After Fox’s TCA panel for “The Mindy Project,” I spoke with Chris Messina in the scrum about one of his other TV series that is a world away in both content and channel lineup: “Newsroom.”
“I was shocked at some of the early response,” said Messina about the negative reception of the skein by critics. Indeed, once screeners hit the desk of journalists across the nation, once the series bowed on HBO, the internet lit up with a cacophony of harsh remarks and misgivings about the dramedy’s writing and storytelling. Sorkin took hits left and right in both short tweets and long form essays. Journalists treated “Newsroom” like a train wreck they could not turn away from.
I follow primarily fellow journalists on Twitter and watched tweet after tweet (some being my own) flow down my feed criticizing the skein. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the “Newsroom” hashtag link when it was trending during the days after the show’s premiere. Upon scanning the feed, I was, like Messina, surprised by what I saw — but for a different reason.
When not filtered, the Twitter feed revealed how broader audiences received “Newsroom.” The verdict? Profound love and respect for the show. Dialogue and soliloquies dubbed “preachy” by journalists were warmly embraced by average viewers. Apparently Sorkin’s scripture, while wince-inducing for those of us working in a newsroom environment, struck a chord with American audiences. The show’s writing, while polarizing for TV critics, resonated with viewers and evidently gave voice to sentiments churning within the American conscience — or at least within HBO subscribers.
“The Newsroom is seriously so good”; “It’s my favorite new show”; “Finally, a show with intelligent characters, content and writing.”
Messina has noticed this discrepency as well. He has found himself being approached by strangers while walking down the street, strangers who praise not only his acting but “Newsroom’s” content in general. Messina referred to Sorkin as “Shakespeare,” and noted that, when it comes to negative reviews, “sometimes people love to build other people up and then drag them down.” Nevertheless, Sorkin is reported to have axed part of his writing staff in preparation for season 2, leading many of the show’s detractors to wonder if the move was a typical restructuring of a writer’s room or, perhaps, a sign that Sorkin has caught on to the inherent flaws in his skein and is making moves to change them.
Dick Wolf, an equally prolific industry member, stated succinctly during NBC’s “Chicago Fire” TCA panel that “the secret to success on television is writing.” “There’s never been a good show with bad writing,” said Wolf. “And there have been very few bad shows with good writing. Quality tops out…in ‘Chicago Fire,’ the writers are writing about people that you do admire.”
Wolf is known for bringing viewers into the foreign (and albeit fictional) world of gritty occupations as he does with the “Law & Order” franchise, and "Chicago Fire" will be no exception. But, many in the legal world are quick to note that skeins like “Law and Order” glamorize the practice of law, and that it isn’t as exciting as it is portrayed to be on TV. Even in HBO’s doc “Sex Crimes Unit” that follows the real life “special victims unit” in New York City, the featured D.A. points out that her line of work isn’t as thrilling as it seems on Wolf’s hit NBC series, “Law & Order: SVU.”
“Newsroom” also brings viewers behind the scenes of an occupation that many know only through tele-prompters and rehearsed camera cues. As the news industry is fictionalized on "Newsroom," journalists are quick to point out that no, we do not have black tie New Year’s Eve parties in the newsroom, and no, we do not have blowout fights with our significant others in the middle of the office. And with the such public means to express distaste for the series, the noisy influx of negative reviews began on Twitter, blogs and publications. Meanwhile viewers of “Newsroom” with a meager number of followers quietly tweeted out: “Hey, I like this,” and hashtagged the show.
“Series like ‘ER,’ ‘Law & Order,’ and ‘Hill Street Blues’…they’re never being written down to an audience,” said Wolf at the “Chicago Fire” TCA panel. With Sorkin’s rapid fire dialogue on intellectual news events, “Newsroom” certainly isn’t written down to the broad audience that has embraced it on Twitter, either. At the same time, no occupation-based show can be expected to write to the niche that inspired it. Even Nigel Lythgoe emphasized during Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” TCA panel that show’s like “Idol” and “SYTYCD” are first and foremost “entertainment shows,” and not aimed solely at the dance and music communities.
Would members of the medical community, the legal community, and now the fire-fighting community be so quick to point out the discontinuities between the onscreen portrayals of their occupation and their actual jobs? Maybe, maybe not. Mostly, they shrug off the discontinuities: it's television, after all. But Sorkin met the cruel fate of inviting criticism about a fictional news show from an industry that, well, makes the news. This world isn't so forgiving.
In spite of this, the journalism and media industry has not given up on the skein, even as it continues to lash out at each episode’s flaws. The flurry of negative comments on Twitter each Sunday night is proof that for better or for worse, “Newsroom” offers a certain intrigue that keeps detractors watching. It has managed to romanticize a career in the same way that the “Law & Order” franchise romanticized police and legal work. And while I may know better about the realities of this line of work, I continue to watch Will McAvoy and his team grapple with issues because at the end of the day, when my reporter hat is hung up, I just want to be entertained too.