The Newsroom: Season 3

The NewsroomUnsurprisingly the third season of The Newsroom ends up in exactly the same category as the first two – should’ve been better. I guess at least it’s consistent. I’m not sure whether there was ever any chance of it seeing a dramatic improvement, not when it’s so very much Aaron Sorkin’s production and he has never shown any interest in changing what he does based on critical or popular response. Maybe the reason he doesn’t change is because he can’t without losing the magic that he can create in other ways. Maybe that’s the price that has to be paid.

When it comes to cutting through complex issues to find the emotion and the power, he’s still second to none. His speeches and debates are passionate, challenging and hugely entertaining to watch; cutting through to the heart of issues and raising the intelligence level. But far, far too often the shots he’s taking are cheapened by being taken at undefended targets. There’s a reason that Jane Fonda as Leona was one of the best things about the show, she stood up for the other side and offered a sensible argument. If you don’t have a strong opposition the ranting just turns into bullying. It’s the debate that is powerful, not standing on a soapbox shouting.

Compounding the problem this season was the fact that most of the season was taken up with a single issue, the debate around leaking classified documents and a journalists responsibilities to their source. It’s a very hot topic, and it was for exactly that reason that I didn’t engage with it. It’s been debated endlessly already and I just didn’t think Sorkin’s take on it did anything new. I was bored by it. Even when Sorkin is just shouting from his soapbox, if it’s on a under-reported issue, or has an unusual direction, then it’s still interesting. But when he’s shouting on a soapbox that everyone’s been surrounded by for months it’s just dull and unoriginal.

The only original thing Sorkin can bring to the party is in his characters, but those had never worked for me. Too many of the characters were fatally wounded through compromises, incompetences and poor choices way back in season 1. The West Wing pulled off the magic trick of appearing to not be about the characters at all and by stealth making them the best ensemble on television. The Newsroom was too focussed on the characters and they didn’t hold up under the spotlight. I didn’t care about Maggie’s rise from new PA through to seasoned journalist because it wasn’t realistic, I didn’t care about Will and Mac finally getting together because they just went on and on about it. I didn’t care about Will’s journalistic principles because it had all got bogged down in the psychobabble about his father.

The only glimmer of hope were the characters of Sloane and Don, both separately and together, they are the characters that have had the most organic development. Each has actually grown, learnt and matured without sacrificing their essence. Their relationship grew in the background quietly, not forced or manipulated, but just occasional flashes of their connection gradually building. It had everything that the Will and Mac or Maggie and Jim pairings never had – a sense that these people are good for each other.

There were plenty of moments of great power, both emotional and intellectual in The Newsroom. I want Sorkin to be on television, even when he’s mucking things up, I still want to watch him. But I wish he would learn that he is so phenomenal at certain things that he doesn’t need to struggle with the things that he’s not. Just write around the gaps, or bring someone in to help fill them. It’s ironic that Sorkin’s shows are all about the power of a group of people, and then he forgets to fill his writers room with them. Come on Sorkin, what’s next?


The Newsroom: Season 2

The Newsroom (S2)Another season and another review that’s going to largely come down to “I really wish this show was just a little bit better”. I just re-read my season 1 review and recommend you do the same as I actually surprised myself at how good a job it does of describing my feelings about some of the key difficulties with the show as it goes on. Interesting and important issues drifting from eloquent challenge into intellectual bullying, characters being improbably stupid just for the purposes of driving plots, and endlessly circling relationships with minimal chemistry.

Season 2 is the year of Operation Genoa. The season as a whole tells the story of an investigation into a military operation, ranging from the first time a reporter hears about it, through the year long process of assembling, verifying and breaking the news story and then on through the fallout. It’s a very good plot, it gives a credible account of how slow, frustrating and luck based investigative journalism really is (at least as I imagine it), it shows the characters being good at their jobs, but it also shows that the characters are human and make understandable mistakes which have far reaching consequences. There were a final couple of reveals of how the whole thing came about which came a bit out of nowhere (to keep things vague – the motivations of a source in particular), but overall it was a very well put together season long story.

