Television

TV: The Newsroom (Season 1)

September 2, 2012

It’s an election year, which means blood is boiling, social media is all up in our political business, and people everywhere are concerned, angry, and depressed about the state of the union.  As the election approaches it gets more and more difficult to stay above the fray.  You want to put your two cents in, speak your mind, rally the cause.  And, in the process, piss off everyone who disagrees with you.

I am not, however, going to bow to temptation and write about politics on my blog.  Instead, I’m going to review season one of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, which recently completed its first season.

*whistles innocently*

The Newsroom, like most of Sorkin’s shows, is a workplace dramedy.  This time the venue is a cable news channel, where popular anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) — traditionally a bland ratings chaser — becomes an overnight YouTube sensation when he goes on an extemporaneous rant about the state of America during a college visit.  The cat is out of the bag:  the measured, opinionless McAvoy is actually a firebrand in disguise.  And to capitalize on the controversy, McAvoy’s superiors — led by new executive producer Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) and news division bigwig Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) — decide to take his primetime hour in a bold, old direction.  Rather than follow the current, money-grubbing news-as-entertainment model that dominates cable, McAvoy will become an objective reporter of important news stories.  His show will be the one place on cable where facts, corroboration and relevance are more important than soundbites, eyeball kicks, hyperbole and sensationalism.

Helping take the show in this noble new direction is a team of young, idealistic subordinates, including Mackenzie’s protégé, the highly competent and charming Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), and Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), a well-meaning but neurotic associate producer.  Maggie and Jim’s instant chemistry is complicated by Maggie’s on-the-fence relationship with jerk producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski).  Rounding out the team are enthusiastic wunderkind Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) and beautiful, brilliant, and socially inept economist Sloane Sabbith (Olivia Munn).

The show’s change in direction leads to considerable growing pains, as the team stumbles early and often, and things get even worse when McAvoy’s agenda provokes the corporate higher-ups, particularly Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), who comes down hard on the show for irking her Tea Party business partners.  The workplace tension escalates as the misfit crew attempts to makes the show work in the face of network pressure.  And meanwhile, behind-the-scenes romantic conflicts — most notably, the fact that Will and Mackenzie are exes with a rocky past — continuously threaten to derail the train.

I find The Newsroom slick, well produced, witty, provocative, and highly entertaining.   I also find it problematic, clumsy, tiresome, and occasionally infuriating.  I can’t remember the last time a series gave me such a mixed reaction.

It does keep me watching, though.  As usual, Sorkin’s fast-paced dialogue crackles with life and humor, buzzing along like a 1940s screwball comedy.  The cast deftly handles his trademark conversational rhythms, with Daniels really standing out in the lead role.  I also applaud the series for talking about things that matter.  The Newsroom takes on the commodification of the news and the perversion of the truth in media and politics, and these are definitely subjects in serious need of discussion.  The show is not afraid to peer into the dark, ugly corners of the American media machine.  It has a well developed setting full of interesting, entertainingly interacting characters, and I like the mission of the show.

But I’m not always fond of how that mission is executed.   Like most Sorkin shows, there are Moments of Truth when the characters go in front of the camera and Do Their Thing — when behind-the-scenes shenanigans lead up to a big moment when everything comes together.  On The West Wing and Sports Night, Sorkin had a decent track record for delivering these moments, mostly convincingly.  But when Sorkin drops the ball, it can be ugly; the lame comedy sketches on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip were fatal to my interest.  “Showtime” on The Newsroom doesn’t quite fall to that level, but it often doesn’t convince — and McAvoy’s broadcasts simply don’t consistently deliver on their stated altruistic promise.  This is through no fault of Daniels, I think, who does a fine job with the material.  But the slant is way too transparent.  Sorkin’s left-leaning position shines through every monologue, even the ones in which McAvoy is purportedly criticizing a Democrat.  (For example, the supposed assault on Obama’s abysmal gun-control record is really a left-handed attack on NRA claims that Obama is a threat to the Second Amendment.)  As a progressive firmly ensconced on the left, even I find myself absorbing Sorkin’s rants with several grains of salt — even when I agree with the message and know the facts are accurate.

This is a failure of subtlety and a failure of tact — and it’s unfortunate in the context of a show with a rare opportunity.  Here’s a popular entertainment that could possibly communicate across the aisle. But Sorkin pounds his points home with a sledgehammer:  the tone is so shrill and sanctimonious, it does a disservice to the message.  Surely The Newsroom is just as polarizing as the truth-distorting news channels it criticizes.  And Sorkin often has the truth on his side, but he deploys it with such an iron fist that only the converted can stomach the sermon.  Meanwhile, the crew of the newsroom responds to each broadcast as though they’re shining light on a new way of thinking for America, which comes off as unwarranted and self congratulatory.

Past the politics, I have issues with the show’s tone, plotting and gender politics.  The Newsroom aims to split the difference between wacky comedy and serious drama, and these extremes often step on each other’s toes.  As a result, the plotting suffers: for a series so rife with intellectual characters, I’ve never seen such a constant reliance on “idiot plot.”  The staff of the show is sold as the media elite, and have individual moments of high competence, but in order to make the plot contortions work, everyone suffers from chronic brain fartitis.  While stupid decisions plague both genders, it’s more often common of women — most egregiously, Mackenzie and Maggie.  As progressive as most of Sorkin’s politics are, his gender politics are decidedly old-fashioned here.  In part this might be symptomatic of the fast-talking, zany style of the old movies he’s obviously trying to recapture, but that doesn’t make it any more forgiveable.  The men fall on their faces, but they’re still cool, they still get the last word, they still redeem themselves by episode’s end.  The women are decidedly secondary.  Even Maggie’s roommate Lisa (Kelen Coleman), who seems to have more backbone and common sense than anyone on Will’s staff, is mostly just around as the fourth wheel on the tedious Jim-Maggie-Don love triangle.  For a while, it appeared that the brilliant if socially clueless Sloane — who I think is one of the more interesting, weird characters on the show — was going to be permitted to be a female character not defined by her relationship with men.  But Sorkin screws that pooch late in the season, in monumental fashion.  (A jerk is a jerk, dude…they don’t become nice guys just because you tell us they are.)

So yeah, The Newsroom is interesting, ambitious stuff.  It keeps me watching.  I like the actors and the premise.  I very much enjoyed watching it decimate the toxic Tea Party, however tactlessly.  And I really do think the show is in a position to tackle important issues.  But I wish it didn’t so often sound like an angry man on a high horse, bludgeoning away at his ideological enemies.

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  • Lisa Moore September 2, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Russ and I started watching from the pilot. For all the reasons you mentioned, we hated it at first, but we kept giving it one more chance. Not sure when hate turned to love, but by the finale I was totally <3. My conspiracy theory self believes Sorkin is throwing all the adolescent stupid/smart girl crap to lure in the low-info fox news watcher and feed them some real news–trojan horse of education. Will's last "they are the American Taliban" left me with goose bumps, and I was weeping through most of the Ossama episode. I'm hooked, I admit it.

    • Chris East September 2, 2012 at 11:37 pm

      I don’t know if I can give Sorkin that much credit…to me it seems more likely that he, like his characters, is a very intelligent man with glaring blind spots! I will continue to follow it, though — I appreciate its ambition. I just hope it works on its problems a bit next season.