Realism

Someone I follow on Twitter retweeted this:

pourmecoffee: Spoiler Alert: People who found way to enjoy story of a Spider-Man are about to tweet that The Newsroom isn’t realistic.

On one hand, I can see the humor in it. Ha, ha, ha, how dare people criticize the genius Aaron Sorkin for lack of realism when they’re okay with a dude who develops superpowers! On the other hand, I have heard entirely too much about the Newsroom to think it’s beyond criticism and, this is the important bit, Spider-Man offers its audience an anchor for their suspension of disbelief.

See, here’s the thing. We have to suspend our disbelief to a certain extent when we consume fiction. No author is going to get everything perfect, and some stories require us to pretend that maybe a teenager really could get super-strength and the ability to cling to surfaces with his fingertips. This is fine.

However, suspension of disbelief requires a certain protocol. You can’t just ignore how things work in the real world and then when people complain, demand that they suspend their disbelief.

My favorite example of this is the first X-Files movie, in which mutated/genetically-engineered bees were pollenating corn. Corn is a wind-pollenated plant.

I had no trouble with the bees — they said in the story that they were special bees, so my suspension of disbelief kicked in. But nothing similar was said about the corn. That’s the thing with suspension of disbelief, you have to give us something to hang it on. You have to tell us that the superhero is different or has had something happen to him, you have to tell us that the story takes place in the future, you have to give us something to hang that suspension of disbelief on, or it won’t work.

The reason that The X-Files tv show worked so well is that they got so much real stuff right and when the aliens or mutants or whateverthefuck showed up, they gave us something to hang our suspension of disbelief on.

Let’s say people are complaining that the newsroom protocol in  The Newsroom is unrealistic. The show would have to, say, announce that the person running the newsroom the show’s set in is a weirdo or has unconventional ideas or something, and then any time unrealistic newsroom-protocol shit was going down they’d have to have a character say, “well, this isn’t how it normally works, but so-and-so is a maverick” and then the audience would be set. They’d have an anchor for their suspension of disbelief.

See, if you don’t anchor that suspension of disbelief, your audience just sort of … floats away. You can’t just ignore how things work in the real world, even in science fiction or fantasy. You have to nod at it and then give a plausible excuse for why it’s different here, even if that excuse involves the words “flux-capacitor” and other Treknobabble. You have to acknowledge that you’re asking people to suspend their disbelief. Otherwise you just look ignorant, lazy, or stupid.

So yes, @pourmecoffee, there are people who loved Spider-Man and who think the Newsroom is unrealistic, and that is completely reasonable.

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3 Responses to Realism

  1. Alex Summers says:

    Thank you for putting into words something I’ve been thinking for years. “Something to hang your suspension of disbelief on.” I’m gonna try to remember and use that.

  2. Kathy says:

    Yes! Yes! A perfect explanation of the chasm separating “fictional” and “plain old wrong.”

  3. Nate says:

    I don’t know if that tweet is attacking the weakest argument leveled against The Newsroom (it gets things wrong), or if it’s attacking the people making the argument (derp, superheroes aren’t real!). For that reason alone, it irks me. It sounds like something Sorkin himself would write, with fewer big words to make us all feel a little dumber for questioning him. At least be clear if you’re going to make such a stupid statement! Anyway, there’s a huge difference between Spider-Man and The Newsroom, and it isn’t the genre or level of realism attached; it’s that Spider-Man doesn’t suck.

    Also, rather than writing a huge essay: people criticize the things The Newsroom gets wrong because it’s easier to jump on something objectively wrong than to spend 5,000 words trying to get into Sorkin’s mind to attack his characterization and his themes. It might be nitpicking in some cases, but at least it requires you to spend less time thinking about a hack’s latest blunder.