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.