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Monday, June 25, 2012

The Newsroom: "We Just Decided To"

There are many people who thought that the problem with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was that the setting didn’t match the author’s high-minded tone. The same speeches that sounded righteous and inspiring when coming from the White House Chief of Staff were made ridiculous and self-inflating when delivered by the head writer of a TV sketch show. These people will, presuming they find the world of journalism sufficiently worthwhile, be puzzled then by the shallowness of The Newsroom, the latest effort in eloquent lecturing from noted scold (and Oscar winner) Aaron Sorkin.

When Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a popular cable-anchor known for playing it down the middle (“the Jay Leno of nightly news” as a minor character helpfully puts it) loses his cool at a college roundtable event, the resulting viral video leads to a massive shakeup at his show.

That viral moment is presumably meant to feel cathartic for the audience as well as Will. Finally, someone telling it like it is, yeah! Except that it the speech is so engineered by the use of the sorority-girl strawwoman that the rant becomes condescending, sycophantic, and demeaning. The points Sorkin is trying to make are undercut by his incessant need not just to have his character win the argument, but prove the other side indescribably stupid in the process.

McAvoy returns from his mandatory island vacation to find that his protégé has left for a show of his own and taken McAvoy’s producer and most of his staff with him. Luckily, stock-character type Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the veteran journalist with amazing stories to tell gruffly between plugs of whiskey, is there with a plan. He’s hired Will’s British ex-girlfriend behind his back.

The improbably named Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is just fresh from a tour in Afghanistan, and presumably that accounts for why her first act at the show is to stir up some office drama by trying to break up Will’s assistant Maggie (Alison Pill) and his former producer Don (Thomas Sadowski). It’s a problematic introduction to a character who otherwise seems blessedly competent at her job. Maggie too is further evidence that Sorkin might have a problem writing for women, as her boy trouble and emotional fragility seem to overwhelm any actual humanity.

It’s only when a news alert comes through about an explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that it becomes clear that The Newsroom is actually set in 2010. Though there are obvious advantages in this choice, it also leads to an easy and in my opinion fair criticism. The show is already doing everything in its power to make these characters appear super-intelligent and upright, now it gets to basically grant them the power of foresight. Even then, the show undercuts its own advantage by basically having the story of the year fall into their laps through an outrageous narrative convenience.

Still, when the news show-within-the-show actually started, and Mackenzie and Will had to work together to get through the show, and Maggie actually showed that she might have some talent for this, and more importantly, when Will actually demonstrated a quick wit and humor that might actually draw people to watch his show, The Newsroom did pick up and become nearly irresistible television. Whether that is just the inherent drama of live television, or the promise of further things to come, will have to be seen.

There are still a lot of kinks to be worked out, and advance word from reputable critics is not promising. Will has to become more than just an angry man without redeeming characteristics (remembering the details of a baseball game is not quite enough.) The female characters have to avoid becoming depositories of personal conflicts and romantic drama. The show could stand to have a lot less name-calling and senseless yelling. And it would be nice if it didn’t treat anyone who disagreed with it like a mouth-breathing moron.

The Newsroom is unlikely to become as good as The West Wing, or Sports Night, but I liked both of those shows enough to watch in the hopes that it will get close enough to be enjoyable.

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