One point, perhaps the point, of HBO’s The Newsroom is that the media gives you only one side of a story, and rarely the most interesting or useful side at that. Last night The Newsroom aired its series finale, and reactions from the major industry sites, who mostly despise the show, wound up ironically and exactly proving the show’s point: they failed to give this story the analysis it deserves. Who do I mean? Oh, Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, Grantland, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter. As much fun as irony is, let’s see if we can get a little closer to what The Newsroom meant, shall we?
First, the caveats: Aaron Sorkin demanded sole writing credit on all 26 episodes of The Newsroom, a probably-unprecedented power play that serves to undermine the Writers Guild of America and all aspiring TV scribes; as Sorkin well knows, TV writing staffs use their onscreen credits for future work. (Yes, Sorkin had such a staff on The Newsroom; if that’s in question, that’s a damning indictment.) Yes, it was ridiculous for the two names of his two leads to have three “Mac”s between them (Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale) – okay, okay, they’re scrappy Scotch-Irish moralists, we would have realized that with one or two less “Mac”s. Yes, his females could be less caricatures and more characters. What I’m saying is that I accept most of the armchair criticism of Aaron Sorkin as represented by the above and other sites, and by the two viral “Sorkinisms” videos on YouTube. Yes, those are valid. Got it. Now, what else?
I wonder how the press would have treated The Newsroom if it had been called Broadcast News: The Show. Maybe I’m too much of a fan of the 1987 film – I did in fact put its poster on my college dorm-room wall along with 15 quotes from it that I wrote down, typed, printed, and stapled to the poster – but I’ve sometimes wondered if that film’s writer-director, James L. Brooks, might have bothered to give us the TV spinoff we deserved if he wasn’t so busy in his mansion drowning in dollar bills because of executive-producing The Simpsons. Note tall blond sometimes-smart anchorman having complicated romance with short brunet firecracker executive producer. Note Don Keefer’s resemblance to Aaron Altman (where is another tight Jew-fro thirtysomething on TV? The Big Bang Theory? Nope). Note many, many of the same themes – office romance, news integrity, everyone about to be fired, et cetera. I won’t claim that the 26 hours of The Newsroom were quite as uniformly excellent as the 2 ½ hours of Broadcast News, but sometimes 26 hours of a thing like the 2-hour thing you love is a welcome and impressive extension of awesome.
How would the press react differently if they had never heard of Aaron Sorkin? I know why that doesn’t work as what-if: Sorkin wouldn’t have this show if it hadn’t been for his earlier success, and he’s the one who makes his characters sound all Sorkiny. Right. But still, try to imagine Grantland, EW, THR, USA Today, Variety, Vulture, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times or The New York Times writing a review of any episode of The Newsroom that doesn’t include the word “Sorkin.” Those sites’ reviews routinely ignore the showrunners of other shows, like Game of Thrones and The Affair. Can you, dear reader, even name the showrunners of The Good Wife? The critics never do, even when they’re lamenting the fact that the show has just killed one of its leads. (The answer is Michelle King and Robert King.) Asking the press to review The Newsroom without saying “Sorkin!!” is like asking The Wall Street Journal to comment on any current American malady without saying the word “Obama.” Come on, WSJ – try not to say Obama, we dare you! Can you denigrate something in America without a live person to serve as your punching bag? It’s almost like reactions to The Newsroom are ironically teaching us something about the low state of affairs of modern media.
The biggest irony of this final season of The Newsroom had less to do with the “journalists” who “cover” it and more to do with two narratives: the one that the show’s characters live, and the real-life one that reflects our ongoing national affairs. For the first two seasons, the former scrupulously situated itself within the latter, to predictable blandishments from TV critics. For the rest of us, it was interesting and often uniquely rewarding to watch a show other than South Park try to consistently stick a pneumatic tube into the gurgling geyser that is American news and pop culture. (I’m not counting Law and Order’s tabloid mainlining.) The show suggested and promoted an ideal that we should take big events seriously…but yes, exchanges were often awkward and ham-handed. What an irony that in the third season the show, after an opener about the Boston Marathon bombing, almost entirely curtailed its obsession with the zeitgeist…and for the first time, the show uncannily reflected current events happening as the already-produced episodes were airing.
To wit: in real life, The New Republic was taken over by a heady dotcom billionaire, with a lot of new ideas about profitability that sounded less like traditional journalism and more like the crowd-sourcing and listicles we expect from Vox and Buzzfeed and the like. As The New Republic staffers walked out en masse, The Newsroom staffers appeared poised to do something very similar (though they didn’t). More notoriously, last week the Don Keefer character pre-interviewed a college-aged rape victim in her dorm room, asking her not to appear on his network because unverified claims between a rapist and his victim would be exploitative and uncredible. At the same time, in the real world, Rolling Stone magazine apologized for a story about a college-aged rape victim that they sent to press without verifying claims about the rapist.
I was a little struck by TV critics, Emily Nussbaum for one, blaming Sorkin for blaming the victim without giving Sorkin any credit for raising the issue, particularly considering the serendipitous timing. It’s a little too easy for critics like Nussbaum to say, on the one hand, that Sorkin uses his characters as bad soapboxes (i.e., giving pedantic speeches), and then on the other, that Sorkin asks us to identify with his characters. Well, which is it? If he wants us to be them, why do they keep pontificating? The truth is more complicated: like any good dramatist, Sorkin wants juicy arguments about national problems, like the Tom Cruise-Jack Nicholson argument in A Few Good Men and like many of the best scenes on The West Wing. When Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Severin argued about who owns Facebook during the Sorkin-written film The Social Network, I guess I missed the memo where I was obviously supposed to be rooting for one over the other. To me, it was just good drama. And during last week’s Newsroom, I liked the victim’s point: “You say I’m overstepping, but I’m scared all the time. Just once, I want them to be a little scared.” To Sorkin’s many detractors, that counted for nothing, eh?
Aaron Sorkin has often said that he most favors America at midcentury (in today’s New York Times, he calls himself “a screenwriter in Hollywood who’s only two generations removed from probably being blacklisted,”), and perhaps it’s best to understand us admirers of his work as admirers of throwbacks to earlier films, the Stanley Kramer corpus especially, where good, literate people argued with intelligence and concern about pressing national problems, and rarely came up with long-term solutions. Perhaps some critics would feel better if they saw Spencer Tracy delivering some of Will McAvoy’s rants. I know I don’t measure an Aaron Sorkin show with the same yardstick I use for most shows, just like I don’t judge Inherit the Wind or Judgement at Nuremberg or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? the same way I judge most films. It’s not that they’re better, it’s just that they’re obviously and assiduously trying to invoke an ancient, Platonic idea(l) of engaged citizenship, and for that, for me, they deserve both slack and warm appreciation.
In the end, The Newsroom faked out its critics by appearing to be stringently commenting on the early 2010s, or what we might call the present. In fact, the ending of the series finale demonstrated that the show is really about the future – its final shot suggested Sorkin re-assembling the cast to do a quick webisode about a future major, Hurricane Katrina-level event – and the past, meaning re-kindling the flame of A Face in the Crowd (1957), Network (1976), The Mary Tyler Moore Show, CBS with Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and a few other times we were entertained and enlightened by arguments about TV journalism and the all-too-human people we trust for information. Thanks, Aaron Sorkin, for the closest we’ll ever come to Broadcast News: The Show. As Mac said last night, “haters gonna hate,” so keep crossing the line you cross. As Will(iam Hurt) once said, “They just keep moving that sucker back, don’t they?”