The Newsroom: Season 1

I’m completely conflicted about this show, I wanted so much for it to be good; not just good, but great. I wanted the creator of my favourite show of all time to return to television and blow everyone away, recreating the perfect blend of drama, character, political commentary and humour that made The West Wing such a masterpiece. But he didn’t. The Newsroom is not the holy grail. But neither is it a disaster and in reviewing it I’m torn between two extremes of not going too soft on it because I want to find the good in it, and also not laying into it because of disappointment that my impossible dreams were not met.

There are two components to The Newsroom – the television show we see with its characters and plots, and the show-within-a-show, the perfect news programme that Sorkin wishes existed. With the benefit of hindsight (all episodes being set at least a year ago) Sorkin gets to report the news and issues that he wants to, in the way that he wants to. Just like The West Wing created a dream White House, this is Sorkin creating the dream news programme. Could it exist in the real world? Probably not, but that’s absolutely fine, after all this is a drama series, not a documentary. Sometimes television is about gritty reality and sometimes it’s about creating a fantasy, an escape from that grittiness.

Even more so than The West Wing, The Newsroom is packed to the brim with issues and challenging topics, both about the subjects in the news (or that should be in the news) and the specifics of how journalism is now done in a world of ratings and giant corporations. This is where Sorkin excels, he raises issues that are both challenging and original and he does so with eloquence and passion that carry you along on a wave of indignation and fascination.

The problem comes however when it all starts to feel too relentless, too shouty and too accusatory. Even though I agreed with almost all of the points that were made, I still began to feel uncomfortable, that it was drifting out of investigative journalism and into intellectual bullying and one-sided grand-standing. Just like when watching the real news, I found myself occasionally getting frustrated that the other side either wasn’t given the opportunity to respond, or didn’t use the best arguments they could. Encourage debate by all means, but give the other side a chance to respond.

Around the show-in-a-show of course is the, well, the show. The characters and stories around producing the news, are also a mixed bag, for the most part pretty solid, interspersed with moments of utter stupidity. The principle offender (victim?) here was Mackenzie, who was introduced as a veteran war journalist of incredible experience and competence, and yet she spent the majority of the series struggling with basic life skills, embarrassing herself and her colleagues and shrieking like a harpy.

As I feared in the pilot, the romantic pairings dragged everything down as well. The increasingly complicated web of relationships around Maggie, Don and Jim got tiresome pretty quickly; while the history between Mackenzie and Will failed to do anything but make smart characters seem inept and stupid. All of the characters are fundamentally likeable and competent, but too often they’ve been forced to act like immature teenagers, which completely undermines everything the show is trying to do.

Despite all of these concerns, I still really like the show. It does address interesting topics, that do not get the coverage that they deserve, and it does so in a way that’s eloquent and inspiring. Despite their failings, I want these characters to succeed, because I believe they are passionate and smart despite the occasionally idiotic things they do. The dialogue is incredibly well written, it makes me laugh, cry and want to stand up off the sofa and applaud. Sorkin’s wit, passion and intelligence shine through in both the pithiest of one liners, and the beautifully constructed speeches that build in a crescendo of power. Even the opening titles and music lift you up. I’m glad that Sorkin is now on a cable network where he doesn’t need astronomical ratings to get his second season, where he doesn’t need every single critic to adore him, because for all its many flaws, and maybe because I’m just a blinded fan-girl, I love this show.

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    • Tim
    • September 14th, 2012

    I find myself in a very similar position to you looking back on this first season. ‘Inconsistent’ is the word I would use. At times, The Newsroom has been soaringly brilliant – on a par with The West Wing at its best – but at other times I have cringed at the preaching and the excessive employmenty of prat-fallery for light relief. (Will and his trousers – I mean, seriously?!?) Often we have flipped from one extreme to the other within the same act, never mind the same episode.

    Sorkin’s continued weaknesses are apparent. Preaching too much – from what I know of them (not much), I am violently opposed to everything the Tea Party stands for, and yet even I became uncomfortable about the repeated bashing the series gives them. Yes, we get it, Aaron. And an increasing tendency to write his female characters as dysfunctional rather than quirky. Mac is an interesting character horribly written, Maggie a horrible character horribly written (seriously, how has she never been fired?) Only with Sloan have we seen the right balance of kookiness and strength – the only female character here who can hold a candle to the brilliance of CJ Cregg.

    On the other side of the fence, I’ve liked Will despite some odd moments I’d rather forget (I’m back to trousers again), Don has been genius and Jim is just lovably idealistic and naive.

    I think you can pretty much divide the episodes into three equal thirds – brilliant, OK and frankly appalling. Top of the pile has to be the Bin Laden episode, and the black-out two-parter is right down at the bottom. (I mean, just how convenient was it that Maggie’s roommate would turn out to have known Casey Anthiny?!?)

    From any other series, I suspect The Newsroom would fall into the “should watch” rather than “must watch” category, but behind all the intellectual bludgeoning I love the fact that Sorkin remains an idealist and wants nothing more than to make his audience think about what they see. For that reason alone, I’m dying for the second season to arrive asap.

    (Sorry, that was a bit longer than intended …)

    • Oh! I’d forgotten Will trying and failing to put on his trousers in the middle of the office! Clearly I’d just wiped it from my memory as too stupid to be true.

      I was less than overwhelmed with the Bin Laden episode I have to say. I found it… uncomfortable. I think the events mean something profound to Americans that I just couldn’t quite connect with. I also found it a bit repetitive, the power of the moment of reporting the news to individual people for whom it means the most, diluted by the fact they did it three times over.

      I think for me it was more moments, in each episode there was some brilliance and some contrived rubbish. Similarly each character had times to shine (e.g. the irritating Maggie finally getting something right when she wants to ask Bachmann what God’s voice sounds like) and times when I wanted them to disappear (e.g. the usually superb Sloane forgetting the golden rule of journalism – what “off the record” means).

      As you say, at least Sorkin is trying. Even if he doesn’t always hit his mark, I still very much want to watch him try. And yup, I actually sit through the beautiful opening music every time as well!

    • Tim
    • September 14th, 2012

    Oh, and one more thing: I adore the opening theme tune and credits. In a TV world where the credits are so often reduced to little more than a title card and a quick musical sting, it is stirring, uplifting and more than a little inspiring (although it’s not as brilliant as The West Wing’s). I usually fast-forward through the opening credits of most shows. Not this one.

  1. September 19th, 2012
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