The Newsroom

August 28, 2012

I’ve been over a lot of this several times before, but it’s worth keeping in mind when discussing The Newsroom.  HBO has arguably been the prime mover in solidifying the showrunner’s place as the auteur of a television series.  As with film, this is a tricky thing to determine just because of the many different ways people run a television show and the impact the writers as well as the cast and even the directors have on any given episode as well as a season and series as a whole.  Still, David Chase was instrumental in creating this new paradigm with The Sopranos, and he was followed by David Simon and Alan Ball and even David Milch, perhaps the most distinct voice on the network (when he has a show there, anyway) even though he’s firmly rooted in the broadcast traditions from his time on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, among others.  All of which is curious in a way because HBO dramas have a very distinct feel to them.  They are often guided by moral grey-areas and characters of questionable values as well as a penchant for moving into dark territories.  Deadwood might be the most positive show ever aired, but it doesn’t exactly feel that way in any given scene as they tend to be mired in grit, filth, and violence.  The Sopranos started in 1999, and though its impact wouldn’t be fully understood for a few years, that was also the same time that Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing premiered on NBC and became a bona fide broadcast television hit. 

If ever there was a broadcast network show that had a distinct authorial voice running through every scene, it was The West Wing (at least for the seasons Sorkin was there).  While the visuals overseen by Thomas Schlamme played no small part in its distinctive style, it was Sorkin’s very particular writing and, specifically, his dialogue that was the lifeblood of the show.  Despite that, I can’t imagine the show really working if it came out today, and nor would I give him much credit in influencing the way television dramas changed so drastically over the coming decade.  It was very much rooted in those broadcast network values of idealism and Right and Wrong and upstanding characters.  Sorkin plays in inspirational types, and though he’s always had an issue with putting whatever he thinks into whichever character happens to be on screen at the time, he did it in such a compelling and entertaining way (not to mention an absolutely extraordinary cast capable of delivering the speeches and the humour) that it’s innate stagey-ness and hokey idealism actually worked in its favour.  It’s probably impossible to truly determine whether Sorkin just captured lightning in a bottle there because of Schlamme and the cast, or if audiences have moved on with the quality of television in the relatively short time since the Sorkin hey-day ended that the show just feels dated.  I still love it, mind, but it’s hard to tell whether it would genuinely work now the way it did then.

It is for these reasons, I think, that Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, is such an odd and jarring fit for HBO.  It’s not that there’s some strict ethos by which all HBO shows have to abide, but Sorkin’s idealism and, dare we say, less “sophisticated” modes of storytelling and character work feel out of place.  While there’s a general feeling that you can tune into any new show on the network with a pretty good idea of what kind of show it might be or, at least, that there will be a certain level of quality (though not every time, as True Blood continues to demonstrate), The Newsroom feels like a show Sorkin could made for NBC or any number of other networks, so its place on premium cable is just happenstance.  The first season has just finished airing, and though certain plot strands did come together (though in something of a half-assed manner), the episodic nature gave an unpredictable unevenness week after week.  The episodic structure isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I have a lot of love for the more traditional modes of television storytelling – but it sticks out on commercial-free, pay cable (I swear there is a moment that was designed to be a commercial break in one of the episodes).  In the fourth episode, when a certain plot point is made aware to a character, we’re treated to a full flashback to a scene from the previous episode to remind the viewers what is being talked about.  It’s especially jarring because from a writing perspective, if Sorkin wanted to make sure the audience was keeping up, he could have had the character explain the situation, which would not only have been quicker, it would have allowed for possible character depth (allowing us to see how it’s told and in what specific way, as well as the continuing reaction of the receiving character).  HBO shows are known for their narrative density and the amount of faith they place in their audience to know what is going on and, crucially, to remember previous episodes.  Some say this aspect is to the detriment of the shows when they fail to adhere to a classical episodic structure of self-contained stories, but I doubt those naysayers would have found this moment to be anything but condescending and lazy.  It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from an older broadcast show, and even then you’d imagine that the helpful reminder for the audience would have been handled with more grace.

