Chitchat: Critiquing The Newsroom — and the critics who critique it

 

Welcome to Chitchat, where friends and fellow critics join me to discuss pertinent TV-related issues.

Aaron Sorkin’s latest television project, The Newsroom, has caused its share of controversy over the last month. While there was a great amount of anticipation for the HBO drama, the reviews haven’t been kind. Some of those reviews, and the general analysis of the show, started to make my buddy Wesley Ambrecht go crazy. So the two of us exchanged some emails over the last week (mostly after episode four, but Wes’ final one came in after he—but not I—saw episode five).

Wesley: It’s been four weeks now since the premiere of HBO’s new drama series The Newsroom, and I have more than a few thoughts. No less than 5 times this morning did I begin writing an “In Defense of The Newsroom” piece, only to see another piece slandering the show make its way online. At a certain point, I realized that my feelings might be better expressed in a dialogue with you rather than an assault on the entire critical community. Hopefully, you’re willing to indulge me. But, before I get started on my rant, I’d like to know where you stand? Do you harbor the same vitriol for Aaron Sorkin’s new series that some of our compatriots do?

Cory: You know Wes, I don’t harbor that same vitriol. I see and respect almost everything that most critics are saying about The Newsroom, particularly in regard to the way the show handles women, but there’s a lot about the show I can’t help but like. I’m disappointed in some of the characterizations, again especially with women, and I think setting the show in the past as a way to show how the media “got things wrong” is cheap and unfair. And yet, I can’t help but get a little hyped each time Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy gives a rousing speech, even if Sorkin thinks I can’t understand it because I’m part of the “Worst. Generation. Ever.” But we’re not here because I kind of like The Newsroom, we’re here because you’re angry, maybe even Will McAvoy angry. So let’s hear it.

Wesley: I’ve been patient with critics who tore into The Newsroom, in large part because I had no other choice. Unlike them, I didn’t receive a screener with the first four episodes. And, as A Gifted Man reminded us last fall, shows can be VERY different post-pilot. Having now seen all four episodes though, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take!

Aaron Sorkin is easy to criticize; I know this. He’s a deeply imperfect man, who tries to teach women how to high-five. Still, the day we let the man behind a show influence our perception of said show is a sad day. Much of anger towards The Newsroom appears to stem from a belief that the show is inherently misogynistic, but there is almost nothing there diegetically to suggest that’s true. 

Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie McHale and Alison Pill’s Maggie Jordan are the two most prominent female characters on The Newsroom and the two that Mo Ryan and Jace Lacob focused on in their Huffington Post article “The Newsroom: Women Problems Abound In Aaron Sorkin’s HBO Series.” Their article (or takedown piece really) harps quite a bit on the fact that MacKenzie had trouble using ACN’s email system, as if its wholly unreasonable that a person (man or woman) could make a simple mistake like neglecting to include a * sign in an email. “If you’re thinking… Why does it have to be some symbol of misogyny?” Then picture a male character in Sorkin’s world who doesn’t know the difference between the “*” and “s” keys on his BlackBerry. Impossible” says Lacob of the plotline. I’m calling bullshit on that. 

Given what we’ve seen of Will so far, I’d reason that he could have easily made the same mistake. I mean the man didn’t even know his show had a blog for God’s sakes. Moreover, the point of that story thread wasn’t to show that MacKenzie was technologically inept, but rather that she struggled socially. An idea that was echoed by the scene she and Sloan share in the very same episode. To me, one of the more interesting aspects of the character is the dichotomy that exists between her as an executive producer and her as a person. The same goes for Maggie, who we can see growing as a professional though the course of these first four episodes, even as she continues to make regress personally.

This week the issues that critics had with the show’s portrayal of women seemed to come to a head, after Will went on dates with several shall we say larger than life personalities. Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone, an avid supporter of Aaron Sorkin, felt compelled to lay into him, as did Vulture’s Margret Lyons. Both of their pieces raise interesting points, but neither seems to understand that these women were supposed to be awful harpies. Yet again, it feels like the media machine rushing to judge without sitting back and thinking about the greater thematic statement being made. Sorkin is a romantic. He always has been. In fact, part of the appeal of Sports Nightwas the relationship between Dana and Casey. In the case of The Newsroom, Will and MacKenzie are our Dana and Casey. In the pilot, it’s made clear that Will was seen frolicking on the beach with Erin Andrews, but he won’t be seen in the light of day with the women from this most recent episode. Why? The answer is simple; Andrews is a woman of substance. The women in this most recent episode were not, which is precisely why Will is going out with them in the first place. Having MacKenzie back in his life has made him realize that he doesn’t really want to be over MacKenzie, so he dates women that could never match up to her.