I’m not quite so sure about the way the story was told, which was with a very complicated bouncing back and forth in time. From the very start of the season we know that the story is not true and that there are going to be extremely serious ramifications (unsurprisingly) of broadcasting a completely untrue story. So we go back and forth gradually finding out how the team came to be so wrong. It’s creative and interesting, knowing how the plot starts and ends but only gradually filling in the steps in between. But it did also add a sense of doom to the proceedings which I could potentially have lived without. Also I’m still a little uncertain as to when certain events chronologically took place and how they all fit together.

The biggest problems however remain with the various relationships in the show. I still just don’t buy Mac and Will as a couple, long standing friends and colleagues yes, but a romantic couple – not so much. And even if I did like them together in that way, I was over the endless argument about betrayals and blame and forgiveness within about 10 minutes of the first time it was brought up. 19 episodes later and it’s beyond tedious. As for the various connections between Maggie, Jim, Don, Lisa and god knows who else… good grief! The only good thing to come out of the whole mess is Don and Sloane, two characters who bring the whole series to life, both together and apart. The two of them steal the show with the funniest lines, the most heartfelt emotions and the most passionate speeches. Together or apart, I love these two.

Once again, I have to give Newsroom a “could do better” grade. When it’s good it’s the kind of television that makes you want to stand up and cheer, to rewind to catch the details, to share with friends and to quote in arguments with enemies. But in between those moments of absolute brilliance is some really mediocre material – clumsy characterisation, story-lines that go nowhere (Occupy Wall Street) and high minded morales at the expense of realism. The show is blessed and cursed to be the younger sibling of The West Wing, in any other family it would be the star, but in this one, it’s just never going to live up to high expectations.

The 2011-2012 Season

I’ve been dragging my feet on my season round-up post as I’ve been trying to polish off a few more series. But all the new stuff is starting, so the time has come to just get on with it! I’ve watched 39 series this year, last year was 28 so that’s a pretty terrifying increase! A fair number of the series are only a handful of episodes though (for better or worse) so I figure the number of episodes is about the same, somewhere around the 600 mark.

American Horror Story – S1
Awake – S1 (In progress)
The Big Bang Theory – S5
The Big C – S2
Blue Bloods – S2
Bones – S7
Borgen – S1
The Bridge – S1
The Cafe – S1
Castle – S4
Criminal Minds – S7
CSI – S12
Downton Abbey – S2
Forbrydelsen (The Killing): S2
Fringe – S4 (in progress)
Game of Thrones – S2
Glee – S3 (in progress)
The Good Wife – S3
Grey’s Anatomy – S8
Homeland – S1
House – S8
The Jury
Luck – S1
Luther – S2
Mad Men – S5 (In progress)
Merlin – S4
The Newsroom – S1
Once Upon a Time – S1 (in progress)
Outnumbered – S4
Sherlock – S2
Smash – S1
Sons of Anarchy – S4
Supernatural – S7
Terra Nova – S1
Veep – S1
The Walking Dead – S2
Warehouse 13 – S3

There are a few other bits and pieces that didn’t make the list, mostly documentaries, many of them really rather excellent – Inside Nature’s Giants, David Attenborough’s Kingdom of Plants filmed at Kew Gardens, Frozen Planet, Wonders of the Universe to name a few.

Borgen. “The Danish West Wing” is an overused label, but it’s so accurate it’s hard to resist. It’s not just the subject matter that draws the comparison, but the quality of writing and production and, sadly, the ability for it to break your heart as characters realistically, but depressingly make the wrong decisions.

