The Newsroom: Sorkin’s Modern After School Special

Whenever I see a blogger or TV critic wax poetic about an older network comedy, they often bring up episodes that touched on more serious topics. These episodes that touched on controversial or social issues were called “After School Specials” after the ABC TV movie series of the same name.

After school specials (or “very special episodes” as they were occasionally called in network TV) have essentially disappeared from the network TV landscape. Sure, kids shows will touch on an important topic every now and then but when was the last time you saw something you would call an After School Special. One of the few shows on TV that does touch on important social issues is The Newsroom.

The common criticisms of The Newsroom revolve around it being too preachy or self-righteous, the show is sexist and the male characters are misogynists, most romantic comedy style elements of the show failing to be funny and the narrative is seldom cohesive. If the internet was around back in the day, I would imagine that some of our favourite classic shows would be similarly torn apart. However, for a show that is attempting to educate people about various social and political issues, these criticisms are uncalled for.

There is a clear difference between educational/informational TV and entertainment. I’m not saying that The Newsroom is an information program like the news. It is, however, infotainment. The show is pseudo-non-fiction set in a world where there is a news show devoted to broadcasting the facts rather than the spin. Of course, that’s why the show isn’t non-fiction. American news broadcasts are seldom about solely hard news and facts but about presenting “news” that gets them ratings and money. The Newsroom might come off as a liberal-minded show but considering that the loudest shouters in the news media are unashamedly pro-Republican and considering that the Democrats won’t stand up for themselves, it’s easy to see how anything attempting to present the other side of the story would come off as a pro-liberal soapbox.

Removing the “entertainment” elements from the show reveals that we have what is essentially information packaged for the masses. But since Aaron Sorkin is an award-winning screenwriter, he can’t just give us the information that so many people are lacking to make an informed decision about the state of America and the state of its political system. He has to package the information that is sorely lacking from the mainstream news media into The Newsroom. So what we have isn’t just Sorkin’s critique of politics but a critique of the people reporting on politics and the news.

This is where TV critics are missing the point. I don’t see TV critics writing columns about nightly news broadcasts or news magazine shows like Rock Center and 20/20. Informational shows on the Discovery and History channels don’t get reviewed for how well they present a story about an event that occurred in the past. Hell, how many reality shows get regular reviews? Most reality shows have little basis in actual reality. In his second autobiography, Hulk Hogan noted that the shows producers would set up a situation and film Hogan and family reacting to it.

The Newsroom combines elements of all three of those types of shows into a quasi-fictional representation of the world. There is the reality show style scenario of the week which the News Night team reacts to. There is the informational show recounting of an actual event which happened over a year prior to the episode’s airing. It also presents the news in the manner of a nightly newscast (the fictional News Night that the show is based around).

Yet, because the show contains fictional characters working at a fictional news network, TV critics feel it their duty to tear down someone they built up as one of today’s great screenwriters despite the fact that these elements of the show are clearly an afterthought. The critics want perfection from Sorkin and they want it immediately. If you look at any of his shows, they had a warming up period. Sports Night was not the masterpiece some remember it as when you re-watch the early episodes. In fact, you can draw a parallel between Sports Night characters and Newsroom characters without much difficulty.

The Newsroom feels like Sports Night, West Wing and Studio 60. It borders on being totally inexplicable how critics can love Sorkin’s first two efforts and hate his two most recent. While Studio 60 and The Newsroom aren’t perfect, they definitely are far from the worst shows to ever air on TV. You wouldn’t know that from the reviews though. Maybe they’re just disappointed that The Newsroom lacks the violence and nudity of most HBO shows.

At the end of the day, The Newsroom is a critical piece of television for today because it aspires to be more than an hour of entertainment. This show brings information to the public that is glossed over by the mainstream news media, whether it’s how the media manipulates the message or how the Tea Party works in opposition of the people it claims to support. The aspiration to be more than just entertainment is something that is sorely lacking from today’s TV landscape. At least we have one show that wants something more.

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