It’s time to discuss Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom. I need only mention the words The West Wing to provide evidence that Sorkin’s witty, informative and entertaining show running belongs in modern television’s top five along with David Simon (The Wire), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and David Milch (Deadwood).
“The Newsroom” has been received with polarization. One side thinks it’s an insightful commentary on today’s 24-hour news media industry while the other side thinks it fails in all the ways that Sorkin has hiccupped in the past (too bombastic and preachy). After watching the first seven episodes I see valid points to both sides, and think we can all agree that The Newsroom is no West Wing.
I still think Aaron Sorkin has the potential to dip back into the top five show runners currently and perhaps supplant powerhouse contenders like Game of Thrones and Dexter with an improved season two (yes, HBO has renewed The Newsroom for a second season, which gives Sorkin a chance to elevate it from good to great).
In this post I’m going to offer some pros and cons that speak to the show’s performance thus far, so as to outline the way in which it can take “the next step.” (I know this is a television/film blog but I’m going to continue the sports analogy with the following categories).
Strikeout (what the show does poorly)
There’s too much emotional ineptitude. As is a staple of Sorkin writing, all of the characters are exceptionally talented — in the realm of cognition. They process and communicate information with well-honed memories, vocabularies, eloquence and funds of knowledge. They are, however, emotionally stunted and immature. Emily Mortimer-Mackenzie MacHale is supposed to be an award-winning, war zone executive producer, but when it comes to romance she does the things that overwhelmed adolescents do: send impulsive emails. I hope she soon decide on whom to date. And Alison Pill-Maggie Jordan would be less preoccupied as the associate producer but she just can’t introspect enough to realize that she likes Jim Harper-John Gallager Jr. more than her current boyfriend. There’s no time like the present to stop acting like the fourth grader with a crush.
The villain is too one-dimensional and there is not enough “showdown” moments between the big guns. The villain in this show is Jane Fonda-Leona Lansing, the power-hungry CEO, and her son Chris, the ratings-crazy President of Atlantis World Media (AWM). In this day-and-age our villains need to fluctuate a bit more, morally speaking. Also, Sorkin has structured it so that Jeff Daniels-Will McAvoy and Jane Fonda-Leona Lansing never interact. We need them to be formidable foes playing an emotionally-charged game of cat and mouse and instead they avoid each other like two petty family members giving the silent treatment.
There isn’t enough group cohesion to the newsroom. If this really is a show about a newsroom that bands together to produce pure and righteous civic consumption in the face of myriad, daunting obstacles embedded in the culture of the 21st century, corporate media industry than this needs to feel like a family. This doesn’t feel a family. Characters describe it as a family, Sorkin clearly wants us to think it’s a family, but nothing no events-experiences have really unfolded to help shape a convincing and organic family dynamic. Maggie’s bossy big-sister routine with Jim notwithstanding.
Where’s the backstory? None of these characters, expect Jeff Daniels-Will McAvoy (and his narrative is limited) has a well-developed backstory. Where do these characters come from, and do they have personal histories that will color their interactions and newsroom stances? Only the broken romance between Will and Mackenzie surfaces in this vein and all the other characters are just there, doing their thing, with no juicy unresolved tensions boiling in the background.
Homeruns (what the show does well)
The Newsroom depicts talented journalists doing the news well. Real-life news stories from the recent past are examined, which affords Sorkin the opportunity (through Will’s televised interviews and commentary) to educate. Raise your hand if you learned as much about the American system of government from watching “The West Wing” as you did in your high school civics class. Yep, me too. Sorkin, at his best, educates us quite well. The issues of the day — even if the ‘day’ is yesterday — are a worthwhile endeavor and I’ve learned new things about Arizona Immigration Law, the 2010 mid-term elections and the BP oil spill since watching. Sorkin frames the issues in an entertaining, succinct and factually accurate/thorough manner.
Educating us about the current events is an important topic, and in line with this point is another homerun, which relates to the aspirational nature of the 24-hour, cable network news shows. Sorkin may not provide a gritty realism that parallels The Wire but he does go to toe-to-toe with Simon with regard to clearly and thoroughly explaining the inner-workings and sociology of an industry (in this case it’s the corporate media and not the Baltimore drug world). Sorkin has created a vehicle in the Will-as-hero-anchor that upgrades/enhances the public discourse. All of the group show’s — whether it’s the wild west of Deadwood, the meth drug dealings of Breaking Bad or the '60s advertising world of Mad Men are great because they upgrade/enhance the discourse of the target subject matter. In The Newsroom we are learning how proper journalism works, and because Will’s character asks the questions that never get asked and lays out the answers we need to know, we can start to understand why most cable news shows are so bad, and why Sorkin’s Newsroom 2.0 is so good.
The top three characters are an effective tag-team. Will packs a punch as the on-air prosecutor going after those that threaten a healthy democracy, Mackenzie is steadfast as the moral compass and Charlie, everyone’s boss (Sam Waterston-Charlie Skinner), effectively circumnavigates the ship through the thicket threats to the newsroom family. Each of these characters has a strong voice and relates to the other two figures in the dynamic with a unique and interesting chemistry.
Inside the park homers
Sorkin’s witty one-liners are consistently lough-out-loud funny and as good as anything else on television.
A majority of the idealistic speeches hit the spot as enlightening, feel-good moments (but, yes, more than a few are too corny or arrogant).
Will undergoes psychotherapy — the insights are insightful, the therapist is competent, and their dynamic is emotionally-charged. If it works, a protagonist-in-therapy can be a powerful device (think Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos)
So, in conclusion, can The Newsroom elevate itself to the rarified air of “great” television? I believe it can. It must continue to build on the homerun’s. Throw some curve balls on the trifecta tag-team, depict the journalists doing their work well, and continue to dissect the innards of broadcast news. The writing is solid, and if Will stays in therapy and the soapbox moments are disguised a little better than the strengths will sharpen themselves well. But the strikeouts, which are essentially missed opportunities need to be addressed.
Let’s have some emotional maturity: Will and Mackenzie don’t need to start dating each other necessarily, but there needs to be commitment to a romantic path. No more flirtatious dithering, I say. And if Alison is going to continue to break up with her boyfriend and get mad at Jim about it, then he at least needs to point that fact out to her. Jim is a good example of where Sorkin could stand to dial down the niceness and amp up the sarcasm. I want to see Sorkin utilize the freedom that HBO affords.
Let’s have the newsroom family go through the sorts of things that a group of colleagues have to go through to really become a family. The episode entitled “Amen” in which the group rallied around Dev Patel-Neal Sampat, as the young blogger he recruited to cover a Cairo uprising is threatened, was a good start. Let’s pull on this thread a little harder, shall we.
And let’s have more backstory: Let’s find out how Will became the great Will, and how Jim achieved the prestigious designation of Mackenzie’s trusty sidekick, just to name a couple of potential angles.
So, these strengths and soon-to-be-improved weaknesses are some of what I’ll be looking for as The Newsroom winds down its first season and prepares for its second one. To end with one final sports analogy — currently The Newsroom is in a race for the wild card. It isn’t a top dog in the TV landscape by any stretch of the imagination, but everyone agrees that it has the talent to go all the way if things can start clicking.