Pop Culture

How We Watch, But Why?

This so-called Golden Age of Television is a dangerous time for showrunners. Streaming video makes lab rats of us all. Specifically those lab rats who had the misfortune to discover a pleasure button hidden deep within their experimental mazes and became captives to it, forgoing food and water and sleep to press that pleasure paddle again and again. With all the alacrity of a functioning alcoholic who has the best of intentions, we find ourselves, despite the late hour, watching just one more episode—and just one more—and just one more.

Unfortunately for the men behind the curtain, the viewer’s relatively newfound ability to binge on entire seasons of a show goes a long way toward dismantling the magic of television. The flaws of any program become much more apparent when we consume all its episodes back-to-back. Stretched out over a ten-week season, the tics, the banter, the in-jokes of a show give us some sense of “getting to know” its characters, of even becoming intimately familiar with then. Over the course of a ten-hour binge, however, everything begins to reek faintly of trope and manipulation. In television, the return customer is the goal, but paradoxically, repetition metastasizes contempt.

This may be one of the reasons Aaron Sorkin has been taking it on the chin over his latest show, The Newsroom, which stars Jeff Daniels and airs on HBO: the feeling that we’ve seen it all before. And not just because anyone can watch all seventeen episodes of Newsroom that have aired as of today, in a row, whenever he likes—I just powered through them myself in about two weeks, and we’ll get to my contempt in a minute—but also because Newsroom is the fourth Aaron Sorkin show to make it to television in the last fifteen years. Sorkin’s style is so distinctive, and was so revolutionary when it premiered, that it’s not a stretch to say that Sorkin was the first modern showrunner with a household name.

What is a showrunner, anyway? It’s a word that gets bandied about often in television writing, and only made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in June of this year. The term seems to have birthed itself out of a time when writers were striving for greater recognition, and producing credits were proliferating and becoming more and more nominal. In a fascinatingly prescient 2007 LA Times article about the writer’s strike, Scott Collins defines a showrunner as someone beyond producer, director, or writer: an individual who somehow takes on all these roles and becomes the driving creative and organizational force behind her show’s existence. The impossible superhumanity of this job description is not lost on dedicated fans, who tend to cast their favorite programs’ showrunners in a slightly mythological light. See, for example, the hue and cry that went up when Community lost its original showrunner, Dan Harmon, or the way in which people speak of David Simon in reverent, almost worshipful tones.

Sorkin has been the creator, executive producer, and head writer of all four of his shows, and you know all the trademarks of a Sorkin production if you’ve ever seen one: dialogue stuffed with insider knowledge and dry asides and editor-of-The Economist levels of information, all delivered at a Gilmore Girls RPM; the “walk-and-talks”, long tracking shots that follow two characters engaging in this dialogue through the show’s set; sets that are always a realistically cluttered office environment; the doomed interoffice romances; the idealistic, grandiloquent monologues; the sarcasm; the liberalism. Which is perhaps to say: if you’ve seen one Sorkin show, you’ve seen them all.

Newsroom centers around the production of an imaginary nightly news program (creatively titled News Night) and the efforts of its cynical star, his idealistic executive producer, and their younger-than-average staff to create a more perfect newscast. I mostly loved the show, but like seemingly everyone else who writes about television on the internet, I’m not here to celebrate the overall victory; I’m here to nitpick the minor failures. My beef? Each of the three main female characters is in some way spastically inept. They’re brilliant and gorgeous—they wear delicate, modern gold jewelry and classic silk blouses and crisp cotton shirtdresses—but they trip, again and again, over the same desk chair. They refer to themselves as “socially inept” and “almost always wrong.” They don’t know how to send e-mail. They have ink stains on their faces. At first, this was charming. (Not least because I myself am a world-class spaz who, despite my relative intelligence and collection of classic silk blouses, wanders the world covered in ink stains and self-deprecation.) But then, like the lace on a cheap bra, it began to chafe. Their clumsiness began to seem like a gimmick, a tacked-on attempt to make these beautiful, successful women seem more relatable.

And then I made the mistake of reading what other people had to say about Newsroom. On the internet. “Aaron Sorkin has curdled,” Salon bleated. “Sorkin’s new HBO show gets almost everything wrong,” the Huffington Post declared (in a review of the pilot, no less). “Is Newsroom the best bad show ever?” Rolling Stone asked. This last article is an example of the online sport of “hate-watching”—something we’ve all engaged in and enjoyed, to be sure (how else to explain the success of hate-watching harbinger Mystery Science Theater 3000?). Hate-watching has, as of late, gone from a stoner’s private entertainment to the public imprimatur of online television journalism. I’m using the term journalism loosely here; I’m referring to any given program’s accompanying universe of online commentary. In the night after a new episode airs, articles and blog posts and recaps and tweets about that episode bloom like mushrooms on the lawn of the internet. Negative, critical, poisonous mushrooms.

