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Monday, July 2, 2012

The Newsroom: "News Night 2.0"

Despite some tone-deaf contrivances, and an alarming inability to create realistic female and minority characters, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom is still delivering promising drama and television worth watching.

“News Night 2.0” is about the effort it takes to do the news the way it should be done, and avoid falling into the traps of laziness and routine. In a spirited discussion with her staff, Mackenzie McHale helpfully illuminates the many ways other cable news shows veer off track, from chasing after entertaining stories and footage instead of facts, to striving pathetically to present both sides of an argument fairly whether or not both sides really deserve it. It’s a great showcase for the character, as she comes across as knowledgeable, capable, and formidable, right up to the moment when she gets easily confused by the new email system and then knocks over the white-board with her plan written on it.

This has been something that has plagued a lot of Sorkin’s efforts over the years, and it is a tic that is aging extremely poorly. The career-woman who is super-confident and capable in her limited sphere but a bumbling mess everywhere else, especially in relationships, is among the most tired of rom-com clichés. It’s disappointing whenever the gifted Emily Mortimer is forced to put herself through such a display.

Maggie Jordan’s problematic character is similarly thwarted by a screwball personal life. She causes an important guest to cancel at the last minute because she can’t resist making a joke to her ex-boyfriend. It’d be one thing if this felt truly organic to her character, but it’s hard to look past the fact that all of Sorkin’s easily befuddled characters have been women, whereas Sorkin men are either so committed to work that they have no personal lives, or else do not ever let them affect the quality of their work. Perhaps Sorkin is trying to point out society’s differing expectations for working men and working women, but in reality it seems more one-sided than that.

(And it’s probably best not to spend too much time discussing how out-of-touch it is for the only two black characters Sorkin wrote in to the show to spend all of their time bickering with each other about Obama.)

In spite of all that, there was a lot to like about the episode. Whenever the show within the show actually goes live, the drama is ramped up to such an extent that it forces the viewer to pay attention. After the extremely good show put on in the pilot, it was nice to see the staff screw up a bit, and wind up with exactly the kind of segment they are supposed to avoid: a farcical panel consisting of a loony militiaman, a racist crank, and a beauty queen fixated on her own issues.

That scene also played nicely as Will’s payback to Mackenzie for her revealing details of his personal life, which, though it came from the hack contrivance of the wayward email, was a necessary piece of information for the audience. It was, after all, just about the only thing that could possibly explain why Mackenzie was insisting on Will’s being a good guy, when all the show had done was to show us the opposite. (And it’s still not all that convincing, given his condescension to Olivia Munn’s leggy economic expert and his misplaced anger in general.)

The Newsroom may not be living up to the lofty expectations set for it, but so far it has proven to be an entertaining mess with some seriously good points to make about the low standards we have for our news coverage. There are a lot of places where the show can be polished up, but if this were a show created by anyone other than the man behind Sports Night and The West Wing, I feel like critics would be more willing to wait and see what develops.

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