How The Newsroom takes shortcuts to greatness

I had told myself I wouldn't write about Aaron Sorkin's latest series, The Newsroom. It was probably around the fifth review accusing Sorkin of self-indulgent windbaggery that I decided I couldn't bear to unsheathe my critical wrath against someone I so recently considered a hero.

Because make no mistake, I'm a true-blue Sorkin fan. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy The Social Network and Moneyball, not only do I regularly quote Sports Night and The West Wing, but I still have the entire season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on my hard drive, and I nearly wept after coming across this video of Sorkinsims.

I do love a phrase well-turned, and in that arena, Sorkin’s rat-a-tat dialogue is akin to Mozart or Ellington.

But there's more to a good television series than well-tuned dialogue. You also need character development, story, setting and a sense of meaning. And it’s in that last area that, to these eyes, The Newsroom falls flat. (I know, I know. Said I wouldn’t do it, but here I am anyway.)

It occurred to me, as I watched a free stream of the pilot, that The Newsroom is a lot like porn: it may have its momentary pleasures, but they’re manipulative. And the show ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of its premise.

The biggest triumph of The West Wing was its unbridled sense of hope and optimism. For many in my generation, it was the first show that made us care about politics, because it was obvious that these characters cared. They weren’t perfect, but they cared. The West Wing was a picture of How Government Could Be and, by extension, How People Could Be.

And that idealism purports to live on in The Newsroom, in the form of milquetoast-turned-iconoclast television anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and the dutiful staff that nobly supports him in an attempt to transform the electorate via smart, hard-hitting journalism.

But by deliberately placing the show in the recent past, dealing with actual events that have already occurred, Sorkin rigs the game. A major plot point in the pilot, for example, is how they decided to cover the BP oil spill. Their virtue was in going all in on the spill angle when other news organizations thought it was a minor story about an explosion and a search-and-rescue. The key issue was the reliability of a source inside who was feeding info to one of the staff - a convenient development, for sure.

Sorkin endows the characters with a level of wisdom and expertise on news topics that we all understand now in retrospect, but he gives it to them while it's still unfolding. As a result, The Newsroom stacks the deck in its favor when it comes to making all the right choices about how the news should be covered. What results is a worldview that says making hard-hitting, balanced televised journalism is as simple as deciding to do so. Which implies that if/when TV news is not done this way, it's because news staffs and audiences alike are too selfish and stupid to even want better.

That’s what reminds me of the porn angle. The Newsroom is pure fantasy. I applaud the idealism that drives the show, but its air of nobility smacks of self-righteousness, of the belief that we can do great things just by declaring we can be great. But there are no shortcuts to greatness. Jesus told us that the way to be great is to be a servant. In contrast, Sorkin’s recipe exchanges servanthood for editorial confidence bordering on clairvoyance.

Obviously, The Newsroom is nowhere near as destructive as actual porn, yet unrealistic expectations come in all shapes and sizes. So despite my ardor for delightful dialogue - this just in! - I’ll pass.

What Do You Think?

  • Is the idealism of The Newsroom something that can be modeled or is it an unattainable fantasy?
  • In general, does idealistic fiction give us something to strive for - in the sense of God's intention for us - or does it raise unrealistic expectations for us as fallen beings?
  • What other recurring themes have you noticed in Aaron Sorkin projects?

 

Comments (8)

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Wow. I've read a lot of things said by a lot of people about "The Newsroom," but comparing it to porn - that's ... bold.
I'm going to start there, with a comparison. The show "24" started right after the Sept. 11 attacks with an episode that featured a terrorist attack. While we were grappling in the real world with something that will never, really ever, be controlled - I took comfort every week in the televised adventures of Jack Bauer, a man so heroic he never in all of the run of "24" stopped to go to the bathroom. He shot bad guys while rappelling down a hill on foot, and Marines around him stood helpless.
Strangly enough, I never confused this with reality. I still held my belief in God, and I managed to not confuse all of these different things. I called it "comfort food TV," a term I find about, oh, a billion times less offensive than the current trend of comparing everything we don't like, or that offends us, to porn.
For example, I don't like reality TV, Twilight, shows about cake or wedding dresses, or police procedurals, but I never compare it to porn.
But I digress. I would also like to take issue with the way this reviewer compares a single episode of "The Newsroom" to the entire run of "The West Wing" on the issue of character development.
I get it, lady. You really, really don't like Will MacAvoy. Perhaps his rant on America not being the greatest country in the world was just a tad too on the nose. I don't know. But instead of labeling something you don't like as dangerous porn, why don't you just say "I don't like it?"
obiwen,