Tell me I’m not crazy Cory! If you can see their argument, surely you can see mine. And, while you’re at it, I’d also love to hear whether you think the show has painted Will as an outright hero thus far.

Cory: The reviews and response to The Newsroom have been super-compelling and sometimes, a little weird. I’m not here to re-evaluate someone else’s evaluation, but it does feel like, at times, the criticisms have been too harsh, or at least too loud. At this point, the murky water that is TV criticism and discussion online, particularly on Twitter, is so connected that we move through a initial hatred, backlash to that hatred and then backlash to the backlash quite quickly. In the case of a high profile show like The Newsroom and a high profile guy like Sorkin, expectations were through the roof (from both critics and normal viewers) and once the initial reviews trickled in, the disaster had already begun. As someone who has watched these first four episodes on a weird schedule (I didn’t watch the first two until the 4th of July and then didn’t catch up with three and four until this week), I’ve found myself at a weird place with The Newsroom. Like I said in my last email, I can see where the critics are coming from, I really can. But honestly, I’ve enjoyed the show almost in spite of itself. To be fair, my pleasure could be the result of lowered expectations, and it likely is in some regard. Not completely though.

I think watching these four episodes right in a row, with presumably big expectations would result in lots of frustration. Sorkin’s writing style can be grating after a while and much of the show’s silliness is likely amplified when you have to watch four straight episodes of Jeff Daniels giving you a history lesson about journalism and government. There’s no question that HBO needs to reign Sorkin in a bit, though. These episodes are clocking in at around a full-hour and even just one episode at that length is hard to stomach sometimes. Cutting the show down to 50 minutes a week (or even shorter, in the theoretical world this was on broadcast) wouldn’t solve all of The Newsroom‘s problems, but it would certainly help some. 

In any event, your point about the melding of Sorkin and The Newsroom in reviews is a great one. He’s one of television’s presumed auteurs but also prone to burnouts (if you’re unfamiliar, let’s just say his time on The West Wing went off the rails, if you know what I mean) or out-and-out failures (Studio 60), which makes him one heck of a compelling personality that almost inherently frames any review. And because Newsroom is supposed to be so pure, unadulterated Sorkin, it’s probably hard to separate the show from the man. We know that there isn’t much detachment between what we see on the screen and what Sorkin actually believes, which makes some of the treatment of women (and the typical speechifying) more troubling. 

I really enjoyed Jace’s and Mo’s piece, and I see your point, so I’m sort of in the middle on this. I agree with you that anyone could have theoretically made the same mistake MacKenzie did in that second episode and I also agree with you that in some ways at least, the show isn’t afraid to display Will’s flaws as well. This most recent episode, the one that has gotten the most hate, didn’t really bother me that much. You note that Will’s dates were supposed to be awful harpies, and I don’t really jibe with that. They were one-note characters for sure but that phrase is pretty harsh. More importantly though, I think Will’s attempts to “civilize” them were fairly dreadful, and completely Sorkin. His calling the third woman a bitch was extremely dumb and uncalled for. 

However, my interpretation of those scenes was that we were supposed to view Will as an asshole. The condescension in his voice, and the extreme condescension and smugness in the content of those speeches, was more over-the-top than ever. He looked like a fool. Maybe Sorkin didn’t want us to think that poorly of his lead hero, but I also don’t think that we’re supposed to completely sympathize with Will’s position above all others. Both Will and MacKenzie were wrong and acted stupidly over the last few episodes, mostly because they don’t know how to deal with their break-up (all these years later) and those still-lingering feelings. If anything, Sorkin should be criticized for writing adult characters who are so emotionally immature and try to cover it up with genius-level intellect. You say Sorkin is a romantic and that’s probably what he believes too; his view of romance is just flawed. 

