8:57am PT by Tim Goodman
Advice to Aaron Sorkin On the 10 Things He'll Be Asked Today at TCA
Aaron Sorkin will be meeting with his TV critic friends from across the country and even Canada today as part of the Television Critics Association summer press tour.
He will be talking about his HBO show, The Newsroom. A whole lot of critics really hate it. And they seem to be growing more agitated with each episode. (Although you have to give Sorkin credit for making them poke at an aching tooth each week like they did with Smash on NBC. Oh, those masochistic critics!)
Anyway, I thought I’d give Sorkin some advice on what he’s likely to face today during the HBO portion of the TCA press tour. But it comes with a caveat to those expecting a collision of trains and a kind thought that might mollify Sorkin. And that is this bit of wisdom: Nearly every time we’re expecting a full-blown Session of Agitation, not much happens. It’s so much uglier when, say, the 2 Broke Girls panel goes to hell quickly and a little unexpectedly and Michael Patrick King vows to never come back and take such abuse ever again.
On the last episode of The Newsroom (at least the last one I watched), the character Sloan (Olivia Munn, who hopefully will understand when I say she’s “surprisingly” good, because it’s really true, and I mean no offense) blurts out, “Help me, I need wisdom.”
Sorkin wrote that. So I’m assuming it’s a cry for help. I’m offering that help with these 10 things that almost certainly will come up, usually preceded by people yelling into the microphone because they are so anxious to get to all of them. But first, let me take another quote from the last episode and imply strongly that this likely will be on the minds of critics as we welcome our guest, Aaron Sorkin:
“You can’t just sit there and be a facilitator for whatever bullshit the guest wants to feed your viewers.”
Which means that, just as HBO fears, the critics will be coming for you.
So, here’s what to expect when you’re expecting outrage:
- You will be asked about what I call “soapboxing” and others call lecturing. There’s a lot of lecturing in The Newsroom. There also is pontificating. You might even say there’s hectoring. Why so much of it? Why is fictional cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) so angry all the time? Isn’t it a little too easy and a little repetitive to have a bunch of soapboxing where McAvoy gets to tell us in these really lengthy soliloquies why everybody else is stupid and why journalism is in decline and the whole world is broken? You will get various iterations of that.
- Some people -- hand raised high, waving -- don’t think you write female characters very well, that you can make them strong and confident in their jobs but childish in their relationships. A lot of people – many of them women, actually – find this to be a weakness on your part, not theirs. That, say, taking MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) and making her so strong and awesome in the pilot, then having her be stupid and klutzy and smitten and ditzy in her personal life, is kind of insulting. Or that making Margaret (Alison Pill) phenomenally stupid for a college-educated woman seems especially tone deaf (last episode she not only confessed to mistaking the state of Georgia with the country of Georgia, but she also didn’t know what “LOL” means). You might be asked, “In what world does this happen?” You also might be asked, “Please make it stop,” which is technically not a question. But if I keep writing in this really manic and distracted way, it will seem familiar and you will subconsciously tell yourself that you won’t do it ever again -- but, of course, you will because that’s what you do, and people are going to pass judgment on lots of things, and it’s really the Internet that causes all this mental commotion, so what’s the point of changing?
- “Retro reporting.” For journalists, this is something that really pokes their privates. You take a lot of real-world events from the past, dramatize them on your show and, for the most part, manipulate the outcome in a way that glorifies how awesome people in The Newsroom really are or how idiotic every other TV news channel is. I personally think that you can do whatever you want, given that the show is fiction and not a documentary, but you’re going to get this question a lot in various forms. Other than the “I write fiction” angle, there’s no good answer, so don’t get bogged down here.
- More on the not writing women well. Yeah, they’re pretty much not going to give up on this one. You can always point out that the Sloan Sabbith character is pretty badass and smart, but last week she was the one who said, “Help me, I need wisdom,” and she wanted it from a man (Will) rather than a woman (MacKenzie), and that might backfire on you. I don’t know. Listen, that room is like a shark pit sometimes. Anything can happen, When discussing the dialogue quirks, you might be asked why Charlie (Sam Waterston) calls Sloan a “girl,” which seems like an easy trigger, or why Will’s new bodyguard (nice casting of Terry Crews, by the way), feels like it’s OK to ask Sloan, “When are you and me going to get busy?,” like anyone would do that. Also, you know last week when Don (Thomas Sadoski) was arguing loudly with Sloan and then dropped in “Am I losing Maggie?” -- that seems artificial and cute, and critics more often than not tend to think of artificial and cute as “annoying.” I don’t know -- I guess I’d just advise you to keep your head on a swivel.
- They will allow that you’re pretty damned good at pulling heart strings (especially with all of that classical music) and creating drama, but then they will call this manipulative and cheap. (This also could lead into your love of the “straw man argument” school of drama, but I don’t want to overwhelm you, so pick one and have a good defense ready).
- You have defended the show as “aspirational,” a kind of feel-good fiction that makes all of the stuff we’ve just gone over seem acceptable in the service of entertainment. Yeah, they’re not going to buy that. They’re going to come in hard on that, saying you’re not being realistic or even practical. Get your shield up, big guy. Or just call Oprah and ask her how that aspirational stuff goes over when she’s here.
- Everybody talks the same. Look, you’ve heard this a million times. I know you’ve got a defense of it. But let me offer you something fresh, a twist: Say that lots of artists paint the same way in each painting. Say that a lot of novelists have a distinctive style, and you’re no different. (If you want, you can say, “Would you be calling bullshit on Raymond Carver if he were here? I didn’t think so.” You’re welcome.) Wait, if you get on a righteous roll -- and we know you like those -- ask about bands that are immediately identifiable by their sound. Is that bad? Or is that genius? Bring it home by saying, “Describe the style used by John Wells.” We’ll be flabbergasted trying to frame his bland but successful functionality into a defensible position. And then you bring the hammer down with, “At least when I write a show, you know it’s me.”
- It will be suggested, possibly with a deceitful kind of tact, that maybe the Sorkin magic works better on something more substantial -- like life in the White House. That the lecturing and soapboxing is then somehow more triumphantly awesome and uplifting rather than annoying and condescending when it’s coming from a TV news anchor who always seems angry. I’ll give you five bucks if that’s not brought up. (And yes, it counts if I do it.)
- “Hey, that Jeff Daniels, he’s pretty fantastic.” If we’re pummeling you pretty good, this might get tossed out as a reprieve. Because, honestly, he’s amazing. He’s absolutely brilliant in this role that annoys so many people. Maybe this is why the critics keep watching, week after week. He’s that good. Also, how shockingly good is Olivia Munn on this show? Pretty impressive. Expect someone to interrupt this love-fest right when you’re talking about Munn’s talents, with a question that looks a lot like this:
- “Why is this show on HBO?” Call it a daily double if there’s an addendum like, “I mean, shouldn’t we be seeing Munn nude? Otherwise it’s like CBS, isn’t it?” Seriously, you’re going to get this question. I know that HBO wants to be in business with people like you -- a good answer, by the way -- but The Newsroom doesn’t really feel like an HBO show, it’s true. At least not the same way that Game of Thrones does.
Speaking of which, if things get overwhelming, just bring up Game of Thrones. That’s like distraction crack to critics. Oh, and hang in there. It’ll probably be a lot less painful or annoying than the HBO publicists have prepped you for. Or this column suggests.