How HBO Made It Look Like Critics Liked ‘The Newsroom’, by Jeff Bercovici
Critical reception of “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series set in the TV news business, has been generally cool. On Metacritic.com, which averages out reviews from all over, its score is a distinctly mediocre 57. Even those critics who’ve embraced it have generally done so with considerable caveats.
You wouldn’t know that from ads HBO has been running to promote it, though. A two-pager that ran in last week’s edition of The Hollywood Reporter, among other places, quotes breathless-sounding praise from The New York Times, Time and Salon, among two dozen outlets. Yet all three of the reviews those blurbs were drawn from were distinctly negative.
The quote from the Times, bannered atop the full width of the spread, reads: “Wit, sophistication and manic energy…A magical way with words…a lot of charm.”
Times TV critical Alessandra Stanley did write those words. But she also wrote, “[A]t its worst, the show chokes on its own sanctimony,” said it “ suffers from the same flaw that it decries on real cable shows on MSNBC or Fox News” and called the show’s central structural conceit “probably a mistake.”
Time’s James Poniewozik, summarizing his views on “The Newsroom” for non-subscribers, flatly declared, “I was not a fan.” Yet the ad makes it sound like he was, burbling, “The pacing is electric…captures the excitement.”
Salon’s Willa Paskin is quoted in the ad calling “The Newsroom” “captivating, riveting, rousing.” Here’s what she actually wrote: “The results are a captivating, riveting, rousing, condescending, smug, infuriating mixture, a potent potion that advertises itself as intelligence-enhancing but is actually just crazy-making.”
Then there’s Paste’s Aaron Channon, who supposedly called the show “remarkable…intelligent.” Here’s a more representative sampling of his review: “Compared to the standard established during the past several years by HBO and AMC, early returns on The Newsroom are disappointing.”
A scandal this is not. Movie studios have been doing this sort of thing, and getting called out for it, for decades. And, to be fair, a number of the reviews quoted in the ad are genuine raves.
But twisting slams to make them sound favorable is not something HBO has done much of in the past, or needed to, with most of its shows becoming instant critical darlings. The last new HBO series to fare this poorly with critics was the short-lived “John From Cincinnati,” which got a composite score of 51 on Metacritic.
Aw, Jeff, you had the fish, but you let it off the hook. Why, baby, why? Remember what Alvin Sergeant and Lillian Hellman say in JULIA: “Be bold!”