Indeed, a lot of things stick out on The Newsroom as particularly archaic.  Sorkin’s penchant for Hollywood romantic comedy tropes – especially in the vein of Classical Hollywood – hasn’t always served him well.  They seem particularly forced to the foreground from the very first episode here, and the cutesy handling of Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Maggie Jordan (Allison Pill) is too reminiscent and, admittedly, not as well done as previous subordinate romances from Sports Night and even West Wing.  They worked best as sub-sub-plots, giving amusing character moments and some light background to work against the more serious A-plots, but here he can’t quite get the balance right and it feels forced, though admittedly the actors are beginning to pull it out.  Worse than that, however, is the strained manner in which ex-flames Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) have had their private lives wedged into the middle of everything.  Sorkin has a very spotty record when it comes to writing women, and McHale is reduced to a shrieking neurotic almost immediately, and that never lets up.  Pill’s character is trapped in a love triangle that progresses in increasingly silly ways, leading to a rant at a bus full of tourists that starts bad and gets worse.  Olivia Munn’s economics expert Sloan Sabbith is the only consistently solid female character in the series, and one might argue that it’s because Sorkin has specifically written her to be socially clueless and thus not given to the “emotions” (read: hysteria) that he attributes to the gender.  In the final episode, a ridiculous reveal would have likely ruined that character as well if it hadn’t been mentioned and then basically dropped almost immediately.

Sorkin has said numerous times that it’s just an entertainment, and it certainly plays like a light romantic fantasy when it isn’t grasping for gravitas (see the vomit-inducing finale of “5/1” or the Coldplay montage).  However, it is rooted in reality, or at least real world events, which gives it the aura of a counterfactual history.  It’s hard not read the intent here as “the way it should have happened”, and as soon as that assertion is made, it’s nigh impossible not to consider its perspective and pass judgment.  Whilst I am very left-leaning, and I largely agree with a number of premises that Sorkin seems to, his solution to the degraded state of news reporting – especially in regards to the Tea Party and the “false balance” some of their batshit views are given by the press – is to do what basically Rachel Maddow does several times a week.  The problem faced today by TV news and their audiences is a thirst for ratings, which fuels a desire for the echo chamber.  Opinion reporting is all the rage because it can be incendiary and fun but it also tells the viewer exactly what they want to hear.  You think Obama is a socialist?  Well turn to Fox News and they’ll tell you exactly that.  You think Republicans are systematically trying to kill off the poor?  MSNBC will have a number blowhards lined up to agree with you.  I’m not saying there’s an equivalency between what those networks, or any other network does, because there isn’t, but it’s the same idea.  It’s comforting to have our world-view reaffirmed, even as it can function as sort of Two-Minute’s Hate.  Though Will is a self-identifying Republican, he seems to spend all of his time ripping into the Tea Party in such a viscerally aggressive fashion that all he’s going to accomplish in affirming their belief that the media elite is liberally biased.  This naivety runs through the show, especially when it comes to the Republican debate arc, where the show takes on the Casey Anthony case to get the ratings to entice the RNC to give them a debate, only to demonstrate that their format will humiliate (deserved as it may be) the candidates.  The RNC unsurprisingly walks away, and though a character comments that it was ludicrous to begin with, it makes you wonder why they were so willing to sacrifice their integrity for a few weeks and ignore the debt-ceiling story.

Interestingly, especially as the show was filmed before it was seen by anyone so there was no feedback to work on, it seems to acknowledge some of the criticisms that were leveled against it.  For instance, the characters comment on the naivety of the debate proposal after it completely falls apart (and of course everyone stands together with integrity against the forces of ignorance).  The finale uses a flashback structure to show how Will deals with a devastating write-up on the show that accuses it of pomposity and eventually finds the strength to run the showcase story of the season – one that retreads loads of arguments given by anyone and everyone for years.  That criticism is dismissed as hackery by Mackenzie and news department head Charlie (Sam Waterstone), which Will eventually accepts.  Sorkin’s inability to accept criticism was manifest before he had even received any.

There were good parts to the show, so I shouldn’t stack the deck.  I actually enjoyed watching it for the most part, even when it was cloying and bad.  Sorkin can write some really snappy dialogue, and there are touches of screwball comedy that work on occasion.  There’s genuine greatness somewhere in the episode “Bullies”, where Sabbith subs in as host and faces an ethical dilemma that she both passes and fails.  It’s a storming scene to watch, and it wasn’t alone in the series – an early standoff between Charlie and the head of the company, Leona (Jane Fonda) is suffused with intensity and it builds thrillingly to a fantastically fierce monologue.  That scene, like the best stuff overall, involved the show bumping up against the parent company’s interests – you can’t piss off the Tea Party Congressmen because the company is going to need them on their side.  It’s for this reason that Don (Thomas Sadoski), producer of another show on the network as well as the prickish leg of the Maggie triangle, is probably the most interesting character on the show.  If he doesn’t toe the company line, he can lose his job, and though he has an innate desire to ethically produce the best possible news he can, he’s stuck trying to appease the upper management to try to do what good he can.  This, I imagine, echoes the experience of some of the better journalists and producers in the country today, and I would have rather seen an entire show devoted to that dilemma than one that focuses on an absurdly iconoclastic idealist show.  Sorkin might have been better served creating a show about journalism by doing some, well, journalism.

-M

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