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The Surprisingly Sympathetic Underdog of ‘The Newsroom’ Responds to the Show’s Critics: ‘We’re a fantasy TV show!’

The Surprisingly Sympathetic Underdog of 'The Newsroom' Responds to the Show's Critics: 'We're a fantasy TV show!'

While Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama “The Newsroom” continues to polarize audiences and madden many critics with an attitude toward the world of journalism that might gently be described as high-handed, one character has emerged as a complex and surprisingly sympathetic counterpoint to the fantastical idealism of Will McAvoy’s (Jeff Daniels) “News Night.” Isn’t it time to start rooting for Team Don? Don Keefer, played by Thomas Sadoski, was introduced as a sort of antagonist, the executive producer who, in the pilot episode, leaves Will’s show for a better, later slot, taking much of the staff with him. Compounding that disloyalty, he also appears to be a neglectful boyfriend to Alison Pill’s peppy associate producer Maggie, who seems destined to eventually end up with her kinder coworker Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.).

But Don’s become a richer and far more likable figure as the show’s progressed — unlike the “News Night” team, he’s working on a show that does have to worry about ratings, and he doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring that to focus on only doing things the best way. And on the personal side, while he started as an obstacle in the romantic tension between two other characters, the relationship between him, Maggie and Jim has grown into a love triangle in which Don is clearly aware of and afraid of the fact that he may be losing his girlfriend. An experienced and acclaimed theater actor who scored a Tony nomination for his role in the 2009 Broadway production of Neil LaBute’s “reasons to be pretty,” Sadoski told Indiewire’s he’s flattered and pleased by the attention that he and the character have gotten on the show: “It was a bit of a surprise to me that people have started coming around to a way of thinking about the character that I’ve always had.”

Don has stealthily become my favorite character on the show, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Given how he started out, has it been unexpected to see the changes in how he’s perceived?

When I sat down and really looked at that the facts: Here’s a guy who’s in a contentious relationship with his partner for three months and all of sudden she’s like, “My parents are here and I want you to meet them and go out to dinner with them.” I don’t know many guys who would respond well to that situation.

I don’t know many guys who would be super friendly to a boss who had treated him and his friends, and particularly his girlfriend, so poorly over the course of a couple of months. I don’t know a guy who would be super chipper about the fact that his girlfriend is having an out in the open emotional affair at work. It was interesting to me to see how a guy who I was amazed at the level that he was able to keep everything in was being perceived as horrible. I’m glad that I’ve gotten to have these moments of humanity with Don, and that people are coming around on it.

The other characters are in this place where they get to do this idealistic, uncompromised show, but he is not. He actually has to deal with a lot of the consequences and compromises that come with making television news.

Right. Don doesn’t have a Charlie [the news division president played by Sam Waterston], who is willing to go to the mat for him to keep his job the way MacKenzie [Emily Mortimer] does and Will does. Don is in this hole straight out that if he doesn’t bring viewers, if he doesn’t get ratings at ten o’clock, then he doesn’t have a job. He is in a place where he’s handcuffed. A lot of journalists that I’ve spoken to relate to that, that feeling of, “Shit, I wish I could do this. I wish I could say X-Y-Z. I wish I could haul off and do A-B-C but I can’t because I’m beholden to corporate ownership, I’m beholden to ratings.”

It seems like we’ve seen a bit more idealism from him with the Gabrielle Giffords episode where he stands by not making the call about her status until it’s actually confirmed from the hospital.

Is that so idealistic? That doesn’t strike me as being particularly idealistic, to not pronounce somebody dead until they’ve been pronounced dead. That seems to be the right way to go about doing it.

But that’s not what happened! There are a lot of things on the show about what should in hindsight be the obvious way to cover something, but that weren’t the way they shook out.

There’s almost this head-slapping quality to it. Reading the scripts you go, “I can’t believe that people got that wrong. I can’t believe that CNN reported that so and so was elected before they were actually elected. I can’t believe that this person was pronounced dead before they were actually pronounced dead!”

Part of what I believe makes the show worthwhile is that it’s worthwhile to go back and reevaluate places where we could’ve done better and we could do better in the future. Not that we’re out there preaching. At the end of the day we’re a fucking television show, we’re a fantasy TV show and I don’t think we take ourselves any more seriously than that. At the end of the day our goal is just to make good TV.

