In September of 1999, Caryn James, the television critic for the New York Times, published a scathing review of one of NBC’s new fall dramas. She wrote that the first episode was “sometimes smart, sometimes stupid, eventually gooey and, despite its sharp cast, not often entertaining.” In taking stock of the central character, she stated that he was “written and played for maximum hokiness.” The show to which Ms. James referred was Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” the fourth-winningest television drama in history that claimed over 16 million viewers weekly, even in its seventh season.
It seems inarguable that Caryn James might be retrospectively embarrassed by her review of what she called “an insulting mess,” and I have a feeling that the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum will feel the same way a few years from now. Nussbaum has affixed her name to a similarly-scathing review of Sorkin’s latest show in next week’s New Yorker, labeling “The Newsroom” as “naive” and full of “patterspeak.” Though I haven’t yet seen the show – I have to wait with the millions of other people who don’t have press credentials – I’m fairly confident that what Nussbaum portrays as inarguable, universal criticism is really just a matter of taste. What she regards as “arias of facts” others will regard as Sorkin’s signature banter; what she terms “moral eczema” will be viewed by others as courageous and refreshing.
This dissonance is the nature of taste and the way different types of television attempt to satisfy it. What is most problematic about Nussbaum’s review is her refusal to acknowledge the possibility that Sorkin might just be honestly, genuinely trying to produce thought-provoking television.
I didn’t watch “The West Wing” when it first aired. I was seven years old. When I finally did start watching, around the airing of the fifth season, I fell in love with program immediately. I’ll never know whether I would have had that same feeling watching the show when it first aired in 1999, and I don’t yet know how I’ll feel about “The Newsroom.” Regardless, at least at this point, I’m willing to place Emily Nussbaum and her review in the same group as Caryn James and hers; I call it…well, I’ll let President Bartlet do the talking.