Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Newsroom: The Best Bad Show on Television

The cast of "The Newsroom"
Aaron Sorkin loves two things: The machinations behind the scenes of television shows and saying Important Things about politics and current events.  About fifteen years ago, Sorkin made his first foray into television with a behind-the-scenes look at ESPN and sports television with Sports Night.  Then, he opened his case of Important Things and we got the pinnacle of political dramas in The West Wing, at least until saying Important Things got in the way of other things like writing scripts and producing episodes and Sorkin left his own show.  Following his departure from The West Wing, he dove into the world of sketch comedy shows and made Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  Then, last year, Sorkin decided to bring his two great loves together to make The Newsroom a show about the machinations behind the scenes of a cable news show, starring a character who, among other things, is "on a mission to civilize” political discourse.  And boy does Sorkin use that hour to say Important Things. 

The key to whether or not The Newsroom succeeds as a drama is not dependent on agreeing with Sorkin’s liberal politics.  In the sake of full disclosure, I would say my politics fall somewhere in line with what main character and “News Night” lead anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) claims his politics are—a registered Republican who views the Religious Right with deep mistrust.  But, as I was saying, what determines whether The Newsroom is successful is the level to which the show is capable of melding politics and drama so that the viewer doesn’t feel as though he’s trapped in a college classroom with Sorkin at the lectern. 

You may be asking yourself how it is that I’ve gotten nearly 300 words into this review without saying nary a word about the show, its plots, or its characters.  It's because Sorkin has made questionable (though bold) decisions that tend to blur the line between Sorkin-as-storyteller and Sorkin-as-lecturer.  Let’s start with the decision to set The Newsroom in the recent past.  The show, which debuted in June 2012, opens (following a brief prologue establishing Will’s “Come to Jesus” moment) in April 2010, at the beginning of the Deepwater Horizon crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, which is probably best known now as the BP Oil Spill.  What follows throughout the first season is a sort of “Greatest Hits” compilation of the news spanning a sixteen month time period from April 2010 to August 2011.  Included are a handful of stories that resonate to this day (the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the Fukushima nuclear disaster) as well as a few dead horses that had been beaten beyond recognition long before Sorkin decided to get his licks in (Pres. Obama supposedly spending $200 million per day on a trip to India, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to bust the state’s public unions). 

Sorkin’s decision to Monday Morning Quarterback the news both helps and hinders The Newsroom.  On the positive side, it gives the show urgency and a level of familiarity it might not have had otherwise.  I vividly remember May 1, 2011, with the sudden announcement late in the evening that the President was going to make a public address and the news channels scrambled for hours trying to figure out what the hell was going on.  I remember when the rumors started to fly that Osama bin Laden had been killed and the President’s speech confirming those rumors.  I was glued to the television for hours that night and I was glued to the television when Sorkin retold the story.  Many of these stories made for riveting television and they make for riveting television now.

Unfortunately, setting The Newsroom in the recent past emphasizes Sorkin’s worst trait as the college lecturer you never wanted.  You see, Aaron Sorkin is a mansplainer of the highest order, though he often tries to hide it by having his female characters explain things.  When he wants to tell you his thoughts on immigration reform, Will’s intern-turned-assistant-turned-associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) will deliver a two-minute monologue disguised as pre-interview prep about all the benefits that immigrants, both legal and illegal, bring to our country.  Of course, this little lecture has no bearing whatsoever on the episode and when Maggie inevitably blows the actual pre-interview it’s for reasons that are entirely personal and not at all related to the issues.  When he wants to complain about the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, it’s done in the guise of economics guru Sloane Sabbath (Olivia Munn) having to explain everything about corporate finance to executive producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) who, despite being the supposed greatest news producer in the world (at least according to Will and everybody he recites her credentials to) is maliciously portrayed as an absolute moron (more on that later).

