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Thursday, August 30, 2012
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‘The West Wing’ vs. ‘The Newsroom’: Has Sorkin Changed or Have We?

By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist

* * *

This past Sunday, HBO aired the last of the ten episodes that comprise the first season of The Newsroom, a series about television and politics created by Emmy and Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin that was the most highly anticipated new show of the summer. Unfortunately, its final episode was greeted much like its first one – with mostly unenthusiastic reviews. After 10 episodes, though, critics seemed less surprised than accepting of the show’s mediocrity.

Expectations for The Newsroom were so high because it seemed to combine the subjects at the center of each of his three previous TV series, ABC’s Sports Night (1998-2000), NBC’s The West Wing (1999-2006), and NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007): in the case of the first and third, a behind-the-scenes look at a television program, and, in the case of the second, American politics. And yet The Newsroom has been widely regarded as a letdown that pales in comparison to Sorkin’s earlier work.

So what is different about The Newsroom? Or about us? I find that to be a fascinating question.

You might be surprised to learn that The West Wing, the most acclaimed of Sorkin’s series, also received very mixed reviews its first episode aired, almost 13 years before the airing of the first episode of The Newsroom.

In 1999, Caryn James, formerly of The New York Timeswrote of The West Wing‘s series premiere: “The floundering first episode is sometimes smart, sometimes stupid, eventually gooey and, despite its sharp cast, not often entertaining… As it writes down to the masses, it sends a message that is more about television than politics: that all of television is so stupid, anything with half a brain counts as bright. Judged against its own potential, The West Wing is an insulting mess.”

Eventually, the series became a hit and went on to win three Golden Globe Awards and 26 Emmys Awards, including the best drama series Emmy a record four times in a row.

The overall reception of the first season of The Newsroom, though, pales in comparison with the overall reception of The West Wing. This could be due to a differences in the qualities of the two shows… but it might also be due to differences in the audiences of them. In short: Is The Newsroom really a worse show than The West Wing, or are people in 2012 just more cynical than they were in 1999?

When The West Wing debuted, audiences were still reeling from the revelation and implications of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and its subsequent cover-up. It was only seven months before, on Feb. 12, 1999, when the Senate acquitted Clinton on impeachment charges. The series seemed to take advantage of the tabloid fodder that became the administration while looking forward to a better future, asking, “How could the presidency be?” James even writes in her review, “Aaron Sorkin’s idea for a series set behind the scenes at the White House predates the Lewinsky scandal, but should benefit from its fallout.”

Similarly, The Newsroom is a commentary on the sensationalist and biased state of news programs and their viewers in the second decade of the 21st century. The aim of the team behind fictional program at the center of The Newsroom, News Night, is to present essential information to voters in the form of the best possible argument. As Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) tells Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) during the second episode, content should drive ratings, not vice versa.

This is an admirable worldview with which most people would agree — much like the worldview expressed by Martin Sheen‘s President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing.

As hopeful as The Newsroom tries to be, though, it uses actual events to critique major media outlets, whereas The West Wing used fictional variations of true events as plot. This causes The Newsroom to look backward, as opposed to forward, and to show not how media could be, but how it should be, which results in a far preachier and, consequently, less palatable tone.

For example, in the fourth episode of The Newsroom, NPR, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News are chided for inaccurately reporting the death of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords because they were so anxious to be among the first to break a major news story, whereas the executives working on News Night were wise enough to demand further confirmation before making such a grave declaration. This benefit of hindsight makes the series, and its protagonists, appear all-knowing and smug as they congratulate themselves for their cleverness.

Sorkin argued against this popular critique of the series during his appearance at the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this summer. When asked why he references real events, Sorkin explained, “I’ll tell you one reason I did not do it. I did not do it so I could leverage hindsight into making our characters smarter at stuff. I know from time to time it seemed that way, (but) it’s actually not what happens.” He added that, at the times when characters correct mistakes that some reporters made, “there’s never a time when someone else didn’t do it right, too.”

Whether or not you agree with Sorkin’s assertion, I think it raises an interesting question that is worth discussing: Are viewers being unfairly hard on the series? In the years between The West Wing and The Newsroom, have we become markedly more cynical? Didn’t the characters on The West Wing display many of the same personality quirks and eccentricities as the characters on The Newsroom? And weren’t episodes of The West Wing often as neatly and cutely tied together as episodes of The Newsroom?

I think a strong argument can be made that we have considerably changed as a society over the past decade, which must have impacted the way we process our entertainment. In the post-9/11 world, both our media and our politics have grown more divisive, bombarding us with increasingly extreme opinions, that we then digest and regurgitate, often without much personal contemplation — now not only to those whom we know and with whom we directly interact, but also through our social media networks and, most egregiously, in the comments sections of websites and blogs, where anonymity grants people the cover to say the most negative and offensive things imaginable. The old saying has never been truer: today, everyone’s a critic.

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  • MikeyJK

    In The West Wing, Sorkin always seemed to acknowlege that there are two sides to every issue, though I suspect that the sponsors may have forced him to do it.In The Newsroom we have no such moderation.Our hero starts out well enough, asking the tough questions and forcing people to admit their failures. By the end he has deteriorated into Republican bashing and a strident denunciation of the Tea Party.It’s really not a revelation that politicians are full of bull, but picking on the baloney of one particular group is as hypocritical as those he would malign. Sorkin might try to redeem himself in the second season by denouncing the Democrats’ baloney, but I doubt it.Sorkin bleeds Democrat blue and The Newsroom is partisan propaganda as bad any other.