The cable portion of the Summer 2012 Television Critics Association Tour yesterday was relatively calm and quietly productive, with informative and interesting presentations by Current TV, Ovation, TV One, BBC America and HBO. Then along came the last panel of the pay-cable giant's three-hour afternoon session -- for Aaron Sorkin's much talked about and somewhat controversial drama series "The Newsroom" – which proved to be the most confrontational of the tour to date.
Not surprisingly, most of the questions -- heated or otherwise -- were directed toward series creator, executive producer and writer Aaron Sorkin. He was joined on stage by executive producer Alan Poul and star Jeff Daniels, who plays news anchor Will McAvoy.
"Even before the show debuted, there were some tough reviews out there, and some critics had some very pointed criticisms of the show," one critic noted. "What did you think when you saw those reviews, and did you see any that had that made points that you agreed with?"
"Well, we all know that there were critics who did not enjoy watching the first four episodes, and there were critics that did," Sorkin replied. "Obviously, you'd prefer that the praise for the show be unanimous, but I think that anytime people are talking this much about a television show, it's good for television. It's good for people who watch television. It's good for the people who work in television. That's everybody in this room."
"One of the criticisms was that the female characters were not necessarily treated so well," another critic remarked. "Your most prominent female character, for example -- the characters may talk about her being smart, but the way she acts on the show is not smart. Could you speak a little to those criticisms and whether you feel there's anything to them?"
"I completely respect that opinion, but I one hundred percent disagree with it," Sorkin replied. "I think that the female characters on the show are every bit the equals of the men. I think that they are not just talked about as being good at their job. We plainly see them being good at their job beginning with the first episode. The only reason [McAvoy's ailing news show] is happening is because [new executive producer and McAvoy's ex-girlfriend] MacKenzie McHale comes along, grabs everyone by the throat, and says, 'We are going to do better.' And then we see her thrust into a breaking news situation, which she handles beautifully.
"When we meet [young associate producer] Maggie, she's one of the few people staying behind [to work on Will's show]. Why? Loyalty to Will. When we meet [financial news analyst] Sloan, we are told that she could be making a lot more money working on Wall Street, but we see her get offered a job in primetime, which is a great career step up, and her first reaction isn't, 'Yippy, I get to be in primetime.' [It's] 'I think this is fantastic that we are going to be doing more in depth economic coverage in primetime. Let me give you a list of my teachers who are better qualified to do this.' These and many, many other qualities of caring about things other than yourself, of reaching high, of being thoughtful, curious, plainly smart, of being great team players, those, to me, are what define these characters."
"MacKenzie is introduced very strongly in the pilot, not only in the way she's discussed, but in the actions that we see her doing," another critic said. "Since then she has been slipping on a lot of banana peels in most of the following episodes, and her function is to screw up and then apologize to Will at the end of the episode. In terms of balancing comedy and drama, which is something you've done often in your career, how do you strike that balance where you're going for comedy without necessarily selling out a character?"
"I disagree that all she does is apologize to Will," Sorkin replied. "In that same episode, even when she blew the broadcast, or at least takes responsibility for blowing the broadcast -- and I have to say, another admirable thing about these characters is they don't let a single lash of the whip fall on anyone else. They take full responsibility. Even when she's done that, she rips Will apart at the end for what she sees as pandering, and she gives the whole, 'Are you in or are you out?' speech and … does the same thing in roughly every episode. She doesn't apologize to Will in the [episode about the shooting of Congresswoman] Gabby Giffords."
"She does," the critic interrupted. "In the Gabby Giffords scene, she apologizes to Will!"
"Hang on!" Sorkin countered. "Before she does that, she goes to Will and says, 'Look, go and have revenge sex with every woman in the tri-state area. Just keep it out of the goddamn papers. Some of us have moved on and we're trying to do something here.' At the very end, when everyone is extremely emotional because of what's happened with Gabby Giffords, she says, 'I'm sorry. I screwed up.' She's talking about cheating on Will. Not, you know, 'I'm sorry I did something bad in the newsroom.' She's talking about something that's worth apologizing for. She's not apologizing for nothing. Will, for his part, says, 'It's all right. It's gonna be all right.' That's not slipping on a banana peel. That's something a lot more serious than that."
The critic wasn't appeased. "There's a basic asymmetry between the way that men screw up and women screw up in the show," she said, sounding annoyed. "Men screw up as a matter of principle. Women screw up because they're interested in fluffy things or because they don't know. MacKenzie is a foreign correspondent who doesn't know that the military in Egypt has a certain history. She's a producer who doesn't know basic economics. You have Maggie who doesn't know basic expressions, the difference between states and countries."
Sorkin didn't back down. "I disagree about the asymmetry," he asserted. "I recognize the examples you've just used. What Jeff said is 100 percent right. Hubris on this show is always punished. The men and the women screw up in roughly the exact same way. In that same scene that you just cited where Maggie, for a moment, thought they were talking about Georgia the state and not Georgia the country, Jim thought that penguins lived in the North Pole, not the South Pole. So these very smart people do screw up in roughly the same way."
In a calmer tone, one critic questioned Sorkin's decision to set the show in the recent past and reference actual events like the Deepwater Horizon spill.
"The reason I did that was simply because I didn't want to make up fake news," Sorkin explained. "I didn't feel like we would be able to relate to that world in which not only wasn't the news that we're all experiencing together being presented, but a whole different world was being presented, one in which we just invaded Japan or something. I would need to be making up these fake news stories. So I set it in the past so that I could use real news.
"I'll tell you what reason I did not do it," he continued, emphasizing the word "not." "I didn't do it so that I could leverage hindsight into making our characters smarter at stuff. And I know from time to time it seemed that way. But it's actually not what happens."