Sorkin is no stranger to mansplaining.  The West Wing somewhat famously had a scene in which two of its characters literally sat for a lecture explaining why the Mercator map projection was a gross mischaracterization of our planet that had been used for centuries to diminish the third world and boost the apparent importance and centrality of the northern hemisphere.  Now, this type of exposition isn’t inherently problematic, but under Sorkin’s hand it becomes so.  Unlike most television shows, but exactly like his shows, Sorkin writes or co-writes every episode, so it often becomes impossible to distinguish what his characters are saying from what he is trying to say with his characters.  This becomes even more problematic when the characters, as they quite often do, come to the right conclusion for the wrong reason.  Most notably, this happens when The Newsroom tackles the question of death and the news.  In a thrilling scene at the end of “I’ll Try to Fix You,” the news team is rallying to cover the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.  NPR reports her death based on sketchy sources and other media outlets follow while the ACN (“News Night’s” cable network home) team defies the orders of the network executive and give us the lovely line, “She’s a person.  Doctors declare people dead.  Not the news.”  Of course, that doesn’t stop Mackenzie from taking the exact opposite position three episodes later and begging Will to run with bin Laden’s death in spite of a lack of independent confirmation.  The cognitive dissonance here is not necessarily a bad thing because people are often capable of making conflicting decisions.  But because Sorkin is Monday Morning Quarterbacking the news, it’s hard not to believe that he thinks each of these decisions was the correct one, dissonance be damned.

I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about Aaron Sorkin and how his approach to this show is a big problem, but the truth is that I really enjoy watching The Newsroom much of the time.  Will McAvoy is the lead and anchor of “News Night,” the show within the show.  Described early on in the pilot as “the Jay Leno of news anchors,” Will has made his name as an inoffensive, middle-of-the-road broadcaster who presents all sides of an issue, no matter the relevance or sanity of those sides and, as a result, brings in the ratings.  During a journalism school panel he has a “Come to Jesus” moment and unleashes a rant about how the United States is no longer the greatest country in the world.  This rant shatters his Leno persona and leads to a shakeup at “News Night” as most of his production team leaves for a new show and his boss Charlie (Sam Waterston) brings in Will’s ex-girlfriend Mackenzie McHale to run the new show.

            Mackenzie’s big plan is to reclaim the fourth estate and create a “real” news show, one that focuses on the big issues rather than covering the latest developments in the Jodi Arias case, or showing video of the Tsarnaev brothers at the gym in the days leading up to the Boston bombing, or covering the prison wedding of Natalee Holloway’s killer (fun fact – those were all real stories from the front page of on the day I wrote this review).  The middle half of the pilot is very much a “getting the gang together” narrative as Mackenzie brings in her young but brilliant producer Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.) and eccentric blogger Neal (Dev Patel), and promotes the aforementioned Maggie. 

With the Avengers assembled, the new crew immediately begins investigating an explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  Jim is convinced that the problem is being underplayed while Will’s former producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) spends the bulk of the episode ignoring the explosion as a search-and-rescue mission and trying to get the “News Night” team to let it go.  Clearly, the viewer is meant to side with Jim and the new team over Don and the old team, but the way Sorkin goes about setting up those competing sides is disingenuous at best.  Because he’s covering a real news story that actually happened, we know that Jim is right and Don is wrong.  But the characters don’t know that, and were this show not using actual news stories, we wouldn’t either.  And the way Jim goes about breaking the real story of the BP oil spill isn’t even particularly novel.  It turns out that one of Jim’s former college roommates is a vice president at BP and is willing to confess to Jim that they don’t know how to cap the well.  And Jim’s sister turns out to be well-placed at Halliburton, and tells Jim that Halliburton knew the cement they had used to cap the well would fail.  This is information that took real reporters months to gather.  I know that journalists use a variety of sources to break stories, but having a producer with friends and family members who just so happen to be high-level officials with the two companies involved in a major news story and who are also willing to talk about that story while its happening, is a bit of a stretch to believe, even if Sorkin hangs a lampshade on it.  Unfortunately, it isn’t the last time that “News Night” relies on a character’s personal relationships to break a story.