But if the TV that we’re making happens to start a discussion about places in which we could improve in terms of reporting the news or a change in the way news is reported, then what an incredible service. To have something as insignificant as a fictional television show and do something as important as start a discussion. However it ends up, the fact that we potentially could have something to do with starting or influencing a discussion, that’s an amazing thing.

You mentioned talking to journalists and I know there was research done in actual newsrooms. Has being on the show changed the way you think of or consume news, particularly TV news?

Yeah. We have so much more compassion and respect for journalists and journalism. We’re fully aware that we are making a fantasy version of journalism. We aren’t saying that we’re doing anything differently from that. It’s hard enough to do a fantasy version, let alone to actually do the real version.

To actually be one of these guys in real life who’s trying to get this story, who is trying to deliver it in a way that they believe should be delivered, fighting against all of these incredibly powerful uphill forces. It’s Sisyphean, the task that journalist engage in these days. I don’t think that I understood that as clearly before working on this show as I do now. I do think that the show is a valentine to journalists.

I’m sensing that you’ve read some of the reviews in which people have taken the show personally, in terms of its representations of and its aspirations for journalism. What are your reactions to those reviews? Are you still reading them?

Um, no. [laughs] Frankly, I have only a tangential knowledge of the criticism of our show. People have taken offense to the way that we’re presenting aspirational journalism. I’m sorry that they’re taking offense. I think that we’ve never pretended to be anything other than what we are, which is, you know, a television show.

We are presenting a fantastical version of what journalism could be in a perfect world in which everybody got to do the things that they wanted to do or the sources came in the right way. It was important for Aaron and for our show and will continue to play itself out as the season does — to see these people fail at doing that and to see the crushing resistance that they’re going to get from higher ups from various places that real journalists actually have to deal with.

In terms of criticism, I don’t begrudge anybody their opinion. I have a great deal of respect for a lot of the critics who have come out in favor of our show and a great deal of respect for the critics who have not been particularly favorable to our show and some critics who have been incredibly unfavorable towards our show. What I don’t respect and what I don’t personally have time for or any interest in is the sort of criticism that’s snark masquerading as intellect. People taking down Aaron for being Aaron. If you don’t like the way that Aaron writes, on my TV there are some 900 or so other channels. You’re absolutely free to tune in to something else and I’m not going to hold it against you. I understand that our show isn’t for anyone and I don’t think any less of people who don’t like our show.

You’ve done a lot of work in theater, including with Neil LaBute, another writer who’s has a very distinctive voice in terms of dialog. Do you feel like that experience has helped you approach someone who writes in an almost theatrical way for TV like Aaron?

I don’t think that Aaron writes in an almost theatrical way, I think that Aaron writes in a blatantly theatrical way for television. That’s where the line in the sand is drawn. Some people like that and some people don’t. I’m personally thrilled to work with somebody who’s writing theatrically for television. There’s a whole idea that television and movies for some reason need to be more realistic than theatrical drama or literature. Is it because we’re painting with pictures rather than using a literary art form? I don’t understand why there is that sort of delineation that because we’re on TV, we have to be more realistic in our portrayal of things.

Working with people like Neil, coming up in the theater, growing as an artist in the theater — it’s a literary art form and there’s a respect for the written word and the writer that comes with being a theater actor. I think it did prepare me and prepare a lot of us in this cast for working with somebody like Aaron who is, frankly, a brilliant playwright. That’s what he’s doing. He’s writing these 90 page plays each week. And we get to do them. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with a writer like that. It certainly eased the transition in terms of the style of the two mediums.

So what’s it like playing the part of a love triangle we’ve been encouraged to root against?

You’re dealing with a guy who’s been under an incredible amount of work-related stress. There’s a great deal of focus on what’s been going on at work, and once starts to calm down and he starts to get invited back into the fold, he opens his eyes and looks up and says, “Jesus Christ, my personal life is going to hell.”

It’s in keeping with one of the things that’s great about these characters, that they are so capable at what they do but so utterly lost when it comes to life. I personally find that incredibly endearing. It’s not easy to play the part of the triangle that everybody wishes would just disappear [laughs]. You ultimately like to be rooted for from time to time. I’ve had a great time sort of watching the evolution of that opinion.

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