Tuned In: Aaron Sorkin confronts 'Newsroom' criticism
Actor Jeff Daniels, left, and creator and executive producer Aaron Sorkin discuss their series "The Newsroom" during the Television Critics Association summer press tour Wednesday.
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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Aaron Sorkin, the television and film writer responsible for "Sports Night," "The West Wing" and "The Social Network," was prepared to take on critics of his latest effort, HBO's "The Newsroom."
An HBO press conference at the Television Critics Association summer press tour late Wednesday turned into a back-and-forth argument about specific, thoughtful criticism of the series, which premiered in June to decent ratings but generally tepid reviews.
Mr. Sorkin has been down this road before with the 2006-07 NBC series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," but the critical drubbing has been louder because, well, it's not TV, it's HBO, as the old slogan for the premium cable network assured viewers.
Jeff Daniels stars in "The Newsroom" (10 p.m. Sunday) as smart but pompous cable news anchor Will McAvoy, who previously had a relationship with his new producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), until she cheated on him.
HBO executives pledged their support and expressed pride in the series, which caught critical flack for being preachy and unrealistic and for featuring female characters who don't know how to use email or who dissolve into an emotional mess, a far cry from empowered female characters like C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) on "The West Wing" or Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) on "Sports Night."
Early questions at the "Newsroom" press conference tiptoed around the issue of critics' reviews until someone finally brought it up. Then, it was on.
"Obviously, you'd prefer that the praise for the show be unanimous, but I think that anytime people are talking this much about a television show, it's good for television," Mr. Sorkin said. "It's good for people who watch television. It's good for the people who work in television. One of the nice, sort of, unintended consequences of working for HBO is that the entire season is written, shot and locked in the can before the first episode airs. So even if you are tempted to try to write a little bit differently to please the people or change someone's mind, you can't do it. The season is done."
Mr. Sorkin denied some media reports that he had fired the entire "Newsroom" writing staff, which is a misnomer in itself since Mr. Sorkin tends to do almost all the writing with the other "writers" serving more as researchers. He also refuted reports that one writer staying on is his ex-girlfriend.
Gender politics play a role in discussions of "The Newsroom" because of the perception of weak female characters on the series, particularly MacKenzie, a foreign correspondent who, in the second episode of "The Newsroom," seems unfamiliar with how to send email. Characters describe her as smart, but her actions sometimes suggest otherwise.
"I completely respect that opinion, but I 100 percent disagree with it," Mr. Sorkin said. "I think that the female characters on the show are every bit the equals of the men. ... We plainly see them being good at their job beginning with the first episode. The only reason the show is happening is because MacKenzie comes along, grabs everyone by the throat, and says, 'We are going to do better.' And then we see her thrust into a breaking news situation, which she handles beautifully."
Mr. Sorkin said once the characters have been introduced as competent, it's fair to "have them slip on as many banana peels as you want." That includes making gaffes with email.
"[MacKenzie has] the whole meeting with the staff in which she's extremely deft and a great leader, and then once you nail that down, it's, for me, permissible to have her hit 'send all' instead of just 'send' and make a mistake that I know I've made and other people have made a million times with an email," Mr. Sorkin said.
While much of the press conference consisted of critics arguing with Mr. Sorkin, series star Jeff Daniels also defended the show's writing.
"One of the things I like about Aaron's writing -- and then I'll shut up -- is that all of his characters, men and women, have flaws," he said. "We come on with these big warts and flaws, and I love that about his writing. Yeah. Emily's character is established as smart, and then she keeps screwing up and does these things. But that's one of the things that Will loves about her."
Mr. Sorkin said his biggest anticipated change for season two -- likely to air next June -- will be the addition of paid consultants to the staff from television, print and online media "who will represent every part of the ideological and political spectrum that you can imagine." What won't change: "The Newsroom" will always be set in the recent past.
"The reason I did that was simply because I didn't want to make up fake news," Mr. Sorkin said. "I didn't feel like we would be able to relate to that world in which not only wasn't the news that we're all experiencing together being presented, but a whole different world was being presented, one in which we just invaded Japan or something. I would need to be making up these fake news stories. So I set it in the past so that I could use real news.
"I'll tell you what reason I did not do it," Mr. Sorkin continued on a Socratic tear. "I didn't do it so that I could leverage hindsight into making our characters smarter at stuff. And I know from time to time it seemed that way. But it's actually not what happens."
He expects season two to be about the same amount of time behind real-world events as season one, about 9 to 18 months.
Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") will star in an HBO movie playing a different character than he plays on HBO's "Curb."
No plot details were released by HBO executives Wednesday, but they said the movie does not preclude additional "Curb" seasons down the road. But for now the movie is Mr. David's priority.
HBO programming president Michael Lombardo also said the possibility of an "Entourage" movie continues to exist with series creator Doug Ellin at work on a script.
"Doug, as of this week, is on page 65," Mr. Lombardo said. "He's writing a film script, and he's excited about it. I heard a very general pitch for it. And I think after we take a look at the script. ... We still have to make deals with the cast and then figure out whether this is something that makes sense or not."
But don't hold your breath waiting for those "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" movies. Last summer HBO executives said they were deciding on whether to proceed with TV movies based on HBO's short-lived 2008 series "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency."
Wednesday afternoon Mr. Lombardo said HBO has decided not to move forward with those movies; producers may shop the project to other networks.
WPXI announced Thursday that former Steeler Hines Ward will host a weekly Saturday evening show this fall focused on both football and "hot topics of the day," according to station general manager Ray Carter. Further details about the program and its format are still being worked out.
WPXI will also continue to produce "The Jerome Bettis Show."
Ratings for NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics from London continue to be sky-high, despite viewer complaints about tape delays. Tuesday's prime-time telecast drew 38.7 million viewers, the best ratings for a non-U.S. summer Olympics broadcast since Montreal in 1976; the first five days beat a similar period at the Beijing games four years ago. ... HBO will debut new seasons of "Girls" and "Enlightened" in January, and the network will make a Rolling Stones documentary tied to the band's 50th anniversary. ... Encore will debut the 12-hour six-part miniseries "Titanic: Blood and Steel" on Oct. 8.
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about the Olympics, "Lilyhammer" and "Flying Wild Alaska." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "The Hour," "Dexter," "Partners" and more. Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's TV podcast includes a critics' roundtable conversation about the best and worst of the new fall series. Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.
On the web
Read more coverage from the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Tuned In Journal at post-gazette.com/tv.
First Published August 3, 2012 12:00 am