[Review] The Newsroom, Season 1

It's a strange thing to have to say, but I'm not an Aaron Sorkin apologist. I genuinely like his work. I also genuinely see it's flaws. But I am more willing to overlook those flaws if it means I get to enjoy an hour each week of one of my favourite writers. Yes, he repeats himself, but so too do all writers. Stephen King has made a career of writing the same three books over and over again. Yes, his work is extremely biased, heavy handed and condescending, and his characters tend to speak in speeches rather in conversation. But that's his style, and we can no more criticize a writer for having a standard style then we can criticize an athlete for having a particular technique. All that matter is if they use their standards to create something enjoyable.

Is The Newsroom enjoyable? Yes, certainly. Is it good? That's a harder question.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers which suddenly realised they are better then this.

Let's get this out of the way: the first three seasons of West Wing deserve to be remembered as some of the best television, ever. And Sports Night, despite it's flaws (mostly network imposed), was a solid entry in what is now known as the dramedy genre. Studio 60 started strong, and then completely deflated, as pacing problems, lack of character development and a tendency to revisit the same debates over and over bogged down what could have been an enjoyable comedy series.

Where does Newsroom fall into that group? At it's best, it's on par with Sports Night. At it's worst, I'd still say it's not as bad as Studio 60 ended up. That being said, it shares many of the same problems that Studio 60 had. And by the end of this ten episode first season, it managed to overcome a couple, and managed to remain status quo with the others. Nothing got worse as the season went on, so at least he learned that lesson from his time at NBC.

I remember hearing about what became this show back in 2008, or somewhere near there, described as the nightly news program of a Keith Oberman-style anchor, to be played by Sports Night star Josh Charles. This, obviously, never happened, but I was excited. Because Sorkin is best when he has a range of topics to pick away at, and have his character yell partisan idealisms at one another. Studio 60 fumbled that, because there isn't much politics in late night comedy, and had to force it in. So, we ended up with Matthew Perry being smug about religion for 23 episodes. A news anchor would encounter a variety of topics, with which to get heated up a bit. This was a chance to find that West Wing spark again.

Except once he got hooked on the Tea Party, he was like a dog with a Frisbee. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The show follows Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the so called Jay Leno of late night news. He works for ACN, which in this universe competes with CNN for a place in the non partisan middle of modern media. I think. The show never really leaves the newsroom, so it's hard to tell exactly what their mandate is. the owners don't want McAvoy going after the Tea Partiers, but not for a political reason, for a commercial one. Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) doesn't seem to have any specific motivation for doing the news either, though he and Will share a heavily idealised vision, that doing the news is a moral imperative. That it is a calling, not a soap box.

The twist, revealed at key moments during episodes until the gimmick wears off around the half season mark, is that the show is set in the past. Exactly one year ago. The first episode occurs on the day of the BP oil spill. Other major events covered over the course of this season include the death of Osama Bin Laden, the 2010 mid terms, the Arab spring, the Fukushima crisis, and Anthony Weiner's penis. Except, the twist doesn't work. Notice, that's a lot of stuff to cover, and any one could have been the focus for several episodes. They fall back on the time jumps because that means they get to hit all the major stories, without having to wait. 

Other then a date flashed on the screen, there is nothing on the show to suggest that any time has past. Watch the season a decade from now, when most of that stuff up there has been forgotten, or at least faded into the cultural memory, and you'd swear the show takes place over the worst couple weeks in American history. Sorkin himself forgets from time to time, having characters reference something that happened in the previous episode as if it had happened the day before. Except three months might separate the episodes in universe. I barely remember what I did an hour ago, let along a conversation I had with someone a quarter of a year before.

Sorkin is not at his best when writing relationships. Notice that the first three years of West Wing had nearly no romantic story lines. They either preexisted, or terminated, or were short flings. Sam's flirtation with Mallory, which went no where, was the closest thing that show had to a romance. Studio 60, on the other hand, was all about romance, except it was a adolescent view of romance, where everything is turned up to eleven, and everything has to be done in big, romantic gestures. Maybe it's the influence of musical theatre on Sorkin's writing that causes this (Newsroom is no different, with Man of La Mancha being the influence for the basic structure of the season, and Camelot heavily referenced), where everything is big and exaggerated, and in no way indicative of a realistic relationship.

