Unlike the TV critics, I have not received screeners of the first four episodes; I have seen the first episode of The Newsroom only. So perhaps this denial of the common analysis will become completely nullified, perhaps not.
The major issue that the critics have taken with The Newsroom is that Will McAvoy is presented as a white knight who refuses to speak in buzz words and logical fallacy. Granted, it does seem a bit ridiculous for a soothsayer to predict the past. But the real monster that the critics are after is, of course, Sorkin. ‘He’s too far off the leash and his ego is unstoppable.’ ‘It is not Will who wants to be the voice of reason but the talented Aaron Sorkin.’ ‘These characters are all puppets for Sorkin’s moral stances that came on a two year delay.’
This is unfair. We have a problem with not separating the implied author from the flesh-and-blood author in television and movies. If a fictional text were released with the characters drawing these hard lines in the sand, we would give them the benefit of the doubt. ‘Did the character say that or did the author say that?’ But because these characters are portrayed by flesh-and-blood people, we make the association that the dialogue is from the flesh-and-blood author. It’s an easy mistake to make because the medium presents it to us as real. It’s as though a part of our brains says, ‘Why go to this length of production if you, the writer, are not going to make a point?’ Novels raise questions; TV must answer them.
Sorkin is experiencing the brunt of the critiques not because his show is too pedantic, at least in this episode, but because of all his trademark successes and especially his failures. He’s the rousing speech guy. He’s the ‘let me wittily show you your own conflated logic’ guy (ex: Social Network, Moneyball, A Few Good Men, etc.) It’s a rare style of great impact, but the style itself will always hearken back to Sorkin; the salient points are accredited outside the show and the misguided notions serve as the focal point of the show. For these reasons, Will McAvoy never had a chance. It’s not Jeff Daniels who has been typecast; it’s the character he portrays. We have expectations of his character because of the flesh-and-blood author who feeds him his lines. As Daniels’ jaw gears into action, we picture Sorkin in a dark room with a Luxo lamp cackling at a computer in delight.
Sans Sorkin, let’s look at Will McAvoy in Episode 1. He is a moderate-turned-furious news reporter following a rant/breakdown/’vertigo meds failure’ who, after much deliberation, agrees that this will be the new direction of the news. No more softness for ratings sake (as though that were an actual thing). He’s a jerk to his staff. He deflects the concerns of others with such zest that it makes forgetting Sorkin impossible. He has a point-of-no-return relationship with the woman whom is brought on to EP. An acceptable assessment is that he is a dynamic character in an intriguing scenario.
But no, the story cannot be about that. It has to be about Sorkin exorcising his TV demons. This show has to succeed because Sports Night and Studio 60, both of behind-the-production ilk, did not. He has something to prove to us, is what the consensus is. If he cannot make this work, well, he’s a terrific writer who can’t make a news show to save his life because we say so, regardless of the deck being stacked against him. The firing squad turns the crank of the Howlitzer mostly on the show’s decision to take place in 2010, ignoring that, if a journalist wanted to discuss the long-term effects of the BP oil spill today, it would seem bad taste to ping what that person had to say on the grounds of being a little late to the party.
At the very least, what Sorkin has to say is grounded in what happened. Is it better for the show to take place in 2012, where every rant will seem like a politically charged opinion rather than an indictment? It all depends on where Sorkin takes us rhetorically in 2010, but the decision to place the show post facto was the right one. We don’t need speculations into Obamacare or whether Romney is a Mormon devil of deregulated capitalism. We need to look back and revisit the hypocrisy of the media. We need to realize why mistakes were made at the unfortunate cost of this program pretending to be the bastion of truth. The idea is not ‘look at how wise we were not to immediately confirm Gabrielle Gifford’s death’, it’s ‘look at the decision making that goes into tabling a story that is effectively making your news program irrelevant’. Sorkin does have an ego; that doesn’t mean it can’t be the latter. (Again, haven’t seen the Gifford episode, but the critics have a steadfast refusal to see this angle.) Sure, it puts Sorkin in the untouchable area of criticism. Boo hoo. The same gripe could be made about Jon Stewart, a satirist tilling against the watchdogs who cannot be held accountable principally because of his unique position of comedy.
I look forward to seeing the next episodes and saying, “Well, I was wrong. Sorkin really made that opportunity FUBAR”. But at least then we will be hating him for the right reasons.