The guy has some serious guts. • That's my measured critical analysis after seeing Aaron Sorkin face down a roomful of cranky TV critics in a press conference last week about his new series The Newsroom. • HBO, which has seemed nervous about the massive critical backlash against the show since before it debuted, tried to cancel this session, scheduled for the end of a long day of press conferences about upcoming cable programs. • But Sorkin, mensch that he is, insisted otherwise.
"I don't want to have an adversarial relationship with the press," he told journalists at the annual Television Critics Association summer press tour. "I get that there are people who don't like the show and are writing honestly about it. But I don't want to have that adversarial feeling. I've always had a great relationship with the TCA and I want to continue doing that."
After a cordial, wide-ranging debate with critics, it was obvious the accomplished writer is sticking to his critical guns. Mostly, he was unwilling to accept the criticism from others that women on the show universally act emotionally messy and worship the show's men; the male characters' flaws are more often seen as heroic; the show's characters are smarter than almost any actual working journalists (they figured out the BP oil spill in 15 minutes).
Instead, Sorkin insisted the female characters are shown as being competent at their jobs, setting a strong foundation for the characters that allows them to occasionally slip on a "banana peel" of a situation. (All this critic can say after watching the first four episodes is, there sure are a lot of banana peels lying around this particular TV newsroom.)
Of course, as Sorkin said this, he was on a stage with two other folks from the show, no women included.
"The television in your home is kind of an extension of the dinner table," noted the Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter, adding that the show's 10 episodes are finished, so there's no way to tweak them, anyhow. "It's in your home … (and) we're bringing up subjects that are sort of impolite to talk about with strangers. There was bound to be that kind of division. I don't wish to be a rabble rouser — I prefer to be liked. But these are important subjects. And on Monday morning, if people are talking about them, that's a good thing."
Series star Jeff Daniels, who plays egocentric cable news anchor Will McAvoy, backed Sorkin on his I-can't-care-about-critics perspective.
"It took me a long time as an actor to stop reading you," Daniels told the roomful of critics, adding that praise or criticism held him back in equal measure. "There's nothing you can tell me that will help me."
The message was obvious, if delivered politely: We're not changing The Newsroom to suit what you critics want. But thanks for talking about us.
Which is too bad. Because I'm convinced one reason some TV critics are so passionate about The Newsroom is that they can sense this is a good show that should be a great show. And too many Sorkinist stumbles are keeping it from getting there.
Sorkin, 51, dropped some other knowledge: The show's second season will debut in June 2013, and likely will include storylines relating to the election season we're experiencing right now. And, a news story insisting that his writing staff was fired — and that one of them was an ex-girlfriend — is not true and scared staffers so much they were actually nice to him. ("I want the old gang back," Sorkin said, wryly.)
One thing he almost-sorta-kinda admitted was that he needs help fleshing out the conservative point of view on the show. McAvoy, who is supposed to be a closet conservative, seems to agree with his liberal co-workers (and creator) in a way that mostly seems like a liberal fantasy. Storylines about taking on the tea party movement have felt a lot like GOP-bashing in disguise.
Sorkin acknowledged he has hired several consultants to help with the next season's stories.
"I'm hiring some really bright, interesting, conservative minds that will help me bolster some conservative arguments," he said. "Generally, when I'm asking someone … on the staff for an opinion, I would say, 'Tell me what you think and tell me what the really smart person in the room who disagrees with you is going to say.' Now I have that really smart person in the room, too."
And what does he think about the press now that he has been the subject of some harshly critical reviews, along with one news story so inaccurate he corrected it from the stage?
"Incredibly, the show is a big hit in China," he said. "I'll be honest with you, I didn't know they got HBO in China. There's a Twitter frenzy about the show in China that's entirely different than the Twitter frenzy here.
"What they can't get over, when they see the show, is a free press. They're seeing what a free press looks like (and) they can't believe it. So when I read that, I remember that a free press is maybe what makes America the greatest country in the world."