Fringe. For complicated housemate related reasons I still haven’t seen the final two episodes of this series, but I can’t see how they would do anything that would mean the series drops from this list. Fringe continues to evolve into a spectacularly complex, yet completely followable series while never forgeting to actually entertain its audience with self-aware nods to the ridiculousness of the situations.

The Good Wife. A brilliant cast, fascinating storylines, sure and steady character development all polished off with sparkling dialogue makes a package that’s just a complete and utter joy to watch. In a world of mediocre network procedurals, this one is so far ahead it’s clearly in a different league.

Homeland. Another show that’s complex yet accessible. The gradual reveal and development of characters is fascinating and I was on the edge of my seat all season not knowing which way anything was going to go.

Mad Men and Awake could potentially be added to this list, but I am less than half way through each.

The Newsroom. This show was the one I’d been most looking forward to, and I’m slightly devastated that I can’t include it in the ‘best’ category. But despite massive flaws with the characters and a preachiness that even I find rather troublesome, it’s still one of my favourite shows of the year. That may be blind Aaron Sorkin obsession, but I don’t care.

American Horror Story. A huge collection of characters and stories intricately interwoven and elegantly revealed over the span of a carefully structured series. It felt both innovative and yet thoroughly grounded in the history of the genre. I’m especially happy that each season is completely self contained, so nothing is dragged out or has the chance to get dull.

Smash. It’s original and fun, balancing cheesiness and melodrama with engaging characters and a surprisingly real feeling storyline. I’m really looking forward to next season, particularly given they’re getting rid of all the annoying characters.

Once Upon a Time. Another new show that’s original and fun. The storyline is incredibly complex yet revealed so elegantly that there’s never any difficulty keeping up. It’s beautifully designed and just a lovely series to watch.

I sort of covered my thoughts on actors in my Emmy post, so here are some broader thoughts.

House . Hugh Laurie gets the most praise publicly, but the whole cast of the series are absolutely superb. Robert Sean Leonard as Wilson completely and utterly broke my heart, Peter Jacobson (Taub) cracked me up, Olivia Wilde (Thirteen) stole the very few scenes she was in, and Jesse Spencer (Chase) produced one of the most satisfying character developments I’ve seen in a long time.

Homeland . One of the few things that myself and those that vote for awards actually agree on, the superbness that are Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. I however would go a lot further and also heap praise on the supporting performances by Morena Baccarin and Mandy Patinkin.

Sons of Anarchy. Award voters clearly have some kind of blind spot when it comes to Sons of Anarchy, because year after year they completely fail to register the incredible performances throughout the cast, but in particular from the female leads Katey Sagal and Maggie Siff

Katharine McPhee (Karen) and Megan Hilty (Ivy), Smash – I loved the dance the characters went on, competing with each other but respecting each other’s talents; sometimes gracious, sometimes bitchy. And boy can they belt out tunes! Also Jack Davenport (Derek) had some of the funniest lines of the year!

Fringe . The cast are good as their primary characters, but what’s impressive is that most of them then go on to play the same person in the alternate universe, each of them the same person but with slight variations. It’s astonishing, they are the same person yet completely different, it’s mind twisting and fascinating. I can’t imagine a greater challenge as an actor. While Anna Torv and John Noble rightly get a lot of praise, the performances of Jasika Nicole (Astrid) and Seth Gabel (Lincoln Lee) are just as subtle. Poor Joshua Jackson must feel rather hard-done-by without an alternate version to play with. He is pretty though.

The Good Wife – so many great performances and characters that I love from both stars, supporting characters (I could watch Josh Charles and Christine Baranski do the Will and Diane show all day long) and a dream list of guest stars (Michael J. Fox, Martha Plimpton, Matthew Perry – all playing deliciously slimy characters).

Booth and Bones getting together on Bones. I was completely against it, but cheerfully admit I was wrong. Having them jump from no relationship at all to living together and having a baby brought a breath of fresh air to the series. It was handled with such lightness and charm, with both characters bending to accommodate the other, but not making any fundamental changes… beautifully written and acted. Here’s hoping Castle can do the same.