Criticism of any art form is vital to the ongoing health of that art form. But when a critic is unrelenting in his dissection, and seems to have been almost tasked by his editor to give negative reviews, the criticism loses its productive quality, and becomes as soft and useless as a tirelessly fawning review. Television’s high period has generated some amazing writing (if you want to read the best panning in recent history, check out Rachel Shukert’s recaps of Smash on Vulture), but it has also generated a kind of negative-for-negative’s sake body of online criticism that is increasingly and purposelessly virulent. It’s another hazard of the era of streaming: the same broadband that makes television always and instantly available to the viewer also allows that viewer to analyze and comment upon what he’s watching, with the rest of the world, in long or short form. Again, the internet’s function as an enabler of conversation is not necessarily unhealthy, per se, and can in fact be a marvelous thing. But it’s a much-derided fact that the internet is also a space in which we can all bully each other with relative impunity. Online “conversations” about television do not take place under the civilizing influence of face-to-face interaction nor the non-editorializing standards of an established journalistic masthead, and thus the commentary often devolves into outright mockery or snark (which is just a more witty form of bullying). Is there any chance the author of that Huffington Post review would saunter up to Sorkin at an industry party and say those exact words to his face? “Hey Aaron—you know your new show gets almost everything wrong.” Human decency alone would prevent this statement from ever being uttered in person, not to mention the likely tongue-tying effect of Sorkin’s star power.

What did we do before the recap? The internet is our new water cooler. It hadn’t even occurred to me to be pissed off about the possibility that Sorkin was in fact denigrating these female characters, but the overwhelming majority of people who are writing about Newsroom online seem to think so. “The Newsroom is incredibly hostile toward women,” Vulture insists. “Women problems abound in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series,” again on Huffington Post.  “Why Aaron Sorkin’s woman problem makes The Newsroom so boring,” states Slate.  (Ah, to be boring: the ultimate television insult.) “More women, more problems for Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom,” Capital NY raps. All these articles (and many more, I assure you) noticed the same thing I did about Newsroom’s female characters, but ascribed their constant clumsiness and technical or social ineptitude to a directly misogynist agenda on Sorkin’s part. They argue that Sorkin does not allow his female characters to be intelligent or successful in one arena without being disproportionately ditzy or a failure in another, and that Sorkin men are never draped in the same kind of imperfections. Sure, they’re drunks, they’re unfaithful, they’re rude, they’re emotionally stunted—but never blundering, never silly. There is some truth to this observation; the flaws of Newsroom’s characters seem to run in gendered channels. But does this mean that Sorkin himself has a problem with women? Or just that he regularly relies on certain tropes to define both men and women?

I’d argue that most of the characters on Newsroom are pigeonholed by their genders. For example, Sam Waterson plays, in a performance seemingly inspired by an intoxicated Fozzy Bear, the president of the network’s news division. His character amounts to not much more than a pastiche of tired symbols of masculinity. SNL couldn’t write a better parody of Jon Hamm’s character on Mad Men: Waterson sits in his wood-paneled office and swills from a crystal tumbler of bourbon while his plump middle-aged female assistant trots in and out to announce visitors or bad news. Is this sexism, or just bad writing? It might be sexist, but it’s definitely bad writing.

It’s also bad writing to make all of the female characters so goofy and clumsy. Newsroom’s scripts are over-reliant on slapstick, one of the more throwaway, if delightful, forms of comedy, to inject a little levity into the inevitably dour nature of any hour-long drama centered around a news broadcast. (After all, if we wanted to watch the news, we’d watch the news.) The repeated girl-walks-into-a-desk jokes can’t bear that weight, and begin to seem like pointless diversions from opportunities for real wit. It would indeed be sexist if only the women carried this responsibility, but the men of Newsroom are also given ample space for idiocy and physical gaffes: they get stoned and leave voicemails for the wrong person; they jump off roofs and break their ankles; they charge locked doors and sprain their shoulders; they get punched in the face and the balls—by women! (Sorkin clearly read about his woman problem; the second season is rife with female-on-male scrotal violence, which may be a bit of an overcorrection on his part.)

So why promote the idea that Sorkin hates women? Because it makes a better headline than “Sorkin has a slapstick problem.” Slapstick hasn’t been a hot-button issue since… never. This has always been the problem with journalism (and one that’s oft at the crux of Newsroom’s plots): at the end of the day, it’s not a public service, it’s a business. The more readers a publication has, the more advertising that publication can sell, and the more profitable the business becomes, the more ensured its long-term survival. Traditional newspapers could rely in part upon the income generated by subscribers and newsstand purchases, whether or not those buyers ever got around to reading the content. The gratis-for-the-reader nature of internet journalism makes its business utterly dependent upon advertising revenue, and thus upon the reader’s actual page-viewing of articles, or at least clicking through to those articles. And what attracts that initial click? A good, maybe even sensationalist, headline.

I remain unconvinced that Sorkin is a sexist, unless it’s possible to be sexist against both genders at once. What I am convinced of: even as television and journalism are revolutionized by new technologies and means of consumption, old business models prevail in modern newsrooms. Editors everywhere push for the saleable headline and, in turn, insist that their blogging corps despise the shows they cover. And that, when it comes to Sorkin, the bloom is definitely off the rose.

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.