I should begin this post with a confession: when it comes to Aaron Sorkin’s works, I am no neutral observer. The West Wing is my favorite television show of all time; The Social Network might just be my favorite movie of all time. I was endlessly pleased by Moneyball and The American President. I even (gasp!) loved Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which was tragically cancelled after just one season of brilliance.
So a few months ago, when Jeff Daniels announced Sorkin’s return to television with a pitch-perfect, Bartlet-eqsue takedown of the insufferable delusion that America is still the greatest nation on Earth, I was practically giddy with excitement. And today, a couple days removed from having actually watched the pilot for the first time, I remain giddily excited. I suspect I will not like The Newsroom as much as I did The West Wing, but the prospect of getting a commercial-free hour of new Sorkin material every week has me thoroughly invigorated.
Unfortunately, it seems that The Internet is not so enamored. Virtually every pop-culture outlet has taken to ripping The Newsroom as little more than delivery system for Aaron Sorkin’s condescension and moral lectures. ”Sanctimonious,” “smug,” “pretentious,” and “elitist” are the watchwords here.
In truth, there’s definitely something to this line of criticism. The central premise of the show (unfortunately misapprehended by nearly every negative reviewer) is that the news media have abdicated their idealized role as purveyors of a Public Good in favor of the easy profits to be had in constructing and selling shallow imitations of reality. This abdication, according to the premise, has had deeply pernicious effects on American democracy: allowing our political culture to be taken over by charlatans and demagogues who distract the country with bullshit while using government to enrich themselves and their allies at the expense of the common good. A necessary condition of this premise is that the American public is complicit in its own destruction: Americans are either too stupid to know what’s going on, too stupid to realize it’s bad, or too apathetic to give a shit either way. They are children who long ago fed their broccoli to the dog and are now subsisting on ice cream and lollipops. This is an elitist worldview, and Will McAvoy’s professed “mission to civilize” the country by reversing the above trends certainly has the unmistakable air of patrimony.
But this commentary at the heart of the show isn’t what’s driving the criticism. No, the charges of smugness and sanctimony and preachiness seem to have very little to do with the substance of the show’s criticism. Instead, critics seem to be mad about…well, I’m not really sure. For some it’s the earnestness or “idealism” of the characters, for some it’s the fact that from time to time they give what amount to speeches, for some it’s merely the fact that the characters use big words and make references to literature and the theater. In other words, The Newsroom is smug and sanctimonious because it was written by Aaron Sorkin.
Color me shocked.
No, seriously. Anyone who follows Internet pop culture yammering at all (and I say this with confidence because I follow Internet pop culture yammering very little) could have predicted how the early reviews for The Newsroom would go, because calling Aaron Sorkin a smug, sanctimonious elitist has been in vogue ever since Sorkin had the temerity to try to reclaim to word “elite” at the Golden Globes last year. For example, check out this column from Grantland’s Tara Ariano, entitled “Aaron Sorkin Is Already Getting a Little Obnoxious About the Steve Jobs Movie He’s Writing.”
On his upcoming HBO series, The Newsroom: “The stuff that I write doesn’t work very well as background music.”
Take that, less ambitious TV writers whose work only requires half their viewers’ attention! What hacks!
“I try to write what I like, and what my friends like, and then cross my fingers and hope that it’s good enough for me to earn a living.”
Residuals from his various films and TV series aside, the Oscar probably helps keep him solvent. Furthermore, someone who’s worried about where his next paycheck is coming from probably wouldn’t be so mad about his union.
“Anytime you’re at the movies and you see the words ‘The following is based on a true story,’ you should think about it as a painting, not a photograph.”
That line feels pretty carefully polished for a statement that’s so fundamentally obvious.
“I really fell in love with the phonetic sound of intelligence.”
Some might say that really intelligent people don’t require repetitive 500-word sentences to get their points across. But sure.
“I can’t judge this character [Steve Jobs]. He has to be, for me, a hero. … To put it as simply as possible, you want to write the character like they are making their case to God, why they should be let into heaven.”
If this is really what defines Sorkin’s concept of his characters, then it’s even harder to account for the smug goons that populated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
I mean, putting aside Ariano’s rather poor attempts at a snarky riff, do these quotes really even qualify as obnoxious? Maybe as an Ivy League New York/San Francisco fart sniffer I’m out of touch with what rubs the rabble the wrong way, but none of this registers as particularly objectionable to me. No matter though. This column was from May of this year; by that point the “Everything Aaron Sorkin Says is Super Smug” meme was firmly embedded in the zeitgeist. No matter what Sorkin said in that interview – and, returning to the point, no matter what The Newsroom‘s pilot looked like – he was going to be reacted to the same way.
This the problem with a lot of commentary these days, and not just in the realm of popular culture. Prejudging The Newsroom because it was written by Aaron Sorkin is fairly trivial, but that’s certainly not where it ends.
Barack Obama supports this policy? Must be socialist.
News reporter said something I disagree with? Must be biased.
Supreme Court ruling I don’t like? Must be judicial activism.
These sort of zero-content snap judgments are everywhere in media and politics. Perhaps the best example came this morning when CNN and Fox both reported that the individual mandate had been struck down before they had even finished reading the synopsis of the Court’s decision; as soon as they saw that the individual mandate wasn’t acceptable under the Commerce Clause, they stopped reading and ran with it. CNN did issue a correction, but the mentality that caused their error is cheapening discourse everywhere on every issue.
I wonder what Aaron Sorkin would have to say about that.