The end of House. A series going out gracefully and winding everything up with a collection of satisfying resolutions for all the characters. House has never been about the medicine, but about the puzzles and about the people, while I may personally wish that Wilson had a different conclusion, it all fed in so perfectly and everyone ended up where they were supposed to be.

Creativity! It felt like there was some variation with what’s on TV, not just an endless stream of interchangeable procedurals. Shows like American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time and Walking Dead (finally) are investigating what it’s like to bring non-traditional genres to television, and shows like Smash, Luck and The Newsroom brought different subjects to the screen.

Female Characters! There are plenty of people out there who have and will write far more eloquently on the plight of women in television, but this year has felt like a relatively good year. Shows are full of strong women doing their jobs, raising their families and doing so as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Shows like The Good Wife, Smash, Once Upon a Time and Grey’s Anatomy have dominantly female casts, and almost everything else has a nice balance. Even something like Downton Abbey with its period constraints provides some wonderful roles for female actors.

Lighten up! Supernatural is superb, but it really really needs to lighten up a bit! It’s turned into something I have to force myself to watch, rather than something I really look forward to. The same argument could be made for Sons of Anarchy. Relentless depression is just not entertaining to watch, I’m not saying they suddenly need to be all sunshine and puppies, but just every now and then, let them catch a break.

NCIS . After 9 seasons, I realised there’s no point in watching this any more. The plots are utterly disposable and the characters are disastrously erratic. The last two seasons I’ve relegated it to ‘ironing watching’, but I’m even giving up on that (the show, not the ironing sadly).

Glee. I still haven’t managed to get to the end of the season having realised that I’m increasingly just fast-fowarding episodes. I just got sick to death with the terrible writing which completely undermined the charm of the characters and the talents of the actors. It just stopped being fun.

Still no spaceships. Can no one make this work?

Too short! Sherlock and Luther both had only 3 episodes, each ‘double’ length. It’s not enough. There’s the obvious problem that like a small child if I like something I want more of it, but it also really hampers the ability to get invested in characters and stories, just as you’re settling in, it’s all over and the voice over man is saying “will return in 2014”.

In preparing this article, I went back and looked at my summaries of last years shows and I have to highlight the following phrase in my summary of 2010-2011’s new shows:

Superheroes are out – there was a flurry of superhero shows and none of them were any good. People keep trying to find the magic of the early season of Heroes and the massive success that’s being found by Marvel and DC Comics at the cinema, but no one’s managed it yet. Here’s an idea, stop pissing off Joss Whedon and get him to do one, after he’s done making millions with The Avengers that is.

I rejoice in my ability to predict the future and can’t wait to see what Joss does with S.H.I.E.L.D.

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.

The Newsroom: Pilot Review

There’s no two ways around it, I’m a massive Aaron Sorkin fan. I obsess over The West Wing, I loved Sports Night, The Social Network was brilliant and I even really liked the slightly more troubled Studio 60 and recent Moneyball film. So when it was announced that he’ got a new series, well I may have let out a little ‘squee’.

The series is set in the eponymous Newsroom, Jeff Daniels play Will McAvoy, everyone’s favourite news anchor – charming and utterly inoffensive. That is until he has some kind of minor breakdown at a college event and when he’s asked “Why America is the greatest country in the world?” he explains with enthusiastic eloquence why in fact it isn’t that great. From that point things start falling apart for him, he loses his staff and his job is threatened. In walks Mackenzie MacHale as his new Executive Producer challenging him to use his new found reputation to make a better news show, one that challenges, investigates and brings pride back to America and journalism.