Frankly, I think your reading of MacKenzie is better than what is actually there. She consistently looks like a fool, which again, might be purposeful as to create the dichotomy you speak of, but still comes off poorly. The show, I think, is trying to do the same thing with Will. When he’s on-camera, the man is a god. But as soon as the lights go down, he’s a mess. He’s a rich, famous, condescending, smug mess, but a mess nonetheless. While Sorkin could certainly do a better job of portraying both of these characters (and really most everyone on this show), the vitriol doesn’t entirely register for me. 

Do you think Will has been portrayed as a hero? And what do you think about my suggestion that everyone on the show is a bit poorly-constructed, not just the women?

Wesley: The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff raised a similar question to the one we are on Twitter two days ago. While he hasn’t particularly enjoyed the series thus far, he noted that “if I thought I was meant to think [Will] was kind of an asshole, I’d like [The Newsroom] better.” It was interesting to read through the responses he got because almost everyone who saw Will as intentionally flawed seemed to enjoy the show significantly more than those who didn’t.

To be honest, I’m not sure how you can watch The Newsroom and think Sorkin is unaware of Will’s bad tendencies. As you pointed out, Will acted downright rotten in this week’s episode, going so far as to call one of his would-be lovers a bitch. And, while I stand by my assertion that the women in “I’ll Try to Fix You” were meant to be representations of a very specific type of woman (ie. awful harpies); I think we were meant to see that Will was being equally awful. 

The fact of the matter is Will carries himself with a holier-than-thou attitude that at times is wholly amusing and at other times pretty repulsive. When he tears down that uber hot sorority girl in the pilot, it’s amusing. When he rips into the Tea Party, it’s applause worthy. But, when he lays into Hope Davis, it’s repugnant. Ultimately, I think Sorkin knows this. I think he knows that being a great man and an asshole aren’t mutually exclusive things. Hell, we remember Thomas Jefferson as a great man, and he took advantage of female slaves. It’s also worth noting that some of TV’s most compelling leads fall under the same umbrella as Will. Don Draper is, arguably, a great man but he’s also an asshole. Same goes for Dr. Gregory House. 

So far, I think one of the over-arching themes of the show has been the struggle to separate one’s professional life from their personal life. I forgot to mention this in my last email, but let’s say we discover MacKenzie wasn’t being looked at by other shows because, despite her ability to produce tremendous TV, she can’t help but drag her personal life into things. That little tidbit would suddenly reconcile many of the problems people have had with the show, no? Even still, it’s not just MacKenzie who’s had this problem. Will, Maggie, Don, Jim, and Charlie have all let their personal lives negatively affect their work, and chances are Neal and Sloan will have by season’s end. If, as you mentioned, this is pure unadulterated Sorkin, the exploration of this theme makes complete and total sense.

As to your question about the construction of these characters, I can see the argument that Sorkin needs to better flesh Will and company out. In fact, I think your assertion that Sorkin should be criticized for writing emotionally immature adult characters, who use their genius-level intellect to hide behind, is spot on. That doesn’t bother me, largely because I think television often over-estimates the emotionally intelligence of adults, but I can 100% see why others would be irritated by it. Another argument against the show that I’d totally entertain is that Sorkin has undercut the dramatic tension of Newsroom by setting things in the past and using hindsight to make his characters look better than their real-life counterparts. Even that has frustrated me.

How do you feel about the decision to set the show in 2010 and how did you feel about the massive time jump in “The 112th Congress”? As much as I liked episode when consumed in a vacuum, I can’t but help but think it will hurt the narrative long-term.

Cory: For me, the wonky setting of the show in the near past is the most frustrating part of The Newsroom. The pilot’s manipulative coverage of the BP oil spill was truly terrible, especially considering Jim’s big “breaking” of the story was built around his buddy and his sister having better jobs. Using personal sources is a plot device is bad enough, but when exacerbated by the already thick-headed retroactive storytelling, it became unbearable. Subsequent episodes have been better at dealing focusing on the people reporting news instead of the news itself (and staying away from any source-related gimmicks). Still though, the worst part of “I’ll Try To Fix You” wasn’t the episode’s portrayal of women, it was the way that those final 10 minutes used the grey area of reporting on Congresswoman’s Gifford’s condition to tug at our heart-strings. It’s just so damn manipulative and self-congratulating. 

