When I saw the persuasive bad reviews from Emily Nussbaum and Willa Paskin, I knew I was probably going to have to watch The Newsroom so I could judge for myself. And yet, as a longtime Sorikn-on-TV detractor, as more critics expressed doubts about the Newsroom I saw the potential for a Phantom Menace effect here — that is, a follow-up taking more criticism its deserved from critics who overrated the previous one even though the follow-up was if anything a modest improvement. As hard as it is to believe, the now almost universally (and correctly!) derided Studio 60 got rapturous reviews when it premiered. So, hey, maybe it would be a little better than I expected — while insanely overrated, after all, The West Wing was OK at its best. And Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterston — how unwatchable can that cast be?
Any optimism I had has dashed after the first scene of episode 1. As you may know, even if you haven’t seen it yet, it starts out with the newsman hero played by Jeff Daniels being annoyed by the wingnut to his right and the moderate Democrat to his left with whom he agrees about pretty much everything but is a Democrat and therefore uncool, and then going into a tirade when provoked by a silly question from a “sorority sister” (more about this in a bit.) One scene in, and we already have almost everything that makes this show so far an utter catastrophe:
- If self-plagiarism was a crime, Sorkin would be doing 25-to-life. This is the second straight show Sorkin has started by having a character go off on a hackneyed Peter Finch-in-Network style rant/manifesto. So you won’t be surprised to learn that the character Sorkin will be speaking through is yet another fantasy liberal Republican, who will make the moderate contrarian Democratic cliches Sorkin favors seem more…proactive. And, yes, he will have had a complex yet uninteresting romantic backstory with the new producer. And you’d better believe that the basic structure of covering slightly stale current events leads to plenty of Sorkin’s trademark, people reading B+ junior high school civics essays to each other. Admittedly, the problem here is not so much that Sorkin is repeating himself as that none of these ideas was even worth doing once.
- The only thing worse than relentless didacticism is bad didacticism. A fundamental problem of Studio 60 was that the premise of the show was that the returning writer/producers were cutting-edge comic geniuses, which was problematic given that the sketches these writers produced were both painfully unfunny and about as cutting-edge as Marmaduke. With The Newsroom, the problem is even worse. When your characters keep insisting on the brilliance of the central character the basic structure of the show also insists on — so much better than the airhead beauty pageant contestants and “sorority sisters” the great man is forced to deal with —he’d better be saying intelligent things. Instead, the opening tirade is the worst kind of Tom Friedman-style middlebrow horseshit. America is no longer #1, you see — not like in the Good Old Days of apartheid and women finishing 3rd in their classes at Stanford Law and being considered unfit for anything but secretarial work. And if we’re going to get back to the era of Joe McCarthy and Jim Crow when America really was great, we’re going to need a competent middlebrow newscast, dammit. If you replaced Daniels with Jeffrey Tambor, this scene could be the premise for a much better show — a deliciously mean sendup of a vacuous, narcissistic centrist pundit. But it’s apparently meant to be taken straight.
In other words, the bad ideas and the disastrous aesthetic choices have interactive effects that make them more annoying. The role of the hero broadcaster is to “speak truth to stupid,” and that certainly seems to be how Sorkin sees his job. He doesn’t take the slightest chance that the audience will miss something he’s already spoonfed it several times. It’s not enough that Sorkin gives is two African-American characters — one whose only role is to be an uninteresting Obama critic, one whose only role is to respond by defending Obama uninterestingly — he had the hero tell you this about these one-dimensional characters in advance. A cell phone mishap is telegraphed far in advance like an 80s sitcom. And the misogyny! Our would-be hero has no idea if the questioner is a “sorority sister” (which he means pejoratively), but it’s just some college chick asking the Great Man a silly question, and she certainly can’t expect to get any respect. The women he works with, who a re frequently hysterical ninnies, fare little better.
David Denby’s defense of the show implies that people just can’t handle the intelligence and wit, which is certainly getting the message. But smart and witty is precisely what the show is not. As Nussbaum says:
Sorkin is often presented as one of the auteurs of modern television, an innovator and an original voice. But he’s more logically placed in a school of showrunners who favor patterspeak, point-counterpoint, and dialogue-driven tributes to the era of screwball romance. Some of this banter is intelligent; just as often, however, it’s artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter…Sorkin is supposed to be on a different level from his peers: longer words, worldlier topics. And many viewers clearly buy into this idea: years after Sorkin’s terrible, fascinating “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was cancelled, I still occasionally run into someone who insists that Americans were just too stupid to get it.
As Dan Rather might put it, that dog won’t hunt. Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV. The shows’ air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what’s inside—all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, “The Newsroom” treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid. Characters describe events we’ve just witnessed.