SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST SUNDAY’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 2 YET.
“We don’t do ‘good television’, we do the news.”
Critical reaction to last week’s premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, was, to put it mildly, mixed. While many liked the sincere, heartfelt performances, powerhouse speeches and super-eloquent characters, just as many were annoyed by its departure from reality in presenting an idealised version of a real environment (a TV newsroom) filled with idealised, too-wonderful characters who, as one common criticism put it, “talk like nobody in the real world”.
To be fair, these are all legitimate criticisms. I noted quite a few of them myself, in my own review last week. But that’s Aaron Sorkin’s style, and it seems a little harsh to have the knives drawn quite so early on a show whose flaws (if you see them that way) are no more than a repeat of those on the hallowed West Wing. That show too presented an idealised, ‘preachy’ version of a real environment – the White House, with the obvious intent being its writer telling us that this is how it could – and should – be. The Newsroom aims to do the same for a TV news environment dominated by pundits and opinions rather than facts and objectivity. That its first episode aired the same week that Fox and CNN managed to totally fumble reporting the Supreme Court’s decision on ‘Obamacare’, because they hadn’t read past page one of the judgement, seems curiously apposite.
That said, you couldn’t have week after week of the guys and girls at ACN doing perfect, crusading reporting unique in its integrity. Aside from problems with believability, it would be boring and formulaic. So this week’s instalment, after last week’s powerhouse broadcast of the BP oil spill disaster, showed our heroes, stumbling over the reporting of Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s draconian anti-immigration law of 2010, producing a mesmerising spectacle of car crash television that was an exemplary case of doing the news totally wrong.
It’s good to be shown that these people are fallible. That idealised version of reality can be both a blessing and a curse, and it’s hard to truly like characters who are, essentially, saints. Having said that, I’m afraid I can’t resist the criticism that, after last week’s excess of perfection, the similar excess of fallibility on display here seemed similarly implausible. The most obvious example was a running subplot about the recent setup of email distribution lists that only resident tech geek Neal seemed able to understand. This intersected with the increasingly romcom aspects of the plot to give us the moment when Mackenzie accidentally sent an email intended for Will, about the breakup of their previous relationship, to everyone in the company. With hilarious consequences.
Now, the plot really couldn’t have moved forward without this conceit, both from a professional and personal perspective. And yes, I’m sure that this kind of slip up does happen among office staff that aren’t very technically minded. But these people are meant to be seasoned professionals who are presumably perfectly conversant with email. And tellingly, it was essential to the plot that these people’s Blackberries never leave their sides. It seems unlikely that anyone so reliant on mobile email would be so incompetent in its use. But then, this is drama, and Sorkin’s style of drama often does depend on contrivance to move the plot forward.
Again, we saw that here as the script upped the ante in the romance stakes this week. Aside from the constant butting heads of Will and Mackenzie (who even compared their situation to a romantic comedy), the manoeuvring of Jim and Maggie into a relationship shifted up a gear. Their impossibly witty, quickfire bickering (actually reminiscent of that by a certain Steven Moffat) was funny, but perfectly demonstrated a common criticism of Sorkin – nobody in the real world talks like that. But again, it’s a dramatic and stylistic device – who’d want to watch a show where everyone stumbles over their speech with frequent pauses, coughs and “errm”s? Amusingly, this very point was put to Sorkin on a recent episode of The Colbert Report, and Sorkin responded to Stephen Colbert with a similarly contrived ‘naturalistic’ retort that, basically, said nothing. It’s a question of dramatic style, and how well you like it is probably subjective.
All that said, it was still a dynamic, gripping piece of television, with the actual broadcast, as last week, the dramatic highlight. Predictably, Jan Brewer dropped out (I hadn’t expected them to take actual interview footage of her and use it out of context), leaving Will with a trio of ill-informed ‘average citizens’ to defend her policy. Said policy was the subject of this week’s sermonising (always an essential ingredient for Sorkin), and in keeping with Mackenzie’s new Rules, both sides of the issue were looked at. It’s clear which way Sorkin himself swings, but it was an interesting choice to have the opposite viewpoint (immigrants steal jobs from hard-pressed Americans) put by Will himself.
The counterpoint, that this is basically a nasty bit of divisive racial profiling, was first stated by Neal early on in the episode – an interesting, or cliched choice depending on your viewpoint, Neal being both Indian in ethnicity and British in nationality. His impassioned plea to include an outspoken ‘illegal’ who’d had his travel to work removed for speaking his mind initially fell on deaf ears. But it was hardly a surprise that, by the end of the episode, Will’s opinions had swung Sorkin-wards, and he was up for anonymously providing said transport. A nice gesture to be sure, but to this cynical old curmudgeon, it also came across as desperately patronising: “Don’t worry, Latinos, the rich white guy has sorted it all out for you. You’re welcome.” That the episode climaxed with Radiohead’s ‘High and Dry’ juxtaposed with a long shot of the Statue of Liberty was, I’m afraid, one sickly heartstring-tugging gambit too much for me.
It may sound like I’m being pretty harsh on the show myself, but I should make it clear that I’m still enjoying watching it, for all the flaws that I (and, it seems, many others) see in it. The characters may be stock, but they’re likeable (except Don, who continues to be a one-dimensional asshole). They may speak with a degree of wit and passion rarely seen in reality, but it makes them more entertaining, in this kind of show, than the bumblingly naturalistic ones in other (equally valid) dramas. And that’s because they’re Sorkin characters – how you cope with that depends on your tolerance for his style. It’s interesting to note that his recent excursion into characters based on reality – The Social Network – contrived to do precisely the opposite, presenting all its characters as venal and unsympathetic. The Newsroom, like The West Wing before it, really is about idealism. It’s not perfect, and Sorkin may not be the god of dramatists many hold him up to be. But this week, like the last, still entertained and informed in a way that’s increasingly unusual in actual US news.