HBO at the TCA press tour: Aaron Sorkin among the masses

HBO at the TCA press tour: Aaron Sorkin among the masses

Let’s try a thought experiment: If The Newsroom had aired on TNT, would it have gotten nearly as vicious of reviews as it did? I’m not saying the show would have been positively reviewed there—most critics of the show (including myself) have far too fundamental of problems with the series—but part of the reason the series has seemed like Aaron Sorkin’s weekly screwball tribute to cognitive dissonance is because it airs on HBO. Outside of a few swears, the show is something that would fit comfortably on a broadcast network (like NBC, former home of The West Wing and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip). Its plotting is conventional to a fault. Its characters are starry-eyed idealists with personal issues here and there, but personal issues that don’t stand in the way of the good work that must be done. And the show clearly telegraphs which characters you’re meant to like and which you’re meant to dislike.

In our minds, though, HBO’s supposed to be above all of that. It’s supposed to be pushing the medium forward and trying new things, taking aim at the edges of the medium and stretching the envelope as far as it can go. It’s not supposed to be airing shows that would fit just as easily on basic cable, and it’s not supposed to air shows so… blatantly idealistic, even romantic, in their visions. Turning on HBO and seeing The Newsroom immediately after True Blood (an often bad show, but at least an unmistakably HBO show) feels almost like the channel is regressing into itself. And ending the network’s three-hour session at the Television Critics Association summer press tour—a session that also included plenty of talk from the network’s executives about their upcoming product, a look at the upcoming (and hard-hitting) made-for-TV movie The Girl, the ultra-personal new biodoc Ethel, and Cinemax’s surprisingly innovative action drama Hunted—felt even more like the network was trying to sneak one past critics.

Yet, of course, this session was seen by many as what might be the highlight of the tour. Aaron Sorkin himself was coming to talk to critics for the first time in ages, and he was going to try to answer their criticisms of the show. What actually happened was closer to an “agree to disagree” moment. The critics would list one of their problems with the show, from weak female characters to the weird conceit of reporting on news from the recent past, then Sorkin would say he didn’t see it that way and outline his vision of how the series was meant to work. It wasn’t a particularly contentious session—outside of a few small moments—but it also wasn’t terribly illuminating. It was as if Sorkin and his defenders were watching one show, and all of those disappointed by it were watching an entirely different one.

Sorkin, who appeared visibly nervous at times, gave his best answer when asked to defend the practice of having his fictional newsroom seem to cover stories better than real-life newsrooms. While he brushed past the fact that the big “break” the newsroom gets in the pilot is entirely coincidental and would never actually happen, he did say that in subsequent episodes, the fictional characters never once do something that real-life newsrooms didn’t also do. For instance: The characters on the show decide not to report that Gabby Giffords has died until they receive confirmation and are rewarded for their efforts. While many 24-hour newsrooms made the opposite call on the day Congresswoman Giffords was shot, several others didn’t, and Sorkin could point to that as a real-life example of what he was talking about. In other words, Sorkin doesn’t believe he’s lecturing viewers on how the news “should” have been covered. He’s trying to point to actual, real-life good examples. (And if the trailer for future episodes shown is any indication, this is all going to get pushed aside in favor of covering the Casey Anthony trial anyway, in what appears to be a major story arc.)

Almost two-thirds of the session, however, was devoted to Sorkin attempting to defend his female characters and doing a fairly poor job of it. He said his guiding principle for creating all characters was setting them up as competent professionals, then letting them “slip on banana peels” for humorous effect. When pressed repeatedly on how the female characters on the show have done very little to be set up as competent professionals (one of the few contentious moments occurred when a critic spoke over Sorkin to correct him when he said the character of Mackenzie—who apologizes profusely for a past indiscretion in a relationship for no real reason—didn’t apologize in the show’s fourth episode), Sorkin simply kept listing all of the ways he thought he had depicted them as such, methods the critics often found reductive and patronizing. Sorkin’s list included things like the character of Maggie sticking with the fictional news show because of loyalty to anchor Will (Jeff Daniels, who was at the panel but rarely spoke). But Sorkin’s list almost always included how the women’s actions on the show were filtered through men or reflected on men.