But while the actual newsgathering process is handled a little sketchily, The Newsroom excels at showing the actual news production process.  “I’ll Try to Fix You” is a largely abhorrent episode in which Will spends most of the time proclaiming his “mission to civilize” and berating his dates about the terror that is celebreality television.  For fifty minutes, this episode is pretty terrible television, but then the strains of Coldplay’s eponymous song kick in and the news team rallies to report on the Giffords shooting and The Newsroom just envelops you with crisp, fast-paced dialogue and swooping camera shots.  Likewise, the final few minutes of “5/1,” with Will’s delivery of the news of bin Laden’s death leading directly into the actual recording of President Obama’s speech from that evening was masterfully done.

Ultimately, it is the existential struggle between these two Sorkins—the unquestioned auteur and the vituperative partisan hack—that makes The Newsroom so fascinating.  While watching the show I’m glued to the screen, easily able to be sucked into this world by the storytelling.  It’s only afterward that the holes become visible.  Perhaps that makes this the perfect reviewable show.  I can enjoy it while watching and then complain about it later.

So, with all that said, what am I hoping for in the second season?

1)    Meld the politics better.  I know that I’m not going to agree with Sorkin’s politics most of the time and, really, I’m okay with that.  But when a character is delivering a three-minute lecture on whatever bugaboo is in Sorkin’s head this week, I’d appreciate it if that lecture actually fit naturally into the story and wasn’t just inserted so that he could make a point.

2)    Improve the female characters.  The Newsroom treats its female characters like crap.  Let’s just get that out of the way now.  Mackenzie is supposed to be a crack executive producer yet she can neither a) send an email properly, nor b) subtract without using her fingers.  The latter is a particularly malicious character trait because it’s put into the show for absolutely no reason other than to mock and belittle her.  Will puts her on the spot to subtract and let’s everybody get a good solid laugh at her stupidity.

Sloane is a better character until near the end of the season when she’s given the opportunity to anchor a show (“You’re expanding”) and immediately takes the remark as a crack on her weight (“I’ve gained four pounds”).  She also hesitates to take the job until told that it comes with an essentially unlimited Gucci wardrobe.  Because if there’s anything that will attract the attention of a woman with a PhD in economics, it’s clothes. 

3)    Fix the love triangle/square/pentagon/whatever it is.  I understand that I'm supposed to root for Jim and Maggie to get together, but the show has given me no reason why I'm supposed to believe that.  Pill and Gallagher have decent chemistry, but Don isn't a particularly bad guy and Jim is weak and kind of a dick to the girl he is dating.  The worst problems of the show not involving politics are all found in the romantic entanglements and, unfortunately, the circle of romance only seems to be expanding.  I don't know how Sorkin can fix this, but he needs to do something different, because the romantic tension is just dragging the show down right now.

4)     Let people call Will out more.  Will is an ass.  His brand of journalism may come from a genuine, heartfelt place, but he comes across as a condescending, paternalistic ass.  And he really only gets called out on it once in the first season.  It takes a black, gay Rick Santorum supporter in “Bullies” to finally tear Will down from his soapbox by reminding the bloviator that it is not Will who gets to decide how people can vote, but those people themselves.  It’s the only time in the entire season that Will ever seems chastened.  It’s a good look for him and one the show could use more of.

I call The Newsroom "The Best Bad Show on Television" and I mean that.  When I turn off my critical engine and let the show simply envelop me, I really enjoy it.  Sorkin's a fantastic writer and the actors and directors are all pretty great in their respective roles.  But when I start thinking and writing about the show, it just starts falling apart, which is really unfortunate.  Hopefully, Sorkin finds a way to bring everything together in season two, because this could be a very good show, if not necessarily a great show.  However you want to split the hairs, The Newsroom in season one was not the best version of this show, but I believe it can be better and hope season two allows it to be.

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