The Anti-Cynic Club: How The Newsroom Sets Itself Apart from Other Shows
I’ve made no secret that I’m a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin and of The Newsroom. I’ll save you all a recap of the season and say this: I think the show is incredibly well-written, well-performed, and speaks to important issues that don’t get enough attention in our popular culture, particularly in our popular fictions. I also think Sorkin shows accurate portrayals of difficult romantic relationships between smart professionals with little or no time to develop social skills. I’d recommend The Newsroom to anyone who likes good writing, good direction, and the trials and tribulations of people who are passionate about their lives, careers, and country. That said, I’ve got a beef—and it isn’t with the show.
It’s been some weeks now since I’ve written about Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but the show’s second season ended last weekend and it’s time to wrap up what I’ve started. Part of the reason for my absence was the beginning of law school; another important part, though, was that the last few episodes brought audiences the payoff Sorkin began to set up with this season’s premiere. Reviewers of the show have been talking about these moments all season and the execution of the writing and performance of them remained at a high level, so there seemed little to talk about. Occasionally, I checked to see what the rest of the Internet community thought and, while most commentators are less than full-throated in their support of Sorkin’s work, there seemed to be general agreement that this season was much better than the last and was, in itself, a wonderful work of TV drama.
Then came the finale.
Within hours of the show’s airing, the results were in, but with little consensus. TV Fanatic loved it, a little too gushingly for even my taste. Indiewire was much nicer to the show this season than last year and wrote probably the best review I’ve read in terms of word-skill, but found the season-long Genoa plot-arc “ridiculous” and “[un]timely” because it didn’t track the current conversation about chemical weapons in Syria, despite being set and filmed long before the issue had reached its current household status. The Daily Beast repeated a familiar criticism from last year (in a generally well-balanced review): the show is too smart and there are love stories that make me cringe. Film School Rejects anchored the blanket-hate end of the spectrum, bemoaning both the fact that The Newsroom is a TV show and what the characters on that TV show do. Everyone agreed, though, on two things: First, Thomas Sadoski’s performance as Don Keefer remains a high point for the show; second, Sorkin is a great writer but he has a tendency to engage in either pedantic wanking or cheeseball sentiment.
And herein lies the beef: At least two writers referenced Breaking Bad in their season-two wrap-ups. I’ve also seen The Newsroom noted as a show with the potential—but not the execution—to be a show on par with Mad Men or The Wire. Above all, Sorkin’s latest work is compared to his earlier efforts: most often, his semi-recent Oscar-winning The Social Network and The West Wing, the NBC White House drama he created and wrote for four seasons. My problem isn’t the comparisons; compare-and-contrast is part of writing about entertainment in a landscape with many options. My problem is with the critics’ failure (or refusal) to recognize that there are no shows like this one on television—and that most of those that were made in the past had the same head writer.
Forget the quality of the writing or acting for a minute, as neither Sorkin nor his cast has a monopoly on talent. The Newsroom is singular in its desire to go forth and commit inspiring acts upon the land. Not since The Twilight Zone has there been a more ideological, idealistic use of television fiction. Rod Serling took the American mundane on a trip to the absurd in order to impart his disapproval of the status quo. While his work may be seen as cynical in the contemporary sense, the contrapositive of any social critique so artfully wrought is that there is a way our society could or should be—at the very least, that we could do a better job being humans to one another. Sorkin writes that into each of his shows. Take the most common criticisms of his worldview—too smart, too earnest, too romantic, too fanciful—and then picture their contrapositive: a world of ignorant, apathetic robots interested only in self-preservation, without the ability or inclination to love or imagine their way out of a paper bag. In other words, the majority of the inhabitants of The Twilight Zone. I say “the majority” because Serling usually included one outlier, a naïvely honorable lamb to be sacrificed to the monstrous world he’d written around them. In Sorkin’s world, there is no lone monster to act as a foil, but it’s there by implication in each character that gets cajoled or corrected by what The Newsroom referred to as a quixotic “mission to civilize.” It’s the “other” so many of Sorkin’s characters refer to when they admonish a friend: “Don’t talk to me like I’m other people.” It’s the sins and mistakes of people who lose sight of the big picture in favor of themselves—which, throughout his work, seems to be the (forgivable) sin Sorkin fixates on the most.
The shows The Newsroom is measured against are all well-made and engaging for their own reasons, but in a sense, they aren’t new to TV, they’re just really good TV. Multilayered thematic arcs, anti-hero responses to tropes like suburban life or the police procedural genre—these are shows we already know, they’re just done better on The Wire than they were on Homicide, and ditto Game of Thrones to Rome, Breaking Bad to Weeds, and Twin Peaks to… the episodes of Twin Peaks after you find out who the killer is. The individual stories they follow may be unique, but the shows themselves—again, while skillfully executed—don’t break new ground, at least not for me. Aaron Sorkin’s shows have always been among my favorites because they take the mundane and exalt it and inform it with a passionate idealism about our everyday lives that simply doesn’t happen anywhere else on television. Other shows take you to lives and worlds that are far different from your own, and sometimes so masterfully that they transport you into a world you could never have imagined. In contrast, Sorkin’s The Newsroom takes an experience a large swath of American culture can recognize as similar to the place they just watched on cable or just rushed out of last Friday at 4:57pm, and holds it up—real life, your life, potentially—as something stunted and frustrating and imperfect but worthy of doing and worth the effort it takes to do it well. And while there are many ways a Sorkin office doesn’t resemble your office, those other shows don’t match their own realities either. The important distinction here, for me, is not that the show is accurate, though I think it often is—it’s the aspirational qualities that set it apart from the rest of television, that it is so unapologetic in its attempts to inspire and yet so complicated in the ways it gets there. And while the Internet’s mileage may always vary, I think it’s important that we note and appreciate when a creative work is unique, instead of criticizing its failure to be something else.Close