It also spoke to that disconnect between HBO and the Sorkin-verse. When Sorkin wants to let you know that somebody is good at something, you’re told about it far more than you’re shown that fact. It’s an offshoot of how he came up as a playwright, someone who wrote for a medium that doesn’t allow for a lot of visual storytelling. (Sorkin said earlier in the session that he felt writing plays was the one thing he knew how to do, after saying he didn’t know a thing about running a TV news show or managing a baseball team or starting Facebook.) Sorkin will almost always choose words—and repeated words—over pictures. The problem is that HBO has trained viewers to expect a certain amount of visual savvy, a degree of understanding that not every plot point will be underlined in red ink, as Sorkin is fond of doing. Sorkin’s told us that Mackenzie’s a brave woman who produced the news from a war zone, but he hasn’t really shown us displaying those nerves of steel, outside of maybe a fleeting instance here or there. Instead, she mostly seems to crumble apart when it comes to her ex-boyfriend. Sorkin tells and tells and tells. HBO shows and shows and shows. The disparity seems wider and wider the more you think about it and even worse when you consider that BBC America paneled The Hour, a show that does basically everything The Newsroom wants to do and does it much better, earlier in the day.

When pressed by another critic on how all Will did in one episode was correct women for their mistaken impressions—he called it a “mission to civilize”—Daniels attempted to deflect by saying that maybe that wasn’t a failing of Sorkin’s writing but a failing of Will the character. (Daniels also went on a rather long discussion of how little he cared about criticism as an actor, which mostly made sense—reading criticism can get in your head when you’re trying to act—but also seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the reason criticism exists in the first place.) Again, the conflict between HBO—home of morally complicated antiheroes who do very bad things for often mysterious and intriguing reasons—and Sorkin—creator of not terribly complicated heroes who do occasional bad things but are always meant to be seen as noble—played out. On network, maybe Will gets the benefit of the doubt (though his behavior in the earlier episode would still have been seen as obnoxious). On HBO, it just seems as if all subtlety has been traded in for constant lecturing and an unpleasant man who finds women, the Internet generation, and technology in general beneath him who’s supposed to be at least marginally sympathetic because someone once cheated on him, and his heart is sort of in the right place.

That’s the ultimate problem here. The Newsroom is about an idealistic vision of the American workplace that will hopefully inspire us all to try a little harder and be a little better. Yet TV critics expect that to be true of HBO in general. It can’t just be a very good television network. It can’t even be the best network on American television (as it almost always is). It has to be perfect. When HBO makes missteps, it feels worse than when, say, Showtime makes them. When Showtime makes them, it’s just a network biting off more than it can chew. When HBO makes mistakes, it’s like an idol being shown to have feet of clay. This may be entirely too much importance to place on a TV network, but HBO often feels like the only network out there still fighting the fight for challenging and interesting television, at least now that FX has hitched its wagon to Charlie Sheen.

The day opened with that executive session, and there were a number of exciting announcements, including Girls (which turns out to be the most-watched show on HBO Go, surprisingly) and Enlightened taking the place of the sadly departed Luck in the January slot, the first time HBO has tried comedies instead of dramas in that time slot in ages. There was also confirmation of that Larry David movie and the announcement of a new biodoc about the Rolling Stones, with the full cooperation of the band, as well as talk of the network’s upcoming True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey (which sounds like great fun). When talk turned to The Corrections—the much vaunted novel adaptation that HBO ultimately passed on—executives Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo praised the pilot’s production and acting, while saying they had to make the hard choice to not pick it up. The unspoken subtext: It just wasn’t good enough for us. Yet The Newsroom seems to fly in the face of this. Even if you think it’s great television, it’s such… typical television, a show that seems as if it could exist anywhere at any time.

To paraphrase a guy who wrote some really great plays, we count on Plepler and Lombardo to keep pushing the boundaries of the medium, even when they fail. We count on them to be up on the wall that separates us from bad or mediocre or typical TV. That wall has to be guarded by people with cancellation buttons. Who's gonna do it? TV critics? No. Of course not. And that, ultimately, is why TV critics seemed so angry about The Newsroom there for a while. It seems inevitable to say it, but it’s not HBO. It’s TV.