It never ceases to amaze me, the fact that TV shows I absolutely enjoy get cancelled after two or three seasons, while others that leave me cold stay on the air for years. Two and A Half Men is a good example of the latter.
Veronica Mars and Arrested Development a perfect example of the former. Sure, they found a cult following which didn’t do much in terms of boosting ratings when needed. A kickstarter movie project and a new season on Netflix, respectively, came as the result of their late-found success, a few years too late to resurrect the shows on TV.
In these cases, the critics were largely on the viewers’ side. The shows were well received, they just didn’t fare too well with ratings, so they got the ax.
In the case of one of my favorite shows of all time, neither the ratings nor the critics were too favorable, and I still find it baffling (and sad; looks like no one will be campaigning for a reboot of this one).
I’m talking about Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.
Sorkin is no stranger to shows about television. He is also no stranger to criticism mostly targeting his tendency to teach or even moralize. The Newsroom boasts plenty of both, but is that really a bad thing?
Will McAvoy is a news anchor on a Atlantis Cable News. He’s likable and popular, because he gives the people what they want to see. Like any network dependent on advertizing, the agenda-setting process is always shaped by viewership. Ratings drive content. It’s an axiom in privately owned media.
Still, ratings and money and popularity aside, Will is not content. He won’t say it in so many words, but he’s constantly moody, angry and rude, and has been ever since his former lover, Mackenzie McHale, admitted she had an affair.
One day, speaking at a panel, he sees a mirage in the crowd when asked “What makes America the greatest country in the world?”: Mac holding a sign saying ‘It’s not. But it can be’. Will goes on a tirade about what makes America not the greatest country in the world, ends up swearing at the sweet sorority girl who asked the question, and the video goes viral on youtube. His popularity plummets, and we as viewers are treated to one of Sorkin’s brilliant signature monologues.
This signals a turning point in ACN’s news agenda. With McHale returning at the helm of the show as executive producer and with President of ACN Charlie Skinner not only completely behind this change but actually orchestrating the entire thing, McAvoy will now be doing the news as it’s meant to be done.
He’s the right person for the job. As we soon learn, not only is he a prodigy who graduated college at 19, continued to finish law school and racked up an impressive 98% conviction rate as prosecutor, but he’s also been a speech writer for the White House before settling into journalism and becoming anchor of his own news show. Also, he’s a republican. If we had any misgivings about his abilities to cross-examine his guests, this little tidbit should take care of our doubts. He is eloquent and quick-thinking and self-righteous. He’s a lovable jerk.
Anyone familiar with Sorkin’s work will immediately recognize the fast-paced dialogue. I’ve binge-watched the show several times and I still discover details I may have missed the previous times (incidentally, I feel the same way about well-disguised references and inside jokes when watching Arrested Development. To me, it’s the hallmark of a good show, or at least an interesting one). Is it realistic? Well, no. No one can talk so fast and argue that well 100% of the time. No workplace on earth employs so many well-spoken, idealistic people, all altruistically sacrificing everything for their common goal. I’m confident no workplace on earth features anyone as hot, smart and socially awkward as Sloan Sabbith, nor anyone as snarky yet loveable as Don.
But that’s not why a lot of critics slam The Newsroom.
In their quest to deliver quality news products, in Will’s “mission to civilize”, the news team tries hard to do what the system itself won’t allow: to flip the “ratings drive content” axiom on itself and familiarize the viewer with a version of the news not previously on offer, because (theoretically) it would have been detrimental to its advertising revenue. The network president/owner, mother-and-son team Leona and Reese Lansing, make that abundantly clear. Eventually though, they also see the light and turn around.
Will and Co. don’t go for the sensationalist news we’ve all grown accustomed to. They aim to inform the electorate as best they can. In doing so, their approach is educational, rather than simply informative. It can be condescending and superior. They even call themselves out for it on the show, but nowhere near as often or intensely as by the show’s critics.
Despite their best efforts, they make humongous mistakes, as evidenced by the story arc spanning the entirety of Season 2. But instead of being given some slack because of that, the show gets slammed because no news team on the planet would approach a white-hot news item the way Will, Mac et al handled the Sarin gas story.
Does anyone else see the problem with that?
The representatives of the media are up in arms because a show is pointing out their shortcomings. Sure, it’s the TV critics who write the reviews and not the hard news journalists, but don’t they all work for the same type of media – and often the very same corporations?
No one likes to be told what to do. We like it even less when someone tells us we’ve been doing it wrong. Allowing for the argument that The Newsroom team’s way is the right way, it becomes clear right away that it’s hard(er) to do the right thing.
Faced with the difficult decisions, the news team takes the moral high ground.
To me, as a viewer, it’s refreshing, uplifting, and decent.
To the critics, it’s moralistc, unrealistic and a nuisance.
I wonder why.
I wonder why it’s perfectly okay for a show to delve into the ugliest side of politics and uncover all the lies, manipulation, ego-driven decisions, and often the crimes of those in charge of our collective fate, with seemingly zero redeeming qualities, but it’s not okay for a show to go behind the scenes of a newsroom and reveal the opposite.
Is it because we believe the world is fundamentally bad? House of Cards confirms that notion; The Newsroom contests it.
I don’t think that’s it. I think we like to feel superior, much like Will does. We enjoy thinking of ourselves as a cut above the rest. We don’t mind watching the shenanigans of corrupt politicians, because that’s expected of them – and we, in turn, can bask in our virtue.
On the flip side, we like to criticize the news as pandering to our baser instincts. We devour the stories on offer and then condemn the news outlets for bringing them to our screens.
So when the Newsroom shows us there might actually be another way to do things, we resent it. Not we, the viewers of the show; We actually love the show. We even gave it an 8.6 rating on IMDb. But we, the ones who drive content, don’t like feeling inadequate, substandard. We don’t like being the bad guys.
I say we, because I feel I have a personal stake in this. As a communication specialist, a PR professional whose job is to drive content, this falls into familiar territory.
It’s even more familiar considering my field of expertise is political communication.
I’ve watched repeatedly as important news get bumped down (or completely off) the agenda when it should hold the top spot in the rundown. I’ve watched as the media contorts the truth to serve their interests.
I’ve also watched The Newsroom tackle real news the way it should have been handled – which, by the way, is part of what makes the show brilliant; even though it’s easier to point the finger after the fact, even though hindsight is always 20/20, it doesn’t take away from the fact that yes, less Sarah Palin and more serious coverage of the Boston bombings would have been a most welcome change. I’ve watched, and I’ve felt cheated, because this is the news I would have wanted to see. The news I would be proud to have been part of.
And if a TV show can do that for me, it’s a show I want to watch. With all its flaws, I’ll watch it. I’ll watch as the cynics become idealists and as the loose ends get neatly tied up in a bow, with an extra dose of sap. I’ll watch again and again.