“We all know that there were critics who did not enjoy the first four episodes” of “The Newsroom,” that show’s creator Aaron Sorkin, said, “and there were critics that did. Obviously, you’d prefer that the praise be unanimous.”
Sorkin was, of course, saying this in front of a roomful of television critics at the TCA press tour. Many fell into one of the categories he described or the other, while others (myself included) seem to enjoy parts of the show and not others.
But because much of the criticism of the series has been so vehement (including some by me), there was a lot of anticipation about how the show’s press tour panel – featuring Sorkin, star Jeff Daniels and director Alan Poul – would go. Would it be a trainwreck like the “2 Broke Girls” session in January, where producer Michael Patrick King sparred with critics over the show’s depiction of minorities? Would Sorkin come in and charm the pants off of us? Would critics who have objected to (among other things) the show’s depiction of its female characters, its clumsy attempts at romantic comedy, and its 20/20 hindsight view of both politics and the newsmedia’s coverage of it, be able to convince Sorkin of the error of his ways? Or would it, like so many previous would-be press tour bloodbaths, turn out to be a whole lot of nothing?
Ultimately, it turned out to be a stalemate. The critics repeated their issues with the series, Sorkin stated his defenses of them, and it became clear that many of us simply don’t see the show the same way he does.
By far the most frequent complaint about the show involves the way Sorkin writes for the female characters, who seem (to some of us) more emotional, more unstable and less competent than the men.
“I completely respect that opinion, but I 100 percent disagree with it,” Sorkin insisted. “I think the female characters on the show are every bit the equals of the men.”
He rattled off a list of positive character traits established early on about the women – note that the one for Maggie was that she stayed with the show out of loyalty to Will (so her best trait is that she did a good thing for the main male character) – and argued that if he sets it up early on that these are good people who are good at their jobs, “you can have them slip on as many banana peels as you want.”
I noted that, with Mackenzie, she had been introduced as incredibly competent, and since then had been slipping on banana peels left and right, always screwing up and always having to apologize to Will for her screw-ups.
“I disagree that all she does is apologize to Will,” Sorkin said. “I think Jeff would disagree, too.”
As an example of an episode that doesn’t involve her apologizing to Will, he cited the series’ fourth episode. I countered that Mackenzie does, in fact, apologize to Will in the episode’s climactic scene, and Sorkin pivoted his argument.
“She’s talking about cheating on Will,” he said, “not ‘I’m sorry I did something bad in the newsroom.’ She’s talking about something that’s worth apologizing for… That’s not slipping on a banana peel. That’s something more serious than that.”
Another critic brought up the lack of symmetry in the show’s portrayal of the male and female characters, and how the mistakes the men make tend to be done out of integrity, whereas the women make mistakes because they’re flightier, or more shallow, or just plain not as smart as the men. Again, Sorkin disagreed.
“We present Will’s mission to civilize as something,” he said in response to her example, “that people roll their eyes at, and that always blows up in his face. Hubris on this show is always punished.”
When another critic asked about the decision to use real-life events from the recent past, Sorkin said, “I’ll tell you one reason I did not do it. I did not do it so I could leverage hindsight into making our characters smarter at stuff. I know from time to time it seemed that way, (but) it’s actually not what happens.” He insisted that whenever his characters get something right that some reporters in real life screwed up, “there’s never a time when someone else didn’t do it right, too.”
Sorkin unsurprisingly dominated the discussion (as he does whether his shows are critically-beloved or not), and Daniels at one point even began an answer by saying, “One of the things I like about Aaron’s writing, and then I’ll shut up…” But eventually questions about the response to the show were turned towards him.
“I completely get why you do what you do,” Daniels told the room. “God bless you. But you don’t do it for me, and you never have. It took me a long time as an actor to stop reading you.” When he was finally done speaking, he turned to Sorkin and Poul and asked, “Did I just offend all of them?”
(And to that, I’d say he only offended any critic who for some reason is under the impression their primary mission is to provide creative notes for the actors, writers, executives, etc. The only smart way to approach this job is to give an honest reaction to the work to your audience: to say, “I watched this, and this is what I thought, and why.” Anything beyond that is the same kind of hubris for which characters on “The Newsroom” are punished.)
Poul also briefly got to talk, particularly in response to a question about what about the real TV news business needs fixing, noting that the media in the 21st century too often races to be first rather than to be right. And in the middle of the session, Sorkin interrupted the traditional Q&A to respond to a story that he insisted was an example of the mistakes made in that race.
“A couple of weeks ago, an unsourced and untrue story appeared on the Internet that then got repeated all over the place,” he said. “The writing staff was not fired, okay?” He added that while every show makes creative changes between seasons, and that there were “staffing changes,” but others were retained, and two of his writers assistants had been promoted to full-time writing jobs.
(Of course, being a “writer” on an Aaron Sorkin show is different from being a writer on, say, “Breaking Bad.” Sorkin views the writers as researchers, and he either writes the scripts entirely on his own, or on occasion works with a partner whom he then heavily rewrites.)
Sorkin was asked at one point whether, in hindsight, he would have changed anything about this first season. He noted that in the HBO model, the entire season was completed before the first episode had aired, and that, “even if you’re tempted to write a little bit differently to please the people and change someone’s mind, you can’t do it.”
But the upshot of what was a largely polite, if pointed, session suggested that the second season also wouldn’t be significantly altered. Sorkin writes how he writes, and he sees the show how he sees it. And enough people agree with his view that HBO gladly ordered that second season.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com