I’ve still yet to hear a good reason for why Sorkin couldn’t have just told fictionalized versions of these stories? Even if they were thinly-veiled, that small bit of separation would still allow Sorkin to be Sorkin. He could preach and orate about the failures of the contemporary news media and do this weird after-the-fact storytelling. We’d be rolling our eyes, but much less aggressively than we are now. 

The time job, then, was a bit of an odd choice. If Sorkin wants to pick and choose history, he should commit to it. If he wants to tell stories in the present, do that. He’s sort of trying to have it both ways so he can inject his brand of hindsight and it is negatively impacting the characters. I’d rather have spent those weeks and months with the characters, getting to know them and watching their relationships develop. Instead, he just told the few stories he wanted in 2010, told them and moved on, characters be damned. I’d say that he’s focusing too much on his message and not enough on the characters, but that’s completely obvious to anyone who watches 10 minutes of the show. How do you feel about it (though I can guess)? And who, if any, characters do you think are at least decently developed?

Wesley: I see the inherent value of using real events, as it allows Sorkin and company to directly comment on issues they feel have gone unaddressed. And, I can also see why they’d set the show in 2010. Being timely is hard when your show has already wrapped production on the season finale by the time the premiere airs. Unfortunately, The Newsroom has yet to make good use of its vantage point. My sentiments on the way they told the BP story and the Giffords story are pretty much congruent with yours. The last 15 minutes of “I’ll Try To Fix You” are fascinating to watch simply because of how uneven they are. There are moments of pure brilliance there but they get overshadowed by the emotionally cloying song and the fact everyone came to the office on a Saturday to hear Bigfoot stories. 

As I mentioned before, I think “The 112th Congress” was a terrific hour of television but the massive time jumps within it are sort of detrimental to character development. The team has been working together for months by the start of “I’ll Try To Fix You” and that awkward period of adjustment is over. Most all of the relationships have changed/deepened even though we didn’t see them change/deepen. Don, for example, has caught on to the sparks flying between Maggie and Jim, while Sloan has seamlessly integrated herself into the News Night family. Oddly enough though, Will and MacKenzie’s relationship seems unchanged. It’s perplexing really.

Speaking of Sloan, I’m not sure who drew the shorter straw Olivia Munn or Dev Patel. She wasn’t in the first episode and has been used sparingly since then. He’s been given a stuff to do… but it’s Bigfoot stuff. This might seem strange based on the discussion we’ve been having, but I actually feel like I have a good sense of who nearly character is except Sloan and Neal. Sure they could all stand to be fleshed out a bit more, but I get what Sorkin is going for with each of them. Since you asked for specifics though, I’d have to say Don is the most fleshed out regular. In just four hours he has gone from the most off-putting character on the show to the most intriguing. Part of that is how dynamic a performer Thomas Sadoski is but part of it is the lines Sorkin has given him. The discussion he had with Maggie about being the 4th worst person in their love square was A-plus.

By now, I assume you’ve seen the news that Sorkin has decided to clean house, firing all but one writer from this first season. It’s clear that he is trying to send a message, but since he writes all the episodes himself, do you think firing them will make any difference?

Cory: Yeah, the time jump really hampered the ability to create that camaraderie. Instead, it’s just there and we’re supposed to go with. The pilot starts with the classic “bringing the team together” narrative and by episode three, the team is together. Just another odd choice to add to the list. 

As you sort of hit on, I actually like most of these characters (as characters, not people), even though few of them are particularly fleshed out. The cast is unsurprisingly strong–which makes some of the awful sequences or speeches bearable–but even in the moments where the characters are doing relatively simple things, the show has a solid energy to it. I like Don a lot as well, he’s been given the most complexities thus far. But everyone else ranges from “fine” to “pretty good,” if we’re couching the issues that permeate the entire operation. 

