The TV Column: Sorkin and Daniels answer ‘Newsroom’ critics

August 1, 2012

TV critics, bloggers and tweeters do not like Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama “Newsroom.”

At least the vocal ones at Summer TV Press Tour 2012 don’t. They don’t like his show’s speechifying (though it’s not much different from the speechifying of his “West Wing” and “The Social Network” characters). They don’t like the “Newsroom” women, they don’t like the men and, most of all, they don’t like journalists being portrayed romantically, idealistically, heroically, rather than accurately.

In particular, they could do without “Newsroom’s” lead character, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) — who hosts the ACN cable network’s 8 p.m. news program — because he’s always correcting people, particularly the women, on the show.

Nor do the critics/bloggers/ tweeters think much of Mackenzie MacHale (played by Emily Mortimer), Will’s former flame, who has been brought in to revamp his program, because she’s supposed to be so smart and tough — but she still counts with her fingers! Even worse, Mackenzie has realized she still loves Will and so keeps telling him how sorry she is to have cheated on him in the first few episodes.

Note to wives of the male TV critics at Summer TV Press Tour 2012: If you ever cheat on your husband, apologize once, but in a “Wanna make something of it?” way, and then never apologize again. They prefer it that way.


Actor Jeff Daniels, left, and creator and executive producer Aaron Sorkin appear onstage during HBO's TCA panel for "The Newsroom" at the Beverly Hilton hotel on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, in Beverly Hills, Calif. The Oscar-winning writer-producer, Sorkin, defended “The Newsroom” and denied reports that he fired his entire writing staff at today's gathering of the Television Critics Association. (John Shearer/INVISION/AP)

To his credit, Sorkin — along with Daniels — nonetheless came to the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton hotel on Wednesday to talk about his show.

“About to have much anticipated ‘Newsroom’ panel. Could go several ways. Much will depend on Sorkin: defensive or self-effacing?” tweeted one critic in anticipation of Sorkin’s apperance.

“We all know there were critics who did not enjoy watching the first four episodes,” Sorkin joked moments after taking his seat on stage. The critics, bloggers and tweeters guffawed — this was the kind of hat-in-hand Sorkin they wanted to see.

“And there were critics that did,” Sorkin continued. “But obviously, you prefer praise of a show be unanimous.’’

“Any time people are talking this much about a television show, it’s good for television, for people watching television and people who work in television — that’s everybody in this room,” Sorkin continued.

The critics, the bloggers and the tweeters simpered. This was going to be a love fest.

Then something went wrong.

Sorkin took a moment to tell the critics that (a) the writing staff on the show had not been fired; and (b) he had not kept on staff an ex-girlfriend — two elements of a story that had been reported somewhere and picked up everywhere, maybe even by some of those in the room.

“Seeing that in print is scaring the hell out of the writing staff,” Sorkin said. “They’re acting very strange. They’re coming to work early, being polite to me, and I want the old gang back. I love the writing staff.”

Sorkin also said that the female employee in question, Corinne Kingsbury, is not an ex-girlfriend. Sorkin said Kingsbury is on the writing staff because she’s extremely talented — and he noted that he doesn’t have a current girlfriend or ex-girlfriend employed anywhere on the show.

Now, if there’s one thing TV critics, bloggers and especially tweeters hate, it’s when a juicy story about an imploding TV show goes wrong.

A dark cloud began to gather in the Twittersphere:

“Sorkin would also prefer you not think that Corinne Kingsbury is his ex-girlfriend. BAD INTERNET PEOPLE!” one TV critic/blogger/tweeter tweeted.

Then, the room began to pick at nits.

Had Sorkin considered making Mackenzie less of a dip, the critics wondered. Would he please make Will less patronizing, chimed in the bloggers. The women on the show must stop messing up over “fluffy things,” tweeters demanded.

Sorkin, resisting the urge to hit them over the head with a brick — which we’re pretty certain any reasonable jury in the country would have found to be an appropriate response, if not an act of self-defense — instead replied that “one of the nice, unintended consequences of working for HBO” is that the entire season is written and in the can before the show debuts. So even if he wanted to tweak the episodes, gosh-darn-it, it just can’t be done, he explained.

We think it was immediately after that — though the whole thing became a whir — that Sorkin and one critic got into one of those “I’m right!”/No, I’M right!” back and forths, that do so much to leave you wondering if Man really is nature’s last word. It was over whether Mackenzie apologized to Will in Episode 4.

Right about the time when one critic wondered, pointedly, why Sorkin finds it “compelling” to have Will constantly correcting women around him,” Daniels decided he’d had enough and came to life.

“Maybe it’s a weakness of Will’s,” Daniels said abruptly. “One of the things I like about Aaron’s writing is, all of his men and women have flaws.”

Daniels noted that many of the show’s cast members come from a theater background and that in the theater, characters who have flaws are considered a good thing. That is as opposed to Hollywood, he continued — with which the critics, bloggers and tweeters are maybe more familiar — where actors brand themselves “like an A-list action star who’s always likable and gets redemption at the end.”

“We come on with these big warts,” Daniels said, including female characters who are established as being smart and then “keep screwing up.”

And so, the weary day wore on, until Daniels decided he’d had enough and corrected the critics, Will MacAvoy-ishly: “This isn’t ‘CSI: Detroit.’ ”

“I’ve been doing this for 36 years. Everything I’ve ever learned, I’m bringing. [Sorkin’s] stuff is that challenging.”

“I completely get why you do what you do,” he continued, rattling the critics, the bloggers and even the tweeters. “God bless you, but you don’t do it for me. You never have. It took me a long time, as an actor, to stop reading you. . . . So there is nothing you can tell me, I’m sorry to say, that will help me.”

Then he turned to Sorkin and said, “Did I just offend all of them?”

“I did!” he added happily, looking out into the room.

Did Jeff Daniels just offer to beat the living [expletive] out of every writer in the International Ballroom?” one critic/blogger/ tweeter, tweeted.

When Kennedy met Swift

Ethel Kennedy says she didn’t play matchmaker between one of her grandsons and Taylor Swift, but that the Kennedys would be “lucky” to have the singer in the family.

Kennedy, the subject of the new HBO documentary “Ethel,” was asked Wednesday about reports that she set up the 22-year-old Swift and Conor Kennedy, 18, grandson of Ethel Kennedy’s husband, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

“Certainly not,” Ethel Kennedy responded to TV critics. She added: “We should be so lucky.”

The movie’s director and producer, Rory Kennedy — Ethel’s youngest daughter — said that Swift is a “great friend” of the Kennedy clan. And, Rory said, Swift is “awesome.”

To read previous columns by Lisa de Moraes and the latest from the Summer TV Press Tour, go to washingtonpost.com/tvblog.

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