Why Do Viewers—And Critics—Love to Hate ‘The Newsroom’?

RTX11JHU
From left, Aaron Sorkin, creator and executive producer, and actors Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston, Olivia Munn and Dev Patel at the Season 2 premiere of “The Newsroom” in Hollywood on July 10, 2013. Fred Prouser/Reuters

This is something that Neil Sampat could tell you without even gazing up from his air-gapped computer, but if you search on UrbanDictionary.com for the term hatewatch (v.t., “watching a TV show or movie that you hate because you hate it”), the lone example provided is Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom.

"Hey, why do you watch every episode of The Newsroom if you think it's so bad?"

"I'm hate-watching it, hoping it achieves self-awareness."

Television viewers do not hate-watch Modern Family or The Big Bang Theory, two blandly humorous but popular programs that drifted into irrelevance a few seasons ago. Viewers do not hate-watch The Walking Dead, even though most of us look 10 times more haggard after one night at a KOA campground than Rick and the gang. Viewers do hate-watch the New York Jets, but can you blame them?

However, viewers, and particularly television critics, have been hate-watching The Newsroom since it first aired on June 24, 2012. After last Sunday’s episode, which featured the death of a central character and just happened to be datelined June 24, 2013, the Web was deluged with screeds denouncing not only the show but its creator. The vitriol, however, had little to do with the fatal heart attack suffered by Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and more to do with a campus rape subplot.

Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post called The Newsroomthe worst prestige show on television.” Eric Thurm of Grantland led with “I come to bury Aaron Sorkin, not to praise him,” before informing us that the episode may make it impossible for Thurm “to take anything [Sorkin] writes or has written seriously ever again.” Yes, THE Eric Thurm penned that sentiment.

Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker devoted 11 paragraphs to the rape subplot while arguing that she’d “love to see a show wrestle with these issues in a meaningful way.” You have to wonder if Nussbaum appreciates the irony of that.

The show’s most popular offscreen character, referenced in both its first and final episodes and many betwixt, is Don Quixote. Sorkin has fashioned The Newsroom’s protagonist, ACN anchor Will McAvoy, and hence himself, as the delusional knight on a “mission to civilize.” Ironically, and this is something that Sorkin has conceded, that quest has been quixotic.

In fact, in last week’s episode, Sorkin basically invents a dialogue between himself and the series’ plethora of hate-watchers.

“Your mission to civilize, how’s that going?” McAvoy’s cell mate (a hallucination of McAvoy’s alcoholic, blue-collar dad) asks.

“Not well,” McAvoy concedes.

“I don’t want to see you get your ass kicked,” the cell mate says. “No, I lied. I totally want to see you get your ass kicked.”

Since its very first scene (the series finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO), The Newsroom has swung for the fences and outraged critics. While taking part in a media panel at Northwestern University, our protagonist, McAvoy, is roused from his career slumber by a question posed from a comely sophomore. Too, he is roused by another figure in the audience holding up a card and prodding him to answer candidly. What follows is a polemic that provides McAvoy’s—and one might presume, Sorkin’s—perspective on how far the United States has wandered from its ideals.

McAvoy’s rant went viral in the series, as it has in actuality (more than 1.4 million views on YouTube). Of course, if you watch that scene, you’ll hear McAvoy spout an astounding number of geopolitical statistics off the top of his head, a feat that strains credibility. But critics at the time did not decry McAvoy’s statistical savantism. What they had a problem with is the idea of a main character longing for the days of what another, apparently out-of-touch news anchor once dubbed “the greatest generation.”

(One wonders how long Archie Bunker would have survived in the age of the Internet and Twitter. Those were the days.)

As James Poniezowik of Time wrote that first summer, “The Newsroom needs to be reviewed two ways: as a drama and as an editorial. Its chief problem as a drama is that, well, it’s an editorial.”

And its chief problem as an editorial is that, well, Sorkin’s characters’ politics fail to dovetail with those of many reviewers. And so, because many reviewers happen not to see eye to eye with the characters and, hence, Sorkin, they refer to the show as “smug” or “self-serving.”