There are charges that Sorkin also cannot write women, which I say is just false, and insulting. CJ Craig is one of the best written women in TV history, and characters like Abby Bartlett, Ainsley Hayes, and Dana Whitaker are well rounded, developed characters. Thing was, these characters all had something to do within their respective roles. The women of the Newsroom seem only to exist for the romantic tensions that are shoehorned into the narrative. And they are terrible. There isn't a single romantic relationship on this show that I buy, at all. One, an unrequited love between Maggie (Alison Pill) and Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) exists because a third character tells Jim he should fall in love with her, in the pilot. It was like there was a mandate for a will they-won't they from on high, and Sorkin wasn't interested in having the characters actually become attracted to each other in a sensible, informed way, so he just said "these two will love each other" and moved on.

Mac (Emily Mortimer) comes off even worse, having an semi-unrequited relationship with Will, which borders on the obsessive levels we got with Matthew Perry back on Studio 60. Dragging something like a past relationship out over and over isn't drama, it's lazy. Move on, or do something interesting. the rest of the time, Mac serves no purpose other then to be a maniac, prone to random outbursts of slapstick or cringe-comedy. She's the show's sad sack, except she's incredibly positive about the whole thing. Underneath though, she's nothing. In the pilot, she convinces Will to change his attitude on the news, but beyond that, she wears headphones, and contributes nothing to the show. She is barely a character outside of the newsroom, having no social life, and no other major plot developments that aren't connected directly to Will.

Which brings us to Will. I have not seen such a clear example of a Mary Sue in years. But beyond that, his character is all over the place. In the pilot he's a humourless jackass with no social life. Then he morphs into a one liner spewing iconoclast, who sways back and forth between stooge ("give me a break, these are hard pants") and fearless leader. Daniels has perfect comedic timing, and can play the serious stuff. And I've got no problem with a character having both traits. It's something that most real people do. But if they could refine it a little, make it seem more plausible, so when he goes from being the Professor or Uncle Fluffy, it's not so jarring.

So, what does the show do well, you might be asking at this point? Well, other examples of pretty much everything above. The show has some very strong characters, and some very good character development. Don (Thomas Sadoski) especially, who starts the show as basically the villain, a rival producer who is mean and made the pretty girl cry. By the end of the season though, he has warmed considerably, is well liked amongst his co-workers, and is the character I most wanted to get more screen time. Which is saying something, because at the end of the pilot, I wanted to drown the character in a sack. Many excellency points go to Dev Patel and Olivia Munn as the newsrooms geeks, both excellent examples of the brand new cliche, "smart is the new sexy". Munn, especially, has finally proven her worth as an actress and a comedian. I'll say, I wasn't a fan of her time on the Daily show, and haven't liked anything else, but she nails the role, and is another example to go in that list I made up top of strong Sorkin women.

I'd like to say that Sam Waterston is the jewel in the crown, but he isn't. He could have been, but Sorkin lost interest in what made the character interesting. Waterston is certain good, probably the best actor of the bunch, but in the early episodes, his news director was a functioning alcoholic prone to sudden outbursts of adorable rage. This disappeared, and was replaced by Jack McCoy in a bow tie (to be fair, bow ties are cool). I was disappointed, because the first Charlie was manic, and interesting, and a departure from what we're used to seeing from those sorts of characters. Then Sorkin just let it go. The show's biggest wasted opportunity, as far as I'm concerned.

Despite all of that above, I like the show. Probably because I love the way Sorkin writes dialogue. Partly because, no matter how shallow the characters (developmentally speaking) or pointless the gimmicks, it is funny. It is not timeless, by any stretch. By it's own nature, it's out of date (I had completely forgotten about the Japanese nuclear meltdowns), and in five years, this season won't mean anything. But for ten weeks, when nothing else was on, I got the occassional laugh, and enjoyed myself.

Episode ranking: episodes 6, 7 and 8 were probably the best, with 2 being the most useless, and 3 being the worst constructed. Also, episode 9 was a big let down following the set up of 8. And the season finale was toothless.

How to improve next year: Have Mac disappear into Mandy-land, or find something for her to do. Showcase Jim being the great producer he was lauded to be in the pilot, because he did jackshit the rest of the season. Have Jim and Maggie move on, I'm tired of them. Focus more on the news side of things in general, and less on the personal lives of the people. Forget about the one year behind thing, it's not working, and is making the show even less relevant. Just make up your own news. Stop using stupid coinesdence to further plot (ex. Maggie's roommate knowing Casey Anthony). Stop using modern pop culture references, becasue it's obvious you don't know what you're talking about, and read the description off wikipedia. And if you're going to introduce big plots, like phone hacking, or death threats, don't have them go no where. Chekov's guns need to be fired, not used to prop open doors.

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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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