Listen to Jaime discuss why critics are coming down hard on Sorkin’s new show, and why HBO fans will still tune in, despite the negative reviews.
I’ll have a bit more to say about The Newsroom later (not the real The Newsroom, that Jeff Daniels show with the same name). The show has gotten a lot of negative reviews, starting with this barn-burner from Emily Nussbaum and Maureen Ryan’s more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger review. I expect the second season to start off with Will (Jeff Daniels) haranguing an evil Philistine TV critic for an hour.
In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter whether a show gets good reviews at first or not – TV networks need media coverage and attention, and reviews are part of that, but it’s hard to know how much reviews help or hurt. But I think this may be a case where HBO could have gotten better reviews if it didn’t have a policy of sending out several episodes at once. The pilot has a lot of good material in it, though it seems more like the first act of a Sorkin play than the first episode of a TV series. But the third and fourth episodes really turned off a lot of reviewers. In the end, as I said, it doesn’t exactly matter, and the multiple-episode packages help shows more often than not. (For example, Girls would not have gotten as many good reviews based solely on the pilot. It was a more appealing show once you’d seen a few episodes). It’s just a possible explanation of why this show is getting rougher reviews than Studio 60, where critics were only given the first two episodes. Even though the second episode had this as a warning sign of where things were headed.
Sorkin is also getting flak for his decision to set the show a couple of years in the past, so his idealized news crew can cover real news stories. Sometimes this does come close to exploiting real-life tragedies. (All of Sorkin’s shows are influenced by M*A*S*H, and one episode uses a tragedy the way M*A*S*H used incoming wounded: when the characters are consumed by personal problems and there’s no way to resolve it, just have Radar walk in and say there’s incoming wounded. This reminds us that the characters are heroically dedicated to their jobs, no matter how petty they may have acted throughout the episode.) But I do think it’s an idea that makes sense, at least compared to the alternative. This is a show specifically about the way news is covered, and making up fake news stories for the characters to cover would result in a lot of stories that don’t seem believable. (Network got around this by mostly avoiding specific news stories in favour of generalities about the political and social climate of the era; it didn’t need to make up that many fake stories. But this show, if it were set in 2012, would need to make up several fake stories per episode.) Besides, the theme of the show is that this is how the real news media should have covered the news in an ideal world; it makes sense to have them take real stories and show how they should have been done.
Does this actually work? As I said, I’ll come back to that later, but I will note something odd about Sorkin’s world – even though it doesn’t seem so odd now that we’re used to his style. It’s a surprisingly conflict-free world. Yes, there’s lots of shouting and pushing and disagreement, but The Newsroom doesn’t really have a regular character who seriously questions the goals of Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, and by extension, Sorkin. There’s some pushback from the network over alienating viewers and conservative Congressman that the parent company has to work with. But a real philosophical conflict we don’t have, not even a Frank Burns type of strawman to be humiliated constantly. Everyone knows that this is the best type of news show to do, and the differences are over tactics.
In some ways, that fits in with the political philosophy of the show, which may also be the political philosophy most prevalent in show business: a belief that if the public were better informed, and the extremists were less empowered by misinformation, we could get beyond the extremes of left and right and get things done. That’s why the lead character is a moderate Republican. There are more moderate Republicans on scripted television than there are left in the U.S. Congress, and that’s because many Hollywood liberals don’t think of themselves as doctrinaire liberals. (Mass-market show business, as I’ve said before, is an inherently centrist business, where you spend a lot of your time trying to make sure that you don’t alienate anyone who might potentially like your work. It’s hard to do that every day and consider yourself a hard-core partisan.) There’s a deep longing in show business for a past era of moderate Republicanism and bipartisanship, a classic example being this 2004 Kung Fu Monkey post. The idea of The Newsroom, so far, is the idea that animates most Hollywood writing on politics: what we dismiss as Hollywood liberalism is just (from Hollywood liberals’ point of view, I mean) old-fashioned common sense. This may be why Hollywood political shows tend to seem unaware that there are legitimate, deep-rooted political disagreements, and instead blame everything on the partisanship of a few.
But The Newsroom isn’t just a political fantasy; it’s also a workplace fantasy. Most workplace shows are fantasies: they offer an office setting that is problematic, or tough, but always more fun than an actual workplace. The Newsroom offers the dream atmosphere from a TV writer’s point of view – everyone is committed to the same goal, there’s a benevolent old executive who stands between you and the corporate higher-ups, and you’re able to make the ideal show, free from network notes and the necessity to dumb things down for the lowest common denominator. In a way, the show makes the most sense as an expression of what writers like Sorkin believe about television in general: that it’s been dumbed down by reality shows and network notes, and that it can be great again if we leave the creative people alone to do what they do best. Think of it as HBO’s parable about the secret of its success.