-to-miss focus on women” (Macnichol) to its “exploded out of control” sanctimony (Mirkinson), Aaron Sorkin’s latest cable drama appeared, like Will McAvoy himself, to find new ways of personally offending and alienating its critics, even as the network renewed it for another season. (Hard to believe that Sorkin would even come back after that and not restrict his contact with the outside world to Facebook, like his Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.) Yet, as The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson pointed out in an early July article, while the show was being tattooed in print and online, “viewers […] tended to praise [it] much more fulsomely,” setting up an odd disconnect between the show’s general audience and its critical one. So, now that the first season is over and the lights are out in the ACN studio, we can talk about whether The Newsroom had some merit after all, or whether its harshest reviewers, like McAvoy’s own detractors, were right in their emphatic rejection of it and their epic listing of its various flaws. Was it really that bad or just bad for critics?
Let me hold off on the first part of that question and start with the second. For all of the show’s flaws and for all of the pointed insights that they had into its development, the critics came to it with an unusual amount of venom, venom inspired, no doubt, by Sorkin’s subject matter: the news media. In the same way that Andrew Shepherd admits that he “was so busy keeping [his] job [that he] forgot to do [his] job” in The American President (also written by Sorkin), Sorkin, in The Newsroom, charges that the news media has become so interested in keeping its audience that it has forgotten to educate them. And so Will McAvoy, a journalist capable of so much more, has become, when we meet him in the first episode, “the Jay Leno of news anchors” (1.1). In using real news stories as the basis for his episodes, moreover, Sorkin clearly pokes the bear by suggesting that media could have done it better. And, again, if the reviews are any indication, the media has responded in kind, by saying the same thing about his show.
Ironically, if The Newsroom is an indictment of the current state of the news, though, it is also a product of what the news has become. There is a great scene in the first episode, right after McAvoy and his staff have broken the BP oil spill story, when ACN executive and old-time newsman Charlie Skinner nostalgically remembers what the news was once like and could be again. “In the old days of about ten minutes ago,” he reflects, “we did the news well. You know how? We just decided to” (1.1). While this seems like an easy answer and while it, too, is a sore spot for critics—according to NPR’s Linda Holmes, what Skinner is really saying here is that “[a]ll you have to do is stop being a mindless stooge like everyone else is, and you can start to fix the fact that we are right now a nation of idiots”—the series makes it clear that, in these days of corporate sponsorship, ratings revenues, the bottom line, and political influence, “just deciding to do the news” is often not enough. Will’s outspoken attempts to question the Tea Party and its corporate connections on the air land him in hot water with his boss at AWN, just as his personal life threatens to sabotage his career, inasmuch as it is fodder for AWN’s gossip magazine TMI. Maggie’s problems in lining up interviews for the show’s discussion of SB 1070 lead to an embarrassing segment with a racist professor, a beauty queen, and a gun-toting member of the citizen’s militia. McAvoy and his news team are forced to cover the Casey Anthony story (and take lessons from Nancy Grace) for a ratings bump in order to justify a mock debate that they do believe in. And, as we learn in the last episode, Sloan Sabbith’s reports about the economy may have taught the audience almost nothing about the debt ceiling. If News Night is what the news could or should be, it is as problematic and flawed as what Sorkin is saying the news actually is.
Yet, even in those moments when News Night appears to be doing the news well and “getting it right,” it is still a fictional news show in a fictional world created by Sorkin. As such, it is, at best, a commentary on the news more than it ever is the news itself, as much a commentary, perhaps, as Comedy Central’s The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Where those shows filter their remarks through humor and satire and typically avoid a critical backlash as a result, however, Sorkin’s use of drama turns on a more serious edge, intends a direct critique, and thus has fuelled a more heated response. They know that he is not kidding. As James Poniewozik, speaking to this point in his review for Time, writes, “[The Newsroom’s] chief problem as a drama is that it’s, well, an editorial.”
In the long run and for however long the show may be on the air, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In his book Entertaining Politics, Jeffrey P. Jones explains that “fake newscasts, fake newsmagazines, and fake pundit talk shows” have a “real” value, inasmuch as they “demonstrate an alternative means for talking about, engaging with, and making sense of political life that is, at times, at odds with news media’s claims to authority and truth” (20). With so many outlets to choose from and so many partisan voices vying for our attention, the admittedly fake can be a starting point for real opinion. We do not have to struggle with the questionable demand for credibility and authority. Rather, in the satirical, the fictional, and the dramatic, we can find the reflection of a truth that may be more real for us. So, an editorial disguised as a drama may have more impact and more meaning than one disguised as a legitimate newscast.
Amidst this plurality of voices, both real and fake, Sorkin’s voice, as it speaks through his characters, is, of course, just one more in a larger conversation. Nevertheless, love it or hate it, that The Newsroomhas us thinking about this conversation and talking so strongly about the role and value of the media in the political process may, in the end, be the real news here.
For whatever problems it may have had, the show’s more inspiring moments kept me coming back from week to week, kept me coming back, perhaps curiously, to see if Sorkin could inspire me again. In his post last month, Gary Edgerton talked about how Sorkin is unique in “his unapologetic idealism, improbably emerging in settings (i.e., television, politics) that most of the American public views with cynicism at best to downright disdain at worst.” At a time when television is populated with so many antiheroes, antagonists, and dark moral dramas, The Newsroom’s colorful cast of plucky reporters and dedicated producers, devoting themselves so wholeheartedly to using the news as a means of informing the electorate (and informing themselves), was oddly refreshing, even when the series was at its most heavy-handed. Regardless of how the incidents actually played out for the news media, there was something moving about Will’s desire to stick to the facts during the Gabby Giffords shooting, producer Don Keefer’s sudden understanding of the United Airlines staff’s anxieties as he impatiently waited to report the death of Osama Bin Laden, or even the Rudy tribute from Will’s staff at the end of “Amen.” This, for me, was The Newsroom at its best, with Sorkin, like Will, playing “the greater fool” to get his idealistic vision out to the audience.
And, for these moments, I will be back next season, to watch Sorkin and his show tilt at windmills one more time, to see if he can, following Gary’s metaphor, right his ship and realize his show’s potential, to see if he can, essentially, make me believe. Those possibilities—that a series will realize or continue to realize its potential and that its creators will convince us of their intent—and the attempt at them often are the reason why we come back to any show.
In thinking about The Newsroom’s reviews from this past summer and with the task ahead of him for his show’s sophomore year, I am reminded of Lt. Jack Ross’s opening remarks about Daniel Kaffee’s case in Sorkin’s own A Few Good Men: “[He] is going to try to pull off a little magic act here. He’s going to try a little misdirection. He’s going to astonish you with stories of rituals and dazzle you with official-sounding terms […]. He might even try to cut into a few officers for you. He’ll have no evidence, mind you, none. But it’s going to be entertaining.”
Douglas L. Howard is Chair of the English Department on the Ammerman Campus at Suffolk County Community College, editor of Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television (2010), and co-editor of The Essential Sopranos Reader (2011) and The Gothic Other (2004).