Time magazine this week included a review by television critic James Poniewozik of HBO’s newest series, The Newsroom. The writer/creator of The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin, whose previous work includes A Few Good Men, The American President, The West Wing, The Social Network, and Moneyball. In my mind, that puts him in a category with Shakespeare, Falkner, and Dickens.
Poniewozik’s review of The Newsroom was mostly negative, but it reminded me of how much I enjoyed Sorkin’s writing and prompted me to arrange my Sunday night around the Sunday premiere at 9 pm. I was not disappointed. Sorkin writes for people like me who love articulate, idealistic characters. But Poniewozik has warned that, of the four episodes that he has watched, the first was the most serviceable and the others get progressively worse. We’ll see.
As good as Sorkin writes, I was almost as impressed by Poniewozik’s insights in his review:
- Sorkin’s dialogue, at least, is as nimble as ever. If you want to watch The Aaron Sorkin Eloquently Expresses Things You Already Believe Hour, this is your show
- [Sorkin’s hero/anchorman] jousts with a string of Tea Party politicians, tabloid journalists, and wicked corporate suits who may as well be allegorical figures named Ignorance, Vanity and Avarice.
- [The hero/anchorman’s] producer/ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) explains: “Reclaiming the fourth estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect and a return to what’s important. The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid–” She’s not nearly done, but I have only a page here. Yes, articulate characters are Sorkin’s gig.
While searching the Time magazine archives for the on-line edition of the Poniewozik review, I discovered that he had blogged much more extensively about the show a couple of weeks earlier. In the blog, he provided even more insights:
- Sunday night, HBO premieres The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s attempt to do for cable news what The West Wing did for politics: present a romanticized version of a beleaguered institution, with a cast of hard-working idealists, long impassioned speeches and lots of walking-and-talking. I was not a fan.
- You may argue that you could make many of the same arguments—about the sanctimony, the deck-stacking, the too-perfect stylized dialogue, &c.—against The West Wing. I agree, and I made them when The West Wing was on. But I also included The West Wing in my list of the 100 All-TIME TV Shows, because it also gave us rich characters, a sense of proportionality and an infectious feeling of romance with the country and the people who want to make it better. The Newsroom, after four exhausting, smug episodes, gives us none of that: just Aaron Sorkin writing one argument after another for himself to win.
Poniewozik completed his blog entry on The Newsroom by listing his most serious reservations about Sorkin’s writing:
The Women Problem. Either Sorkin is no longer able to write credible women characters, or he no longer wants to.
It’s Intellectually Self-Serving. One of the principles that Mac sets for Will’s new newscast is that it will always try to present the best version of a party’s argument, not the most provocative or caricatured one for ratings. The Newsroom does not follow its own advice.
A Résumé Is Not Character Development. Mac, we are told, is a tough, smart journalist who made her bones covering wars, but in practice she’s an emotional ditz. We are told Will is a Republican but he spends much more time making Democrat’s arguments. We are told that Will was a wishy-washy anchor concerned only with ratings, but his conversion to truth-telling crusader is near-instant and almost without conflict. Sorkin behaves as if simply telling us that someone is something is a substitute for actually having them behave as that thing.
Bias Is a Qualification? I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that journalists can admit they have opinions and still be fair, so in a way I’m with Sorkin when he argues for impassioned journalism. But two exchanges in the second episode really bothered me.
“That’s the right answer.” I think there’s a very good argument that journalists can and should have strong opinions about the things they spend all their working time covering—it shows they’re intelligent, engaged and applying analysis. But that’s not the point these scenes are making. They’re saying that a good journalist is one who has the right opinion, and that having the correct opinion—Sorkin’s—is proof they’re ready to do the job.
Zingers Are Not Drama. I’ve written it before about The West Wing, but Sorkin’s TV drama is all about esprits d’escalier: the snappy comeback you wish you had given somebody in a political argument, the debate performance Democrats wished Al Gore had had against George W. Bush. In The Newsroom, it feels like Sorkin spent two years watching cable news and jotting down comebacks, then handed us the notebook. It’s empty-calorie drama, replacing real debate and character work with the quick thrill of canned superiority. (The Newsroom is the kind of hectoring drama that fans say “People need to see,” meaning, of course, other, less enlightened people than themselves.)
Call me mealy-mouthed, but I like both these guys. Although I accept Poniewozik’s criticisms as valid, I will continue watching Sorkin and reading Poniewozik.