In high school, my AP History teacher made a comment that still sticks with me: “we don’t deal in counterfactual historiography.” What he meant was that it is silly to speculate on what might have happened in history, that reinterpreting the past based on hypothetical scenarios was a pointless endeavor. Ever since then, I’ve had little interest in “what if” literature–what if the Germans won World War 2, what if Kennedy had lived, what if Aaron Sorkin didn’t keep remaking SportsNight.
On that latter note, I’m having a fascinating reaction to Sorkin’s new HBO dramedy The Newsroom. I don’t like it. In fact, I really really hate it. Not only is it literally a less funny, more smug version of SportsNight, a show which I very much enjoyed, it also deals with the most annoying of all premises: let’s look at actual events from the recent past and comment on them with perfect hindsight through the eyes of an impossibly ideal commentator.
What annoys me the most about the show is that it acts like there weren’t media figures in 2010 doing what Jeff Daniels’ character is doing in the show. There were. Plenty of commentators were calling bullshit on the Tea Party machine and decrying the inadequate response to the BP oil spill. The Daily Show’s weeks of coverage of the BP spill was Peabody-worthy and hilarious. Were they major network news anchors? No. They were cable commentators. But Jeff Daniels’ character isn’t a network anchor, he’s another mediocre cable news hack, so I’m unclear on the point Sorkin’s trying to make.
Look, I agree completely with the idea that the news media needs to stop being so damn equivocating and stop letting every asshole with an unfounded opinion have the same air time as informed experts and commentators, but the sort of Network-inverted utopia portrayed in The Newsroom is silly, smug, and serves no end other than, as one commentator put it, to let “Aaron Sorkin [write] one argument after another for himself to win.”
All that being said, I can’t help but watch the damn show. Part of that is the fascination with seeing such a massive ego show off how clever he thinks he is, but it’s mostly because the cast is fantastic and manages to sell parts of the show that would never have worked in lesser hands. Sam Waterston as white Robert Guillaume is particularly fantastic and the underrated and underused Alison Pill is great as Sorkin’s go-to frazzled-spastic-young-woman-in-a-love-triangle character. As insufferable as the writing gets at times, it is also very very funny, dense, clever, and occasionally poetic. The show is unlike anything on TV (except The West Wing reruns) and that alone makes for compelling viewing.
(And as much as I hate the premise, it is interesting to look back on these major events of 2010 for no other reason than to remind ourselves that they did, in fact, happen and could, in fact happen again.)
If you don’t like Sorkin’s work at all, then you’ll hate The Newsroom, and even if you are a fan, you’ll still find broad swaths of the show painful at best, but the damn thing is a fascinating train wreck and I just can’t look away.