Why Don’t I Hate Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’?

The response to Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series The Newsroom has been, as they say, “mixed.” I knew that going in, and yet, I’ve kinda liked it. I see the things that the haters are complaining about, and yeah, I guess they bother me a bit. But I find myself really enjoying the show anyway.

Here are some people who have panned the show:

Here, on the other hand, are some people who enjoyed the show:

Among the people who hate it are several of whom I think pretty highly. In particular, Emily Nussbaum, whose anti-Sorkin views were published in the New Yorker, earned my undying affection when she wrote a love note to Lies.com back in the days of the Winona Ryder trial. So when I called this post, Why Don’t I Hate Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’? I really did mean it as a question. It wasn’t Why I Don’t Hate…

So, why don’t I hate it? I’ve come up with a few theories:

  • I never watched The West Wing, or Sports Night, or any other Sorkin TV shows, so for me the rapid patter and walk-and-talk and smart-sounding people speaking wittily and earnestly to each other haven’t gotten old. Many of those criticizing The Newsroom accuse Sorkin of self-plagiarism; since I don’t know the original material he’s cribbing from, it doesn’t bother me.
  • The sexism and assorted other insensitivities Sorkin is being accused of have tended to go over my head, since (like him) I’m a white, privileged, hetero male. If I were viewing the female characters on the show as stand-ins for myself, rather than as potential romantic interests who (according to detractors) exist mainly to be comically inept, then gaze admiringly at the show’s male characters with tears in their eyes, it probably would bother me more.
  • I’m not a journalist, so I’m less sensitive to the ridiculousness of the over-the-top fantasy Sorkin has constructed. For viewers who are actual journalists, having his characters re-enact recent-past news stories, honing in with preternatural skill on the precise truth that took days to uncover in the real world, comes off as being either laughably unrealistic or insulting or both. But for me it’s not such a big deal. I get that it’s a fantasy, and a morality play, and Sorkin at times is revealing the limits of his own knowledge, in the same way The Social Network (which I did see) occasionally felt like a caricature, given my experience at Internet startups. But I enjoyed it anyway, because the human story was interesting, even if the setting sometimes felt less than completely real.

Reality is great. I love a nice, realistic portrayal on screen. But I also can enjoy a more stylized presentation. I’m a sucker for a big emotional arc, and can forgive a certain corniness in pursuit of it. In his interview with Terry Gross, Sorkin talked about that when Gross asked him about his time in rehab:

SORKIN: …as you mentioned, I got to this place, and there are these, as I call them, fortune cookie sayings on the wall like one day at a time, and, of course, the 12 steps, and that kind of thing. I’m not susceptible to that kind of thing. I have a much narrower mind than I ought to. But it was just going to be 28 days of penance.

What I wanted to be was a, you know, a good patient. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I didn’t want to have to stay extra days. I was going to do whatever they told me to do and do it well so I got out in time. But maybe 10 or 11 days into it, I just really started liking it, and it was really working, and I was just getting it.

And by my 27th of my 28 days, I was saying to my counselor: Are you sure it’s OK for me to go home? I can stay longer, if you want. And he told me to get out.

GROSS: But I’m kind of interested in, like, OK, so you don’t believe in fortune cookie sayings. You’re not susceptible to that stuff, but things like one day at a time took on a meaning for you. Did you learn anything as a writer about that, that things you might dismiss as being cliche, corny, a bromide can actually have meaning, have value?

SORKIN: Yeah. And I think that I – I think that that’s present in so many things that I write, that I will – I mean, I write corny, you know? But I feel like if you can execute corny well enough, you can still strike a chord in people. You’re taking a big swing at the ball. You’re swinging for the fences. So if you miss, you’re going to look bad missing, you know. And a lot of what I write about could be considered fortune-cookie wisdom.

The corny stuff in The Newsroom mostly works for me. For example, I really liked the “Fix You” montage at the end of episode 4. The emotion they went for in that sequence took a big risk. On some level, sure, it felt weird watching Will fist-pumping and exultantly shouting the F-word during coverage of a mass shooting (a queasiness that is even stronger in the aftermath of the Aurora killings). But it worked, at least for me.

The Newsroom often feels like a guilty pleasure, like a show that’s right on the edge of jumping the shark even though it’s only four episodes in. The love triangle between Maggie, Don, and Jim, for example, is so thoroughly evocative of Pam-Roy-Jim from The Office that I can’t help but think it’s intentional. (As does Rainn Wilson, apparently.) The Office didn’t invent that storyline, I realize, but there’s so much about The Newsroom’s version that is so close to it (the way Maggie and Jim are styled to look so much like Pam and Jim; the similarity of the name Jim Harper to Jim Halpert; the almost shot-for-shot fidelity to the earlier show in the sequence when Jim was walking over to comfort the sad Maggie, only to have Don swoop into the shot ahead of him, leaving us to watch Jim watching Don and Maggie in each other’s arms) that I could see myself almost writing it off as too cynical and manipulative to be valid.

Almost. But so far, that feeling hasn’t been able to overcome the crush I’ve had on Alison Pill since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. If a show is going to give me Kim Pine finally having a chance to get the guy, I’m there. Just don’t make me wait too long for the proposal in the rain at the roadside rest stop.

For a more age-appropriate romance for this 50-year-old viewer, I’m also there for the Will/Mackenzie storyline. Like with Maggie/Kim/Pam, I think on some level I’m sucked into wanting to see the “perfect girl” from Notting Hill (another guilty pleasure) finally have her chance.

Anyway, my wife won’t let me talk about The Newsroom anymore, so I gushed here. You might hate it, you might like it, or there might be some of each. If you’ve seen it, I’m curious what you think.

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