What HBO and creator Aaron Sorkin hoped would be a smart, provocative drama has become an unintentional piece of performance art.
That's the only way to explain the strangely vitriolic response to his new show, "The Newsroom," which premiered this past Sunday night to a round of mixed to splutteringly negative reviews.
Many critics, including this one, objected to Sorkin's decision to sacrifice the quality of the narrative in order to hit certain talking points — mostly about the state of journalism, the state of politics and the vicious dumbing down of American culture.
Instead of the medium being the message, the message smothered the medium in, some of us thought, an unnecessarily sanctimonious way.
It's always upsetting when a highly anticipated show doesn't live up to expectations, but what followed the debut of "The Newsroom" also included oddly personal attacks on Sorkin, which, ironically, managed to make at least one of his points more effectively than his show did: That our unfortunate cultural habit of building 'em up only to break 'em down often passes for news and legitimate criticism.
Like his main character Will McAvoy, Sorkin found himself on the receiving end of reactions out of proportion to his alleged "crime."
Gawker had a field day: A video illustrated Sorkin's habit of relying on certain phrases (some of which could have been pulled from any film or TV show).
"Is Sorkin's show a flop?" asked Newsweek a mere 48 hours after the show's first airing.
Part of this is simply the high-wire game Sorkin plays. If you are going to create a heroic main character who thinks the word "blog" is a pejorative and talks smart to stupid, you are going to get blowback, particularly from the Internet.
Still, the intensity of the criticism aimed directly at Sorkin proves in part what he is trying to deconstruct in "The Newsroom." Hence, performance art.
Sorkin certainly has been complicit in his rise to the sort of celebrity that receives strongly worded attention — he is outspoken and charismatic, with a checkered personal past that includes a public drug bust. His voice is distinct and discernible in almost everything he writes; in many ways, he's the Bette Davis of his profession: same tone, same stance, different wig.
Perhaps because this time he didn't bother dressing it up. "The Newsroom" plays a bit like "Aaron Sorkin Unleashed," and suddenly he's not the young up-and-comer who wrote the endlessly quoted "You can't handle the truth." Now, he's the lone resident of his own ivory habitat, smug and arrogant.
No matter what happens with the show's good opening ratings, or Sorkin's future (no doubt he will be just fine), it is worth noting that the writer, like his main character, became both his own medium and message, and it wasn't very pretty.