Why Is Aaron Sorkin Such a Hot Button? (Analysis)

Aaron Sorkin Newsroom - H 2012
Getty Images; HBO

Aaron Sorkin Newsroom - H 2012

Well, at least we know, if we didn’t already, that Aaron Sorkin is a lightning rod.

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The television and film writer’s latest project for HBO, The Newsroom, was met with a flurry of mixed reviews, with people either hating it (and in a lot of ways, Sorkin) or loving it (ditto).

And that’s ultimately what the bottom line might be for anything Sorkin does. If you like his style – one that he very rarely wavers from with its rampant earnestness, speechifying and heart-string manipulation – then you’ll probably like the end product. If not – then not.

Sorkin is one of the relatively small number of creative types in television whose personality is tied to his work in such a polarizing way. You can’t separate the man from his work – whether that’s good or bad can be judged by others.

My review of The Newsroom has been judged positive, though I’d say it has enough caveats and criticisms in there to land somewhere in the middle.

As a TV critic who follows mostly other critics on Twitter and thus gets a multitude of original and retweeted thoughts about the industry and its players every day, I jumped into it with both feet Tuesday morning. How? By calling what seemed like a wave of anti-Sorkin backlash about “retro-reporting” – how the fictional Newsroom covered the very real Deepwater Horizon oil spill – “idiotic.” Granted, on one cup of coffee, riffing that other people’s concerns were “idiotic” might have been a little much, so I retracted it for “ridiculous and pointless.”

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That’s a lot of Twitter-typical riffing, but the issue beneath is real when it comes to the criticisms of The Newsroom and Sorkin himself. In the series, Sorkin’s rag-tag, thrown-together group of reporters for a nightly cable news show break the news of the wider scandal below on Deepwater Horizon by some very fanciful, all-too-pat, breaks and connections. A lot of journalists no doubt guffawed at that recreation – like cops, doctors and lawyers probably do when they see their lives and work fictionalized for television – but others took said “retro-reporting” as another Sorkin crime (like the fact he repeats himself). And that he’s pompous. And maybe that he’s our country’s biggest seller of wish-fulfillment.

But my point was that getting pissed off about “retro-reporting” in a fictional series was dumb (you might say idiotic, but I would advise against it until the second cup and then probably not). As a storyteller, Sorkin can make up anything he wants. He’s not making a documentary here, even though The Newsroom is filled with the kind of vitriol about journalism in general and TV news in particular that might push a passionate person to max out their credit cards and spend eight years of their lives making a documentary that several hundred people will see on PBS.

If he wanted to, Sorkin could write an episode of The Newsroom where his crack reporters confirm that unicorns do exist and they really do have rainbows come out of their bottoms. He can also manipulate real events for dramatic effect and, yes, make his characters look like heroes. Sorkin likes heroes, if you’ve been paying attention at all.

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I think the creative license Sorkin has is indisputable. Whether you like it is a separate issue.

Now, is this dramatically manipulative? Sure. Does it take away – as many critics seem to believe (including me, by the way) – from the quality of the drama? Yes. Because the depiction was too easy, too magical. It doesn’t earn the victory.

But I would argue that a lot of people A) could not tell you the Deepwater Horizon timeline, or players, or much at all but the environmental impact and perhaps large-corporation abuse and B) they do not care about “retro-reporting” because they are not journalists. For a lot people, the storyline probably worked just fine and this nitpicking is a mystery. (And yes, others who are not journalists didn’t like it, but they also don’t like the show, so adjust your reactions accordingly.)

Perhaps what’s pissing off a lot of people is that Sorkin being Sorkin, he’s wagging his finger at the vapid nature of television news in particular and the changing relevance of journalism as well, and he illustrated this condition by cheating. I get that. It’s not every day that your sister is your source and she works at Halliburton and, well, yeah. Hurray!

Journalism is rarely that convenient. (On the other hand, I once got assigned to track down the guy who invented the Pet Rock – a noted hermit who hadn’t talked to anyone in years – and I had to do it right then because someone else’s story fell through. What happened? Nothing, for hours, until I bitched about the assignment to a friend in a separate department and he said, “Oh, my girlfriend lives with his daughter.” Got the story, made the deadline.)

But in general, I agree that Sorkin lecturing the media with a disingenuous example is weak. But I also think Law & Order is ridiculous. And critics have only seen four episodes of The Newsroom, so maybe in the future Sorkin’s fictional journalist will fail. That would probably make the drama more believable. But if they don’t fail, if they remain ever-heroic (and fabulously lucky), that’s his choice.

Which brings us right back to Sorkin. The man loves a soap box. And most critics see his passionate lectures as a little dubious in the realm of drama. Forced, if you will. Someone on Twitter said that people don’t like to be lectured. Well, I’d amend that to “certain people.” Because millions loved it in The West Wing and they swallow it in Sorkin’s movies, too. Some viewers clearly think being lectured to from a soap box, especially if it reaffirms their beliefs and comes with Sorkin’s erudite phrasing, is actually enjoyable drama. You can’t handle the truth if you don’t believe that (wink).

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The Newsroom premiered well for HBO, and it would be stunning if it wasn’t quickly renewed for a second season, even if the numbers decline. Because, as I’ve argued many times (even with other critics on Twitter), ratings don’t matter all that much to HBO. You know what matters? Buzz. HBO loves it when people who don’t get HBO read a bunch of chatter about shows on HBO that they’re not watching. Because the pay channel wants those people to subscribe. That’s the business model. Beyond that, HBO likes prestige shows with famous actors and magnetic showrunners – even if the ratings are terrible – because as long as the channel is perceived as having value (and Emmy nominations and victories certainly help) – then people will want that channel. So prepare yourself for at least two seasons of Sorkin.

He’s a hot-button dude, no doubt about it. I took zero offense at the “retro-reporting” but was annoyed when he told The Hollywood Reporter that not only is the main character unrelated in any way to Keith Olbermann but that he barely knows who this Olbermann fellow is, personally. Oh, Aaron, come on.

I’m not certain that The Newsroom will come anywhere near the lofty creative heights of Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Girls, etc. It’s not near there as of now. I’m not even sure I’ll be all that interested in the series down the road.

But I am sure that Aaron Sorkin can make up whatever he wants, film it and put it on television without breaking some sacred journalistic trust or whatnot. The Newsroom is a work of fiction about television journalism even if what it’s trying to do is create an unrealistic ideal while simultaneously bashing the current model.

It’s up to you whether that’s good drama or not.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine