A Running Diary of Aaron Sorkin’s Showdown With the Press at The Newsroom’s TCA Panel
I am sitting in the International Ballroom in the Beverly Hilton Hotel during the twilight of the 2012 Summer TCA Press Tour, as HBO, like every other network and cable channel has done this week, previews its upcoming movies with a series of panels and Q&As. In a matter of minutes, Aaron Sorkin, Oscar-winning screenwriter and creator of critical whipping-boy The Newsroom, will take the stage to face a room full of the writers and tweeters who have led the witch hunt against his show. Sorkin has only granted a handful of interviews as the first half of the season has rolled out to an increasing chorus of boos from Internet Girls and Boys from around his beloathed Twittersphere. But today he’s sitting down, cracking open a tiny bottle of Evian, and bringing on the firing squad. It’s the can’t-miss event of this year’s TCAs, and I’m about to die of anticipation.
4:03 “You’re all familiar with The Newsroom,” says an HBO suit at the podium before intro-ing the Battle Royale of TCA panels. We are reminded that the show averages 7 million viewers a night, so no matter what happens over the next half-hour, our opinions are invalid.
4:04 SIZZLE REEL TIME! We privileged members of the entertainment journalism elite are granted a spoilerific peek at some of the juicy dramz going down in the back half of The Newsroom‘s first season. Anthony Weiner, Casey Anthony, and more! Also: Jane Fonda comes back, and delightfully informs Will that he’s “one tabloid fuckup away from having his own podcast.” Grantland colleague (and Hollywood Prospectus Podcast co-host Andy Greenwald) and I jinx on the “OH SNAP”s over Gchat.
4:04 The lights come up, and Jeff Daniels, executive producer Alan Poul, and the man of the hour, Aaron Sorkin, enter stage right. TCA policy is not to applaud at any panel — the room is more than happy to abide by this rule. Icy, icy silence.
4:05 And we’re off! We start with a light question with a medium-strength insult hidden inside: Has Sorkin ever been in a situation like Will’s, in which he’s screwing up on television and trying to keep his job? Sorkin gives us a line not unlike those we’ve heard before: “I haven’t gone out of my way to figure out what people would like. I try to make things that I like and my friends like, then keep my fingers crossed that others will like it and I can keep doing it.” Score: 0-0. NEXT.
4:06 Sorkin is asked about the comparisons made between the KKK and the Taliban in last week’s episode, and the degree to which he editorializes through the characters. All right, let’s start airing these grievances! Before addressing the question, Sorkin says he “wants to make a clear distinction between me and the characters that are in the show.” He then continues, “Most of the time I write about things I actually don’t know very much about,” which is a quote that is just begging to be taken out of context. “My political opinions are of the level of sophistication of someone who has a B.A. in musical theater.” So are those Brigadoon refs! The crowd laughs good-naturedly.
Sorkin stretches, rolls his neck, shakes it out. I’m going to give him the point for that one. Humility + Getting a laugh out of the notoriously grumpy critics = 0-1. Onward!
4:09 A reporter notes that Sorkin tends to let his characters indulge in more hot speechifying in his television shows than in his film work. Sorkin doesn’t think he does, then backtracks slightly: “Maybe if I was in a film class, and there was time to think about it, maybe there’d be time to point out what I did differently.” A.K.A., WHY ARE YOU SO OBSESSED WITH ME??
Seriously, though, if I had to guess, I’d say he’s being honest and there’s probably an equal amount of speechifying in the rough drafts of all his scripts. It just so happens that on The Newsroom there are fewer people around with the power to tell him to reel it in. This was a poorly researched question. POINT SORKIN. 0-2 Get in the game, TCA!
4:11 Reporter: “Even before the show debuted, there were a lot of tough reviews, a lot of tough criticism.” HERE WE GO. “Are there any points you agree with? Would you consider changing anything?”
Sorkin repeats the frequently echoed line about how as long as people are talking about television and engaging with television, then it’s good television. (Does he read Twitter on Sunday night? Silly question, I guess.) As for whether or not he would change his show because a ballroom of bloggers takes issue with it, “One of the lucky things about working for HBO is that the entire season is written and locked before the first episode airs. So even if you’re tempted to change it, you can’t do it. The season is done.” That’s funny, because most of the time I feel like people say that the great thing about television is that you can adjust and improve a show based on critical reception and ratings, but I see where this conversation is going.
TCA scores its first point. 1-2.
4:12 Everyone’s pretty warmed up now, so it’s clearly time to break out the feminism arguments. A critic brings up the fact that everyone on The Newsroom talks about its female lead, Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), being very smart and competent, when she frequently is not. Can Sorkin speak to that?
