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Critic's Notebook: 'Newsroom' backlash piles up for Aaron Sorkin

The vitriol surrounding Sorkin and his new HBO drama highlights the tricky territory a successful writer teeters on when he becomes both medium and message.

June 26, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Aaron Sorkin at the 68th Golden Globe Awards in 2011.
Aaron Sorkin at the 68th Golden Globe Awards in 2011. (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

What HBO and creator Aaron Sorkin hoped would be a smart, provocative drama has become an unintentional piece of performance art.

That's the only way to explain the strangely vitriolic response to his new show,"The Newsroom,"which premiered Sunday night to a round of mixed to splutteringly negative reviews. Many critics, including this one, objected to Sorkin's decision to sacrifice the quality of the narrative in order to hit certain talking points — mostly about the state of journalism, the state of politics and the vicious dumbing down of American culture.

Instead of the medium being the message, the message smothered the medium in, some of us thought, an unnecessarily sanctimonious way.

It's always upsetting when a highly anticipated show doesn't live up to expectations, but what followed the debut of "The Newsroom" also included oddly personal attacks on Sorkin, which, ironically, managed to make at least one of his points more effectively than his show did: That our unfortunate cultural habit of building 'em up only to break 'em down often passes for news and legitimate criticism.

Like his main character Will McAvoy, Sorkin found himself on the receiving end of reactions out of proportion to his alleged "crime." Gawker had a field day: A video illustrated Sorkin's habit of relying on certain phrases (some of which could have been pulled from any film or TV show), Drew Magary deconstructed "The Newsroom" by way of a certainly regrettable interview and, in what may have been the most damning bit, Dan Rather came to Sorkin's defense (Rather reviewing a television show being, at best, a cultural oddity).

"Is Sorkin's show a flop?" asked Newsweek a mere 48 hours after the show's first airing.

Part of this is simply the high-wire game Sorkin plays. If you are going to create a heroic main character who thinks the word "blog" is a pejorative and talks smart to stupid, you are going to get blowback, particularly from the Internet.

Another part of the reaction may be frustration. Surely with a little more empathy and focus, "The Newsroom" could have been instantly great, the show we'd all hoped for. Some of it may also be from taking on the media, which then returned the favor. (The dig that the program did not accurately depict the television news business should be beside the point — if we demanded that of other workplace dramas, hits like "ER,""Grey's Anatomy,""House,"or virtually any cop/detective show, wouldn't exist.)

Still, the intensity of the criticism aimed directly at Sorkin proves in part what he is trying to deconstruct in "The Newsroom." Hence, performance art.

Sorkin certainly has been complicit in his rise to the sort of celebrity that receives strongly worded attention — he is outspoken and charismatic, with a checkered personal past that includes a public drug bust. His voice is distinct and discernible in almost everything he writes; in many ways, he's the Bette Davis of his profession: same tone, same stance, different wig.

But if the head-over-heels reception for much of his work, including just two years ago the very Sorkian "The Social Network," is any indication, it's a tone and stance many people love. Just not this time.

Perhaps because this time, he didn't bother dressing it up. "The Newsroom" plays a bit like "Aaron Sorkin Unleashed," and suddenly he's not the young up-and-comer who wrote the endlessly quoted "You can't handle the truth." Now, he's the lone resident of his own ivory habitat, smug and arrogant.

A more dispassionate reading might consider instead the danger of a writer — especially one who so clearly desires to shape national discourse — becoming a successful brand. As is pointed out repeatedly in "The Newsroom," the primary concern of a successful brand is maintenance, not growth. And in any creative field, "maintenance" is synonymous with stagnation.

No matter what happens with the show's good opening ratings, or Sorkin's future (no doubt he will be just fine), it is worth noting that the writer, like his main character, became both his own medium and message, and it wasn't very pretty.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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