Perhaps you have someone in your life who swears he’s over his ex. But you know it’s a lie for the same reason he claims it’s true: He can’t stop angrily talking about her. The more he obsessively complains—the more he pores over every little grievance—the clearer it is that there’s still a lot of love and unresolved feelings. It’s sad, really.
The phenomenon of hate-watching TV shows operates under the same philosophy—and it’s just as unfortunate. On a weekly basis, the hate-watcher will ingest a program he detests for the simple fact that he enjoys being annoyed by it. If you’re unfamiliar with this phenomenon, you’ll get a chance to witness it soon: The Newsroom returns for its second season on July 14. I’m curious about the new season too—and probably for some of the same reasons as the haters. But let’s get something straight: Love or loathe The Newsroom, it must be doing something right to keep us all tuning in. And as opposed to the hate-watchers, at least I’m not conflicted about why I’m watching.
Few people inspire such passionate hate-watching as Aaron Sorkin. The creator and principal writer of The Newsroom, he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network and a slew of Emmys for The West Wing. By any metric, he’s one of the most decorated and distinctive writers of the last 20 years, in part because sassy, rapid-fire dialogue has become his trademark. Naturally, such success inspires envy, but Sorkin’s detractors go to a whole other level. Talk to people who dislike his work and a palpable look of hatred comes over their faces; they absolutely despise him.
It’s understandable. In public, Sorkin comes across as smug and patronizing. When he accepted an award at an event I attended, he suggested that the secret to his success “was always making sure I’m the least talented person in the room.” But his pompous tone made his claim sound disingenuous—as if he were trying to be gracious when, really, he knew he was the smartest guy around. He revels in being dismissive of blogs and online journalists, perhaps most memorably last year when he advised an interviewer, “Listen here, Internet girl, it wouldn’t kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in a while.” He tends to champion our better natures in his programs, but more often than not he lectures us, positioning himself as the sole voice of superior knowledge.
Debuting last June to much prerelease fanfare, The Newsroom is about a cable news show that covers actual news events from a few years ago: the BP oil spill, the 2010 midterm elections, the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. Because of Sorkin’s arrogant proclamations in the media, it’s no surprise that The Newsroom’s initial negative reviews weren’t just disapproving but utterly hostile. “Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV,” The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum huffed. “The shows’ air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what’s inside—all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, The Newsroom treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid.”
I thought the first season was good, albeit flawed, but The Newsroom’s bad reviews had an anger to them that was sometimes shocking. Perhaps the most foaming was Glenn Garver from the Miami Herald: “Monstrously misconceived and incompetently executed, powered by a high-octane blend of arrogance and contempt, The Newsroom is an epochal failure, a program destined for television’s all-time What Were They Thinking? list. Not since NASA’s first Vanguard rocket blew up on its launch pad in 1957 will Americans have seen anything crash and burn on television with such hellish spectacularity.” You would have thought that Sorkin had murdered Garver’s children or something.
Nonetheless, such scathing reviews inspired a wave of joyous hate-watching from some of my friends: Let’s watch blowhard Sorkin’s show be terrible! There was plenty of fuel for their schadenfreude, and no doubt there will be scores of hate-watchers excited for season two. Still, I think that animosity is misplaced. And the secret to the show’s undeniable charge can be found in some of last year’s bad reviews. Time TV critic James Poniewozik derided The Newsroom for being sanctimonious, self-serving and stuffed with infuriating, insulting female characters—and he’s right. But he also mentioned this: “The pacing is electric, the staccato dialogue rhythms are like a natural soundtrack; [Sorkin] captures the excitement of not knowing what comes next even when we do know.”
