I have yet to read a single review of The Newsroom that doesn’t reveal as much or more about the character of the reviewer as it does about the show itself. Although there are many (many) sins of television making of which I could accuse Aaron Sorkin, uncomplicated is not one of them.
What the hullabaloo reveals is a cultural conversation many of us are having right now, yearning for intelligence in news. Sorkin takes that conversation (not a new revelation by any means) and runs with it – and apparently (despite mixed reviews) popularly enough to garner a second season.
The show itself is not dissimilar from The West Wing: while I would never accuse Sorkin of not believing all the things he says (and he says a lot of things), he certainly has opportunistic timing in choosing the subjects of his shows. Then again, it may be the only context in which his particular brand of self-righteous, Shakespearean oratory can really soar.
Sorkin has an innate tempo, not just to his words, but to his structure. In this how-to on writing, he even technically talks about the musical structure of his diatribes (I mean, monologues), and jumping from show to show of his is eerily akin to watching a concert of symphonies by the same composer.
The question that every Sorkin show asks of its reviewer is not, then whether the show is “good” – composition-wise, the dialogue is always pretty strong – but whether the topic of the show merits the symphonic grandiosity his words bring. After all, Rachmaninoff is not the Rolling Stones, and to pretend otherwise would make fools out of both.
There has been a mixed response to The Newsroom because this question is not as easy to answer as it was with The West Wing. Of course we all want leaders who spout statistics and burst out on impassioned rants about fixing the world, of course we want principled, righteous, intelligent people of all stripes running our country.
The jury is out about whether those same characters (essentially), when placed in a newsroom, become egomaniacs whose idea of their own importance is so blindingly overblown that they really believe they are the only people capable of reporting the news to America (see Season 1, Episode 9, MacKenzie’s long speech after the power goes out).
The show’s conceit of reporting on past news stories is another millstone around its neck: it comes across as Sorkin saying to every news network in America that his network would have reported more nobly on events, had it been real.
Well, hindsight is 20/20, and while I am never going to jump to the immediate defense of either FOX, CNN or MSNBC, I appreciate that they make difficult decisions every day, which would certainly be easier if they also knew the outcome of the news stories ahead of time (as Sorkin’s newsroom does).
West Wing operated in a different world – partially out of necessity, since (to all of our great chagrin) Josiah Bartlet was not, in fact, president.. The Newsroom’s challenge, which ultimately may be its downfall, is taking on the real world and idealizing what has already happened –a strange breed of wishful nostalgia about what-might-have-been-but-wasn’t.
To me, this is entirely different than West Wing, which was about what-still-could-and-should-be, perhaps a better conversation to be having about both government and the media.