The Newsroom, Retro-reporting, and Serial Storytelling

2012 July 10
by kvanaren

Of the multiple sources of disappointment and distaste relating to Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom, I find the resistance to the show’s so-called “retro-reporting” most curious and revealing.

If you haven’t seen the show, or do not frequent the internet TV criticism circles where the show has been pretty thoroughly panned, the background for this whole debate is fairly simple. Sorkin’s show, like several of his previous television series, deals with the behind-the-scenes drama of a television show – in this case, the politics, personalities, and backstage workings of an hour-long primetime cable news show. Unlike Sports Night or Studio 60, The Newsroom has no overt comedic element, which is probably a blessing given that Sports Night is most charming as a comedy that does its best not to be, and Studio 60 famously failed due to its position as a show about comedy that continually failed to be funny. Instead, The Newsroom is chalk full of the portentous and high-minded sweeping gestures about American values that worked surprisingly well in The West Wing.

The major difference between this new show and Sorkin’s other television show about American exceptionalism is also a feature which has drawn significant rebuke. Where The West Wing takes place in an imaginary White House, in which current events and modern politics are given the sometimes-transparent veneer of fictionalized representations. In The Newsroom, that veneer has been removed – News Night and its anchor Will McAvoy comment directly on real life news, and they do so from the comfortable distance of about two years. This narrative position comes as a surprising reveal in the show’s pilot episode, after News Night’s staff turnover and its anchor’s personal meltdown are co-opted by some dramatic event taking place off the Gulf of Mexico. As the audience realizes what’s happening, a caption fades in, revealing the date to be 2010.

This form of retrospective news commentary, the show’s “retro-reporting,” has borne the brunt of many critiques of the show. (Here’s one from Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker.) It’s not hard to understand why. Sorkin’s work already has the reputation for delving too far into preachiness and patronization, and the added narrative wrinkle of The Newsroom’s time-delayed setting feeds that inclination. Who, after all, has more opportunity to be smugly superior and obnoxiously condescending than the guy who chips in his two cents several years after the fact? He can be right about everything! He can put his characters in the most flattering light imaginable and make everyone else look like idiots! He can write lengthy speeches about the debt ceiling, safe in the knowledge that everything will indeed go pear shaped just a few months down the road! How infuriating!

Here’s why I love this whole debate, and why I find the complaints about retro-reporting to be both fascinating and ultimately unimportant. Tim Goodman touches on this topic in his discussion of the show, and his point – that Sorkin has the creative license to do whatever he likes, current events aside – is of course absolutely right. But it doesn’t touch on the full weirdness and possibility of the technique.

By the time almost any narrative reaches a wide audience, its author knows what’s going to happen. From the moment Pride and Prejudice begins, Austen knew exactly what will happen to Lydia, and how captivated Darcy will be by Elizabeth’s fine eyes, and what a creep Mr. Collins is. Safe in the full and complete knowledge of the story’s course, Austen could then write, edit and adjust her novel to calibrate her characters in relation to their ultimate conclusions – Elizabeth will be appealing but wrong here, contrite but still proud there, Darcy will be haughty and cold, and then polite but reserved. In this sense, every author is in the position of omnipotent, all-knowing God, capable of predicting the future and capitalizing on that knowledge for narrative ends.

The only type of narrative in which authors are often denied this position is in serial storytelling, where countless obstacles outside of their control and the vagaries of piecemeal production leave writers almost as much in the dark as everyone else. It’s a facet of seriality that we all find to be equal parts thrilling and maddening. We all want television showrunners to have a plan, but most of us know those plans are at the very least subject to change, and often completely nonexistent.

From this perspective, retro-reporting looks less like a writer elevating himself to new heights of smug 20/20 hindsight, and a lot more like a canny strategy to redress a serious and often baffling obstacle in television storytelling. The two-year time delay allows Sorkin and other Newsroom writers to work against a known framework, to look ahead and find at least some assurance of what the future will look like. There’s still an enormous – near infinite – opportunity for flexibility and change. Any depiction of current events requires significant selection and editing, which in turn makes it possible for many different kinds of stories to be told. And of course, it is entirely up to the Newsroom writing staff to determine how its characters will respond. But adding the “retro” to the “reporting” allows Sorkin to rebalance some of the narrative power in his favor, and to regain a little of the authorial omnipotence that the serial medium always wrenches away.

All of this is not to say that I think The Newsroom is necessarily a great show, or that its storytelling strategy will enable Sorkin to guide its characters safely through the tricky morass of the recent past. You can have all the advantage of hindsight and still make as many mistakes as you like regarding, say, depictions of your female characters, or the wisdom of tone-deaf stentorian lectures on the Tea Party cut into an even more obnoxious montage. But I am currently loving The Newsroom for the way it highlights this feature of serial storytelling and authorial power, and for Sorkin’s attempt to work around some of the form’s complications. I suspect the attempt will prove to be quixotic, but that too will be sufficiently Sorkin-esque.