If you think that sounds a bit preachy when I type it out as a paragraph, you’ll really struggle with the half dozen or so long speeches on the same subjects. It’s not unreasonable to say that Sorkin has some message which he wants people to hear, fortunately for me I largely agree with him, and fortunately for all of his audiences his speeches are rousing, they’re poetic and they can inform and inspire. But the Newsroom pilot has about 8 passionate monologues and by about half way through I’d just had enough. Mackenzie’s tirade in particular left me shouting at her that I got it already, if a Sorkin speech can’t convince the listener, then the second and third aren’t going to work either! It felt like I’d been bludgeoned round the head with them – I wasn’t so much inspired as I was berated.

The second big problem is that was my nervousness as I watched Sorkin try to introduce troubled romances. In my opinion Studio 60 was killed off by the unconvincing relationships that it forced upon a talented cast. Will-they-won’t-they relationships only really work if the audience actually WANTS the couple to get together, if they’re bad for each other (Matt and Harriet) or just weird and creepy (Danny and Jordan) they don’t work. The only relationship like that Sorkin has ever got right is Josh and Donna, and I suspect the fact that he only ever wrote the ‘won’t-they’ bit of the relationship may have something to do with that.

So as soon as there was the implication of a romantic relationship between Will and Mackenzie, I was immediately on edge and as details were revealed I didn’t feel any better. Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer are fantastic actors and their characters had a lot of spark individually and together – but romance? No. Didn’t feel it at all. (Um… also is there something ongoingly creepy about the age differences of Sorkin’s couples? Mackenzie must be 15 years younger than Will…)

Those two points aside, there’s a lot that’s good. It’s a Sorkin show, so it goes without saying that the dialogue is fast, smart, witty and brilliant and that the characters are intelligent, passionate, quirky and interesting. The concept behind the whole thing is also a strong one playing to Sorkin’s strengths, pretty much the meeting point between The West Wing and Sports Night – political comment plus the exciting work environment of live television. I loved the twist in the middle of the episode where they reveal what the day’s news is going to be and you can watch it develop, I was as engrossed and excited as I have been in any big screen thriller recently.

I so desperately wanted to love this series, and I did love bits of it, but I also hated bits of it, leaving me on balance a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing. In many ways it was just a bit too Sorkin, exaggerating his strengths and his weaknesses. He is an amazing speech writer, but if you have too many they just come across as badgering; and while he’s written some of the most amazing professional partnerships (Jed and Leo, Dan and Casey, Matt and Danny) he clearly has a blind spot for romance.

I’m hoping that the series will settle down a bit, toning down the speeches and lightening up on the troubled romance front. The good news is that being on HBO the series doesn’t need anywhere near the ratings that Studio 60 failed to achieve on NBC. I think this may just be opening night nerves, trying to do too much in a pilot. I really hope so, because y excitement at a new Sorkin show is still there, just a little bit less squealy than before.

The Newsroom will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic, from July

Other reviews – of which there are many and most of whom hated it.
The Guardian’s Michael Wolff is very angry about the inaccurate presentation of how news is produced these days. The Guardian also helpfully compiled lots of other reviews.
CliqueClack: “I’ll roll my eyes but attempt to see the bigger picture.”
TV Fanatic: “It may become grating to some, it may already be grating for others and they won’t be returning to The Newsroom. But if you can focus on the brilliant writing of the messenger over the message, or don’t mind the message being hammered home on a weekly basis, this is one newly-built ship you’ll want to ride on every Sunday night.”
The TV Addict: “if you’re the type viewer that can’t get enough of Aaron Sorkin’s trademark walk-and-talks, adore his attempts to “edutain” and would give an arm and a leg to still see SPORTS NIGHT back on the air (Quo Vadimus FTW!), THE NEWSROOM is the TV Addict equivalent of a wet dream.”
The Huffington Post: “The biggest problem with “The Newsroom” — and it’s one of many, many problems — is that its goals and its narrative strategies are in direct conflict with each other. The result is a dramatically inert, infuriating mess, one that wastes a fine cast to no demonstrable purpose, unless you consider giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight is a worthwhile purpose. “