I think your term "comfort food TV" is a good one, especially in reference to 24. I was a huge 24 fan.

But I think the biggest difference here is that 24 never pretended to do anything other than be good television. It wasn't until the 7th season that there was much of anything resembling political commentary on 24. Most importantly, 24, despite its attempts to substitute technical whizbangedry with realism, never EVER interacted directly with recent events. Jack, Tony and the rest of the crew never, for example, went to go stop another attack by Timothy McVeigh after he broke out of prison.

You're entitled to think my comparison is overstated... that's fine.

But I think your example is not what I'm talking about.
Two other quick things --

1.) I actually LIKE Jeff Daniels' McAvoy character. He's full of himself, but lovably so, IMO. Kind of like a more blunt Frasier Crane. My problem is not with the one character, but with the whole tone of the show. His rant in the beginning was, in many ways, spot-on.

2.) I'm a dude.
I'm truly sorry about getting your gender wrong. I took a leap on a name I had never seen before.
It's not the first time Sorkin has taken on real-life events in his work. I did not watch "The West Wing," but I recall an episode making the news because it was, essentially, a dialogue about a real-life event that had just happened. I don't remember the event, because it was a while ago, but it was vintage Sorkin, like this show is. He used a real event as a chance for his characters to speecify and reflect his views. Like he's always done.
On "Studio 60," a show I also was mostly a fan of (enough to own it), his characters, who were on a comedy show, spent one episode brokering some kind of hostage negotiations with a soldier in, was it Afghanistan? I can't remember the details, I do remember it was ridiculous. And very Sorkin.
Duh! The "event" was Sept. 11!!!!
i thought the dialog was actually enough to get me through two episodes, but the character dev is mild. the first 8 minutes of the pilot is as good as this will get.
Undoubtedly Sorkin has written something smug, elitist, and altogether condescending: it is also unapologetically idealist, and for that reason a prophetic, counter-intuitive show I love. The Zeitgeist, from zombie apocalypse to mob boss mayors, is now dominantly dystopian. Dragons fill our screens and novels, but nowhere do we see - a la Chesteron - that dragons can be killed. Call Sorkin a naive, arrogant, idealist: it's probably true. But thank God for Sorkin actually believing in something, saying "we can be better" when the resonant message is we are worse, things are worse, than we ever imagined, and we are destined for collapse. Idealism of whatever sort should not be easily dismissed amidst that fatalism. It is precious as a drop of water in our cultural desert. Sorkin has the boldness to move beyond diagnosis, an audacity we can disagree with, be annoyed by, but at least he's made something we *can* disagree with. Call it porn, if you like, but then I stand with the pornographers of naive, arrogant idealism.
Sorry it's taken me this long to get back to this response, but I have to say... I love this comment. And I think I agree with the nut of what you have to say, that Sorkin's unflagging idealism is part of the appeal. And to that I say -- you bet. Without it, there's no hope. I applaud that.

I just wish it could be grounded in something more realistic. Like, maybe this is unfair of me to say -- well, okay, I'll admit -- it's TOTALLY unfair of me to say this since I've seen nothing but the pilot.

I don't think it would take much for this show to be much, MUCH better, and I think it would begin and end with the attitude evinced by McAvoy and Sam Waterston's character (can't remember the name) admitting that maybe Making A Difference is a bit harder than just Deciding to Do So (so much of what rankled me, in fact, about the pilot was the title... what, like no one ever decided to try to make excellent, populace serving TV before?).

 

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