A funny thing is happening with HBO’s “Newsroom.” Critics, by and large, are skewering Aaron Sorkin’s new show, while viewers — specifically, Sorkin fans — are eating it up. This obviously isn’t sitting well with critics, who don’t like it when smart audiences don’t agree with their reviews. One critic, Scott Meslow with The Atlantic, is coming to the defense of critics by essentially suggesting that the reason viewers like “The Newsroom” OVER THE ANGRY PROTESTATION OF CRITICS is because we’re easy to please, easily manipulated Sorkin fanboys that just don’t know any better.
Why have viewers responded so defensively to critical attacks on The Newsroom? Because Sorkin’s work is the equivalent of an overzealous grade-school teacher: It makes viewers feel special. Sorkin has built a career on TV comfort food, setting up straw men and letting his jaded-but-noble protagonists knock them down. There’s nothing wrong with comfort food; The West Wing thrived for years on noble, hyper-articulate speeches by Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet, a “president we can all agree on.” … Dan Rather’s review of The Newsroom opens with the line, “any television program that has its main characters quoting Cervantes can’t be all bad.” That’s Sorkin—and the majority of his defenders—in a nutshell.
You know what? Piss off, Meslow. You cannot reduce everyone who likes “Newsroom” to eager school kids lapping up Sorkinese like dumb, misguided pooches. It takes more than a smart pop-culture reference or a literary allusion to make us feel “special.” Besides, what the hell does this guy have against overzealous school teachers? Did he just take a crap on educators?
Why is Meslow being so defensive about viewers defensiveness to the critics? It’d be easy to chalk it up to the fact that — as part of the media — he and other critics are taking offense to Sorkin’s characterization of the current state of journalism in “Newsroom.” Meslow is quick to dismiss that criticism, and I think he’s right. That’s not what’s a play.
What is at play is that most critics exist in an echo chamber of their own voices: They help to form and validate each other’s opinions. Follow a few television critics on Twitter, and you’ll find that most of their interactions are with other critics. Their notion of a “smart” television viewer is their colleagues, and not the educated people who respond to “overzealous school teachers” or the other smart but not ultra-critical viewers who make up the large percentage HBO viewers. Critics get upset when audiences don’t think like a critic, failing to recognize that even smart audiences often have different standards and look for different things that what a critic looks for.
Moreover, it’s not that hard to find some fault with any show, and because this show is about journalists, they’re closer to the subject material, and therefore, it’s easier for them to find things wrong with it. “SORKIN DOESN’T KNOW WHAT HE’S TALKING ABOUT. OUR DESKS DON’T LOOK LIKE THAT AT ALL.” It’s like asking someone in the military to weigh in on a war movie: Of course they’re going to have a stronger opinion, and of course they’re going to be quicker to find fault. The difference is, most soldiers aren’t writing reviews about war movies, while journalists in this case are writing reviews about a show that criticizes their very profession. It’s not as important to the average viewer that the layout of the newsroom is as exact is it is in reality or that Sorkin didn’t get every single goddamn detail right on the BP Oil spill. The average intelligent HBO viewer’s standard isn’t as high and exacting: We just want to be entertained with smart writing, and the ability to quote Cervantes does put Sorkin ahead of 90 percent of the rest of the writers on television.
Sure, Sorkin is smug and sanctimonious, but he always has been. The problem with “Newsroom” is not that he’s talking down to his audience. He’s talking down to the media, and that’s what’s pissing them off. The rest of us? Maybe we just like to see a drunk sass-mouthing Sam Waterston and Olivia Munn in a role that doesn’t make us hate her.