I have now been caught in the ninth circle of Hell. When the bad reviews came out about The Newsroom I couldn’t believe how harsh the critics, especially The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, had treated Sorkin. One even called for Sorkin’s Oscar to be revoked after watching the show. I quickly wrote up how the backlash was inevitable, how anxious journalists were to finally knock Sorkin down from his pedestal. But I was wrong. Nussbaum and others had a right to complain. Not only is the show clumsy, badly written, badly acted, self-righteous, and deserving of all of the complaints the critics lobbed upon it, but in the final analysis, it is so hateful to women it has altered my whole opinion of Sorkin as a writer and as a thinker. I never thought that would happen; I have followed his career with the same adoring eyes as Mackenzie has done for Will. I have called him the best writer in film. He could do no wrong with me. Until he finally did.
The first episode of The Newsroom wasn’t that bad. It was actually good. We were hearing things that had never been said about our dysfunctional relationship with corporate news as entertainment. No better person to tell those things to us than Mr. Sorkin, someone who seems, at first glance, to be of high moral ideals, especially when it comes to speaking the truth and doing the right thing. This is just one of the things about Sorkin that makes him such a great person. The dialogue seemed up to snuff, considering how good Sorkin is with creating the kind of memorable lines that elevated The Social Network — those lines have been brewing in my head since I first saw the film.
How could the reviews be right, I wondered. How could this Aaron Sorkin be the same Aaron Sorkin who wrote A Few Good Men and The West Wing and The Social Network? Even The American President had wonderful dialogue and a strong female character who was, okay fine, dating fodder, but she also was a lobbyist for the environment and someone who actually cared about her President being a standup guy. She was an accoutrement, perhaps, but she was at least a somewhat intelligent one. The West Wing and even Studio 60 had, for the most part, well written characters — females who were more than just boner fodder.
But The Newsroom is so bad that I too have begun to wonder whether his female characters were really well written or were they just played well by better actors who made them good? Would MacKenzie, for instance, be a better character if she were played by someone harder, someone whose tone and attitude didn’t match the syrupy dialogue? Is it Mortimer’s fault or Sorkin’s?
Does it even matter who’s fault it is? Badly written characters, whether they are male or female, bring the whole show down. Sorkin et al are asking us to admire people who don’t deserve to be admired. And it’s asking us to disregard those we do think matter. The men are not interesting enough to deserve the affections of interesting women. They are worse than not interesting enough, two of them are assholes outright. That the women are interested in them at all immediately lowers our opinion of those women. Therefore, there aren’t many characters to admire, defend or like in The Newsroom at all. We don’t care whether they get together or not. We only want someone to get a pie in the face, repeatedly, until their obnoxious, self-righteous behavior is toned down.
The first episode made me think, wow, what got stuck up critics’ collective asses? Here is Will as realized by Jeff Daniels, telling it like it is. We deserve to be put in our place because our country and the news machine it has birthed is beyond repugnant. Who better than Aaron Sorkin to right the wrongs in the media the way he righted the wrongs in the White House? But the key difference is that The West Wing wasn’t only about romantic entanglements with politics being a side issue. It took a while for those entanglements to emerge.
I was especially resistant to Nussbaum’s review because I thought it sounded too personal. But the critics had the advantage of being four episodes in. It turned out to be tremendous advantage because The Newsroom finally shits the bed on Episode 4. Maybe it gets better, maybe it doesn’t, but the critics, I must eat crow and say, were dead on.