Ultimately, for me, watching The Newsroom is a weird experience. I wouldn’t say that I think the show is “good,” in fact, I think the show is often quite bad. And yet, I’ve enjoyed all four episodes that I’ve seen. It’s no real surprise to me that Sorkin trashed the writing staff. He, or maybe even HBO, had to do something in response to all the negative publicity that’s been swirling around the show. It’s sort of stupid to assume much will change because we all know that Sorkin is so strongly in charge but I will be interested to see if he or the network brings in some stronger voices who can stand up to him, and maybe even take some of that Sorkin-y stuff out. What are your thoughts on the writing staff move, and now that you’ve seen episode five (which I won’t for a few days), is there anything new to report?  

Wesley: The easiest way to better this show isn’t by letting go of a room full of writers who doesn’t even carry credits on individual episodes, but by securing Thomas Schlamme as an Executive Producer-Director for season 2. Schlamme has an uncanny ability to give gravity to Sorkin’s work and, more importantly, he isn’t afraid to give notes to the scribe. As much as I like Greg Mottola (Adventureland is one of my all-time favorite films), he doesn’t have the same shorthand with Sorkin and you can tell from the pilot that he wasn’t willing to reign the man in.

Unsurprisingly, there are a few things worth noting about “Amen.” First and foremost, it’s the most coherent episode of The Newsroom to date. Secondly, Sorkin went to great lengths to give us a better sense of who Neal and Sloan are as people, and Dev Patel clearly relished the chance to act. Next week, also seems to focus heavily on Sloan, which is good news for Olivia Munn fans such as myself. And, lastly, “Amen” was the first episode to fully embrace the notion that everyone on this show (male or female) is emotionally stunted. In other words, it gets a big thumbs up from me.

To bring this whole dialogue full circle, I’d like to note that I agree fully with HBO topper Michael Lombardo’s comments to Broadcasting & Cable last week. “Critics are entitled to their opinion and I respect their right to like or dislike a show. I think the thing that surprised me with some of the reviews was [this level of] vitriol. It’s fine not to like the show. And I don’t know what to attribute that to. But I think it’s been written about, it’s been talked about and the heightened vitriol from some of the reviews surprised me.” Anyways, until next time Cory, thanks for indulging me.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Chitchat: Critiquing The Newsroom — and the critics who critique it

  1. “I’ve still yet to hear a good reason for why Sorkin couldn’t have just told fictionalized versions of these stories? Even if they were thinly-veiled, that small bit of separation would still allow Sorkin to be Sorkin. He could preach and orate about the failures of the contemporary news media and do this weird after-the-fact storytelling. We’d be rolling our eyes, but much less aggressively than we are now. ”

    False assumption: that Aaron Sorkin wants to tell stories about the failures of the media. Back when I wrote about the pilot, I noted that the pilot seemed less like an episode of television and more like a thesis statement by Aaron Sorkin on how and why this country went wrong and how we could have fixed it. He chose to use a newsroom as a setting/lens for this thesis both because he partially blames the mass media for not giving America a well-informed populace and because he believes in the power of the mass media to change peoples’ minds.

    From my perspective, seeing the show use real events from recent years is informational (at least for events I didn’t pay very much attention to or didn’t talk much about) and invigorating. It would not be that way if I was dealing with some fictional version of Sarah Palin. This show has enough unfortunate sitcom-y situations without piling on another character playing a stand-in for that unfortunate VP candidate. Why beat around the bush? It’s sobering and engaging to deal with the real world for once, instead of some vaguely defined allegorical event that the show has to sell in a single hour before moving on.

    It’s funny, because I’m pretty down on the show on almost every count, but the part that seems to be universally disdained — the alternate history setting — is one thing I love about it.

  2. I was also perplexed about the negative reviews I read about The Newsroom. I thought the show was entertaining and intellectually written, as did the family members and Dish coworkers that I asked. Then, it dawned on me that the reviewers are so disgusted by the show because they belong to the main target of Sorkin’s criticism, the Media! This backlash just strengthens Sorkin’s point that we cannot trust a lot of what the Media feeds us. At first, I was unwilling to give the show a try because I only heard terrible things about it. I only decided to watch it since I had previously recorded it. I have the Hopper DVR that has so much recording space that I am at a loss sometimes for what to do with it all, so I find myself recording random shows on a whim. It worked out in my favor this time because I became quickly enthralled in the series. The Newsroom is like nothing else on TV right now!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s