Why do television critics loathe this show so much yet tune in so religiously? Why do they hate-watch it? First, because it takes place in their sphere and thus they are more attuned to, and hypersensitive about, how these roles are portrayed. This is solely anecdotal testimony from someone who has spent a quarter-century in journalism, but journalists are some of the more thin-skinned folks you will ever meet. (“Don’t make us look bad,” a well-known sports anchor once admonished as I prepped a profile on him and his crew.)

Second, and related to the above factor, they are far more attuned to fanciful leaps in a plot at the expense of realism. Before playing Skinner, ACN’s news director, Waterston portrayed a Manhattan assistant district attorney whose closing arguments were to criminal trials what Interstellar is to NASA.

And yet nobody hate-watched Law & Order.

Just as nobody hate-watched House despite the liberties it took with the practice of medicine. The difference is that most physicians have neither the time nor the inclination to write 2,000 words on the bad medicine being practiced at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.

As critics, we are far more attuned to a drama erring in our own field of expertise. It may be why, as a sportswriter, I railed when earlier this season the deputy attorney general confided to McAvoy that he’d attended Texas A&M on a football scholarship and “lost to Nebraska four years in a row.” Texas A&M and Nebraska have never played each other four years in a row (and I’d love to see The Newsroom wrestle with the splintering of the Big 12 in a meaningful way).

This year’s Emmy Award winner for Best Drama Series was Breaking Bad, a series whose protagonist was far more callous to the deleterious effects of crystal meth abuse than Don Keefer was to rape last Sunday. But, perhaps because more TV critics have direct familiarity with the horrors of sexual assault than they do with the epidemic of drug abuse in a flyover state, Vince Gilligan was never excoriated for this.

Through six seasons of Breaking Bad, which I also loved, we the audience are asked to suspend disbelief that Mr. White’s brother-in-law, one of the top-ranking DEA agents in New Mexico, is too thick to discern that Walter is Heisenberg, the mythic meth kingpin of I-25. It’s almost more believable that Wilbur was the only one who ever heard Mr. Ed speak.

And yet, if Sorkin imagines a scenario in which, as happened last Sunday, a male news producer balks at the prospect of putting a possible rape victim on camera, both Sorkin and the character are flayed far worse than anyone on Game of Thrones.

“You’re not legally obliged to presume innocence,” a Princeton student, Mary, tells the producer, Don Keefer, after disclosing that she has been raped (Sorkin’s script leaves just enough ambiguity to make her allegations, at the very least, legally difficult to prove). And the fact that this episode happened to air following the week of the Rolling Stone campus rape story fiasco, as well as Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston’s statement about what transpired between him and his rape accuser, only made it more emotionally charged. 

“I believe I’m morally obligated,” Keefer says.

And with that the Internet exploded. Why? Because Keefer was one of the few characters on The Newsroom whom members of the Fourth Estate both liked and respected, whom they were rooting for and imagined themselves to be. And so never mind whether Keefer was or was not being authentic; let’s grab the pitchforks because in that moment, he did not say or do what we as responsible journalists would have.

In its third and final season The Newsroom has become far more self-aware, with Sorkin indirectly addressing criticisms of both context and content. Maggie Jordan, apprised that she just contradicted herself by giving a monologue about the superfluousness of monologues, retorts, “Everyone does where I work.” In Sunday’s series finale, Sorkin, who has often been criticized for being chauvinistic in his treatment of female characters, devotes a scene or two to gender equality in the workplace.

The olive branch has been extended somewhat, but few on the other side of the chasm are reaching for it. An artist has an obligation to create characters who are authentic (i.e., true to themselves). Not true to whom we believe they should be. With The Newsroom, Sorkin created a slew of such characters, even if a few of them may occasionally come across as self-righteous or obsolescent.

Me, I’m going to miss The Newsroom intensely when it signs off (and I’m truly hoping that Sampat returns from Venezuela with footage of Bigfoot roaming the Amazon jungle). For this member of “the East Coast elite,” The Newsroom is far from a hate-watch. It is a love-watch, as in “I love watching it.”

There is no entry on Urban Dictionary for “lovewatch.” This does not surprise me. Nor, I imagine, would it surprise Will McAvoy.