About ten minutes into Newsroom I realized I wasn’t going to be able to have any sort of valuable opinion on it if I didn’t take off my Sorkinology Ph.D. glasses. Because the thing is, watching it in the context of his ouevre, there’s no way to win. And believe me, I will write the snarky critical post. It is coming tomorrow, because I can’t not. There is SO MUCH TO SNARK. But this is the honest review post.
I’ve been a Sorkin fan since 1998, when Sports Night dropped. Actually, if we’re going to be technical, I’ve been a Sorkin fan since I first saw A Few Good Men. That came out in 1992, and I’ve seen it probably ten times. The American President came out in 1995, and I don’t know when I first saw it but I’ve seen it probably fifty times since. I’m not sure when my love for his varied works coalesced into the realization that hey, all this shit I like keeps getting written by the same guy, but at some point it did, and with the exception of Malice I’ve now seen everything he’s ever written, most of it twice or more.
But it’s not 1998 anymore. Sports Night was fantastic and the first four seasons of The West Wing are among the greatest television ever produced, but Sorkin’s last scripted venture, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was an often ugly journey into his id wherein he pilloried everyone who’d ever hurt him on-screen. It was cancelled after one season, due largely to being unfunny and insulting to anyone who doesn’t live in New York or Los Angeles (see: the suggestion that Columbus, OH is equivalent to a mud hut in the woods). Since then – that was 2007 – Sorkin has stuck to screen adaptations, writing an Oscar nominee (Moneyball), an Oscar winner (The Social Network) and a very good political film (Charlie Wilson’s War). But networks haven’t seemed too excited to give him another chance at television after he so spectacularly imploded on the last one.
Then the trailers for The Newsroom started hitting. I, along with the rest of the internet, watched them, and was shocked to see how bad it looked. I mean bad. It didn’t look funny. The performances looked wooden. Basically, it looked like Sports Night and West Wing had been put in a blender, had all their joy surgically removed, been recast with less skilled actors, and had a few fucks added for good measure. (This is, after all, HBO.) With its Sunday June 24th premiere, the bad press has been spinning especially quickly over the last few days. Here are the things I read prior to tonight’s viewing.
The Pretentious Condescension of ‘The Newsroom’ by Alyssa Rosenberg
The Loquacious ‘Newsroom’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates (see also the extended discussion in the comments)
How to get under Aaron Sorkin’s skin (and also, how to high-five properly) by Sarah Nicole Prickett of the Toronto Globe & Mail
gyzym’s open letter to Aaron Sorkin
And last but not least, A Supercut Of Recycled Aaron Sorkin Dialogue put together by Brian Feldman of Buzzfeed
So I was ready. I was prepped to hate it. It looked bad and, to top it off, Aaron Sorkin called Prickett “internet girl” in his interview with her (just in case we’d forgotten that he hates the internet). Internet girl! Girl! She’s a grown-ass lady with a job, you ass clown!
Then I watched it. And here’s the thing, okay? Yes, Will McAvoy’s rebuttal to “why is America the greatest country in the world” is largely based on historical fictions. Yes, the show is sexist (Sorkin has long suffered from a deplorable case of sexism). Yes, most of the characters are Sorkin Types that longtime fans like myself can identify across his corpus (more on this to come). But the man can still fucking write. He’s still funny (he’s always been best at being funny by a long shot). And he’s still – and I hate myself a little for this – fucking inspiring.
Sorkin thinks that what he’s good at is holding up a mirror to society and showing us where we’re going wrong. He’s not actually good at that; for my money, he never really has been. He also thinks he’s good at reminding us how great our institutions used to be and could be again. He only appears good at this insofar as he viciously doctors history to suit his fantasies (see: that monologue from the beginning of Newsroom). What he’s good at – what made West Wing not just entertaining, but powerful – is in pulling from the bizarre patchwork we call “American values” things that could be truly good, and highlighting them in a way that makes you want to see them through. I started watching West Wing during the Bush administration, and it was one of the first things that made me begin to believe again in what my country could be. Newsroom is patchy, but there are more than a few moments (McAvoy’s initial monologue notwithstanding) that stirred me like that again. Sorkin imagines a better America, he tells you about it, and he makes you want to strive for it. That’s pretty rare.
A lot of the criticism of Newsroom has focused on how completely fantastical its depiction of tv news is. For one, there is in point of fact good news coverage happening right now on the television, as anyone who’s seen ten minutes of Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes – or, hell, any Colbert or Stewart monologue – can attest to. For another, the internet is a thing that exists. And it’s true that in Sorkin’s mind, he’s writing a show about redeeming journalism from the fetid pit into which it has fallen. But while that’s most likely the show he’s writing, that is not the show I watched. Redemption has long been Sorkin’s absolute favorite theme, and what I’m seeing is not actually a show about The Redemption of Television News. What I saw was The Redemption of Will McAvoy. Sorkin has consistently been most on his game, most artful and lovely, when he writes smaller human stories than when he writes Epic Sweeping Cultural Indictments, and insofar as this show is about one man getting his shit together for the first time in awhile, I can get behind that.
So there you have it. I liked Newsroom. It’s not great. It’s got problems – both patented Sorkinproblems and its own problems – and we’ll discuss them tomorrow. And as I wrote this I became increasingly sure that enjoying the show as I have requires sort of ignoring what Sorkin’s trying to do and watching what I feel is actually getting done. But it’s funny, and it’s exhilarating in the way that redemption narratives can be, and it made me believe in America a little bit. I’m on board.