THE NEWSROOM: Panned But Still Popular

We're six episodes into Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama, and Mike Moody takes a look at what works and what doesn't.

HBO premiered Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom only six weeks ago, but it feels like I’ve been reading negative reviews and sarcastic tweets about the show for the better part of a year. The critical reactions to Sorkin’s new drama have been overwhelmingly negative, and there’s no shortage of derisive tweets to read about Will McAvoy’s mission to “speak truth to stupid” after every episode on Sunday night.

Despite the army of critics who have panned The Newsroom, whom Sorkin addressed during a reportedly tense panel at the Television Critics Association summer press tour on Wednesday, people are still watching it, writing about it and taking about it. Like, a lot. For a series that most critics and TV nerds seem to loathe, The Newsroom has managed to become wildly popular in those circles over the past several weeks. So what’s the appeal? Why has The Newsroom, a genuine critical flop, permeated the culture so deeply after airing only six episodes? My guess? Because it’s a pretty damn good show. Also, Drunk Sam Waterston is magic.

If you’re watching The Newsroom every week, chances are you kinda like it, even if you claim to hate it. And if you claim to “hate-watch” it, well that’s just bullshit. I rarely have time to watch all the stuff I like every week; I can’t imagine anyone choosing to waste time watching an hour-long scripted show they absolutely hate only so they can feel superior by pointing out its flaws on Twitter. If you’re watching The Newsroom every Sunday, it’s probably because there’s something special about the show that keeps you coming back, and there’s something special about the show that keeps inspiring people to write, tweet and talk about it.

I like The Newsroom. I find myself looking forward to every episode. I’m not the biggest Aaron Sorkin fan. I was lukewarm on Sports Night (sorry), dropped in and out of The West Wing, and I only watched two episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, so I’m not compelled to watch out of some sort of fan obligation. I watch The Newsroom because it’s ambitious, exciting and entertaining. Even when the show sometimes feels like an elaborate forum for Sorkin to plainly air his gripes about media, politics and culture, it exudes more passion and nerve than almost any other scripted drama on TV right now. It’s not a perfect show, but at least it has something to say.

Again, it’s not a perfect show. The Newsroom is a good show with many strengths (strong performances, fantastic dialogue, a strong point of view, Drunk Sam Waterston) and many problems. I agree with some of the major criticisms of the show; it’s often cloying, obvious, unbelievable and borderline smug or self-righteous. But it can also be incredibly engaging, articulate, funny and well intentioned.

Let’s discuss one of the major problems critics seems to have with The Newsroom: Sorkin’s decision to set the drama in the recent past. This narrative decision, the gripers say, allows Sorkin to wag a smug, judgy finger at the major TV news outlets for screwing up the coverage of major real-life news events. Whether or not that’s Sorkin’s aim (he told critics at TCA his intention was to use real stories viewers could relate to, not to “leverage hindsight” or to write a “review of how the news was done”), I can’t say I don’t understand this criticism. Watching fictional characters covering real-life news stories is more than a little odd. It wasn’t easy to get used to Sorkin’s use of magical hindsight to seemingly show us the best and most virtuous way to cover these world-changing events. Still, it’s not a huge problem.

Sure there’s a ridiculous sense of self-righteousness and wish fulfillment playing out when Sorkin’s team of sharp newsies pull together to report the huge stories with the integrity and intelligence the public deserves. It’s easy to call the show sanctimonious, and it sometimes earns that description, but I can appreciate the value of what The Newsroom is arguing (or longing) for – a credible TV news source free of the fake “fair and balanced” screaming heads approach embraced by the cable news networks. How great would it have been to see CNN call out the Tea Party as a corporate-run sham instead of framing the movement’s rise as a Rocky Balboa-esque underdog story?

After watching last week’s episode, I’m convinced The Newsroom is much more than a platform for a sanctimonious Sorkin to preach his gospel to the world. The episode, titled “Bullies,” offered a surprising and absorbing deconstruction of the show’s main character, Will McAvoy, who has been called a Sorkin surrogate. In his well-meaning but foolish mission to “civilize,” or make the world a more respectable place to live, McAvoy often attacks people and institutions he feels are in need of some major course correcting. He appoints himself Judge of All Culture and tends to alienate and hurt the very people he’s trying to protect. By the end of the episode, McAvoy realized he often ends up doing more harm than good. This episode was an incredibly mature and self-aware examination of not only Will McAvoy, but of the concept of hubris itself. During his TCA presentation, Sorkin said of McAvoy: "We present Will's mission to civilize as something people always roll their eyes at and something blows up in his face. Hubris on this show is always punished.” Maybe The Newsroom isn’t trying to tell you it knows better. Maybe it’s trying to tell stories about the fiercely intelligent but deeply flawed people who think they know better.

Another major criticism has less to do with Sorkin’s perceived cultural aspirations for the show and more with the show’s tonal problems and its depiction of women. My pal Joel Keller, who co-hosts the Antenna Free TV podcast, says the non-news aspects of the show can feel like tone-deaf nonsense. I agree that The Newsroom often struggles to balance the drama with the more comedic elements (Oh no, Jim ran into the glass door again! Look out, Mack sent a personal email to the entire company! Wacky yuck yucks, ya’ll! … Oh, hey guys, an offshore oilrig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Let’s go to work), but the committed performances by a stellar cast - especially Jeff Daniels - mostly make up for these tonal issues.

Sorkin defended the show’s portrayal of women at TCA, saying the female characters “are shown being good at their jobs. Caring about something other than yourself or reaching higher or being curious, plainly smart, and great team players, those qualities to me are what define these characters. And once you nail that down you can have them slip on as many banana peels as you want. That’s just comedy.” While I mostly agree with Sorkin’s defense, I wouldn’t mind seeing the scripts dial down the flibbertigibbet-isms that tend to make Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill’s characters seem like ditzy caricatures.

Point is, the show isn’t there yet. And with the recent news that Sorkin canned part of his writing staff, I’m not sure if The Newsroom will ever become as great as it thinks it is. But I’m glad it’s on the air. If there’s a better show to be made about the big issues Sorkin is examining here, chances are it has a much better chance of getting on the air because The Newsroom has helped paved the way.