Sorkin: “Unfortunately I can only speak a little about that, since we have so little time.” I’m pretty sure we’d stick around for whatever you have to say on this topic, Aaron! While he respects the critical response to the show’s female characters, he “100 percent disagrees.” He goes on to give lots of examples of how the “female characters are every bit the equals of the men.” Exhibit A: The only reason anything on the show is happening is that Mac acts as a catalyst by inspiring her male former colleague and lover Will McAvoy to lead the Quest for Truth. Exhibit B: “When we meet Maggie she’s one of the few people who stays behind [at News Night]. Why? Loyalty.” To her mentor and hero Will McAvoy. Exhibit C: When Sloan is first approached about doing a prime-time report on the economy, her first response is, “I think it’s fantastic that we are doing more coverage in prime time. Here’s a list of my [male] teachers who would do the job better than me.”
Right. Point TCA. 2-2.
4:15 Sorkin calls a time-out! Before the next question is asked, he says there’s something he wanted to address before the Q&A started. “A couple of weeks ago, an unsourced story appeared on the Internet. And I can tell you it’s absolutely not true.” But those two statements are redundant, amirite? Interesting! Sorkin is attempting full denial of the writers room firing story that came out last week, which, by the way, is one of those things that is pretty quickly verifiable. Sorkin even denies that staffer Corinne Kingsbury, the lone survivor of the supposed massacre, is his ex-girlfriend, as this and numerous other outlets originally reported. “I don’t have an ex-girlfriend or current girlfriend anywhere in the writers room. [Corinne] is on the staff for the same reason as the rest of the staff, and she’s an incredibly hard worker.” Hmm. More as this story develops, indeed.
4:18 This latest development has flustered our critics, and a tiff erupts as two fight for mic time. Next question (and I’m paraphrasing): “No, seriously, why is MacKenzie such a dumb-dumb?” Sorkin: “I know I’ve made that mistake many times with e-mail.”
4:22 “You’ve said you would have been successful in the ’40s … ” (Did he really? Where? WOW!) “It’s a nostalgic show, and it comes across in the writing.” Y’know, nostalgia for things like the age of Cronkite and Murrow, and THE PATRIARCHY.
Intercept by Daniels! “One of the things I like about Aaron’s writing, and then I’ll shut up, is that all of his characters have flaws.” Ladies and gentlemen, Will McAvoy has entered the ring. Didn’t see this coming.
Taking a cue from McAvoy himself, the reporter doesn’t let him off the hook. Isn’t there an asymmetry in the flaws between the male and female characters?
Sorkin takes back the mic from his overeager wing man, and starts off by clarifying: “I’ve never said I’d be a successful writer in the ’40s.” (Phew. Also, there’s still time! You have a mic and a roomful of reporters!) As for any kind of asymmetry, he says everyone makes dumb mistakes. “Maggie confused Georgia the state with Georgia the country, Jim thought penguins were on North Pole.” And Will does his job so well that it offends people, while Mac can’t go five minutes in the office without freaking out about marriage.
Going to give a point each, with Team Sorkin scoring with the surprise Daniels move. 4-3. Hope we get more of that.
4:25 What informed your decision to use news stories from real life?
We’ve heard this question asked and answered, many, many times. No points. Next.
4:28 Why did Sorkin feel the need to bring on paid consultants for Season 2? And who is he bringing on?
Sorkin chooses not to name names — as they are still in the process of bringing on real-life folks from media and journalism circles to assist in the writing process — but lists many instances in which a consultant could come in handy, from “I was at the studio one day and the funniest thing happened” to “I’m a young woman living in New York.” Please tell me that you didn’t just hire the Girls page on HBO GO® for that last one. “A” for effort, anyway. No points, though. Can we please start talking about the patriarchy again? I’m bored.
4:29 “Mr. Daniels, I know you fell asleep,” says one reporter before asking a question about his collaboration process with Sorkin. Yes! Bring Daniels back into the ring. “This isn’t CSI: Detroit,” Daniels quips while talking about how rewarding it is to work with the controversial scribe. We are entering Sassytown, and I hope we never leave.
4:31 More questions for Daniels: “As a creative person, does it disturb you to see people asking [Sorkin] to change how he develops his characters?”
Here it comes. Daniels is about to go full McAvoy. He stares out at the sea of clicking laptops and glasses, and speaks:
“Look, I completely get why you do what you do. God bless you. But you don’t do it for me, and you never have, and it took me a long time as an actor to stop reading you. If Sorkin’s happy, if Alan Poul is happy, if HBO is happy, then it’s good, and it might even be great. There’s nothing you can tell me, I’m sorry to say, that can help me, but I wish there were.” [To Sorkin and Poul.] Did I just offend all of them?
Maybe. Probably. But it clearly doesn’t matter. Three points to Team Sorkin. 4-6.
4:33-4:35 Pretty sure this panel is over. There are a few more questions, but we’re already calling this for Sorkin with a huge assist from Jeff Daniels. The unison “head-desk” by every female critic in the room after the lights come up is exempt from scoring, by the way.