He’s right again. There are plenty of mediocre TV shows that pass unnoticed—they aren’t captivating or crazy enough to elicit much of a response. (Do you know anybody who has an opinion on Mike & Molly?) But for the hate-watcher to find worthy prey, the program has to be genuinely compelling so that he’ll want to keep up with it. For its many faults, The Newsroom provides such fodder; Sorkin’s well-oiled writing mannerisms make the show irresistible. And often the show’s pluses and minuses are joined at the hip:
*1. It has flowery monologues about the Way Things Used to Be. *
Such monologues are usually delivered by Will McAvoy, the once-fiery anchor (played by Jeff Daniels) who regains his moral courage thanks to his new executive producer (and former lover) MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). But sometimes it’s MacKenzie who lets one fly—or maybe it’s Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the head of the network’s news division who’s adorably folksy, which we recognize because he always wears bowties. But no matter who delivers the speech, the topic is always the same: Lordy, things used to be so much better. If it’s something that’s come about in the last 20 years—reality television, e-mail—these characters are against it, and they’re against it loudly. (Berating a gossip columnist played by Hope Davis, Will says, “What you do is a really bad form of pollution that makes us dumber and meaner and is destroying civilization.… I would have more respect for you if you were a heroin dealer.”) Yes, The Newsroom is too “Get off my lawn”—the characters even use BlackBerries rather than iPhones—but Sorkin turns that grumpiness into a sort of begrudging virtue.
2. It has cutesy romantic triangles and “Will they or won’t they?” intrigue.
Lots of TV shows are fueled by the sexual tension between their characters, but The Newsroom is practically powered by its hormonal rush. On one side, you’ve got the younger characters (played by Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., Olivia Munn and Thomas Sadoski), most of whom are sleeping with someone they shouldn’t while pining for the one they should, all the while behaving as if they’ve been transplanted from a ditsier version of His Girl Friday where everybody is really good at journalism but drooling idiots when it comes to everything else. On the other side, you’ve got Will and MacKenzie, whose inability to move past their old relationship requires them too often to act like sitcom characters. (You know they’re still in love because of how much they yell at each other. It’s Sorkin’s idea of flirting.)
3. It is very disappointed at how shallow we are.
The Newsroom is predicated on MacKenzie’s belief that the nation wants a more meaningful discourse from cable news than it’s currently getting, hence her strategy to produce a more substantial broadcast. This is presented as inspiring—and at the show’s best, it hits that same stirring, patriotic sweet spot Sorkin nailed in The West Wing, The American President and A Few Good Men—but Sorkin can barely get through his flattering of our national character before he starts scolding us. We’re too enraptured by the Casey Anthony trial! We’re too interested in gossip! Hey, man, we’re watching your show—we can’t be that bad, can we?
4. It features everybody talking to everybody else as if they’re finalists in a snappiest-comeback contest.
Sorkin’s gift for sparkling dialogue is both blessing and curse. His Newsroom characters are funny and hyperarticulate, but they’re funny and hyperarticulate in exactly the same way as his characters were in The Social Network, Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and elsewhere. It’s such a gimmick by now that his Sorkinisms inspired not one but two viral videos that compiled some of his most-repeated turns of phrase, not to mention a Twitter feed chronicling memorable Sorkin lines. For better or worse, The Newsroom is like a Sorkin revue: The snazzy back-and-forth is a reliable magic trick, even if you now sort of know how the magician does it.
There are plenty of ways for The Newsroom to be improved in its second season—less lecturing, less self-satisfaction, less depiction of the female characters as ridiculous rom-com clichés—but they’re probably not going to happen because Sorkin is still firmly at the controls. This is actually for the best.
Much more so than film, television is a writer’s medium—the voice of a single individual—and The Newsroom embodies all that’s great and annoying about its creator. And that’s why it’s such compulsive viewing. The show’s grandstanding, histrionics and mixture of soap-opera plotting (Is Will going to get fired because he was high on air?!?) and sincere social consciousness are all stirred together in one big, juicy, vibrant Sorkinian package: The Newsroom can be utterly ludicrous, and yet it’s executed at a high level by a true believer. Ultimately, it’s Sorkin’s shameless, naive conviction that he’s doing something important that makes The Newsroom undeniably gripping—he pulls it off with such gusto, chutzpah and skill that you have to be impressed. And if you’re not and you’re still watching, maybe that has more to do with all that’s right with The Newsroom than all that’s wrong with it.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.