The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 4–I’ll Try to Fix You


“What you do is a really bad form of pollution, that makes us dumber, and meaner, and is destroying civilisation. I’m saying, with all possible respect, that I would have more respect for you if you were a heroin dealer.”


After being pushed very much to the background last week, the soap opera aspects of The Newsroom pretty much dominated this week’s episode. And you know what? It was actually very entertaining, and as ever, the character drama came to have a real bearing on the points Aaron Sorkin was trying to make, and the larger issues of the plot as a whole.

For most of the episode, the actual news reporting was fairly thin on the ground, eclipsed for the first time by the drama/comedy surrounding the characters. But the Sorkin sermonising (not necessarily a bad thing) was very much in evidence both in these occasional flashes of the news and in the drama throughout.

Targeted again this week was the extreme right, and particularly its outspoken mouthpieces in the media. Hence, Will had a pop at the media narrative that Obama is fanatical about gun control, debunking that myth and adding that those who propagate it benefit by gaining viewers and a massive upswing in gun sales. The point was not to take a stance about gun control (though later events in the story made Sorkin’s views on that pretty clear) but to highlight the media lies about it from many hyperbolic rightwing institutions. Considering that the show is primarily about media integrity, this was an important distinction to make, one that was hammered home repeatedly by characters within the show not ‘getting it’ themselves.

To follow that up, Will took an indepth look at the media myth current at the time that Obama was spending $2 billion of taxpayer money on a trade negotiating trip to India. Again, this was thoroughly debunked with actual facts rather than rumour (“travelling with 34 warships, or 14% of the US Navy?!”). These retorts were aimed at actual clips of hard right pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, which intrigued me a little. Do these guys need to give permission for footage of them to be used on a drama show, I wonder? If so, it seems remarkably magnanimous of them to allow that use in such a damning context on such a liberal-leaning script! Mind you (and again, I’m not too clear on the state law here), I spent a while early in the episode marvelling that Will McAvoy can so freely smoke in the workplace. Having been to New York City, I know that smoking is banned in most such places…

I must say though, that the show’s consistent focus on debunking the myths of the right is in danger of making Will McAvoy and co seem as partisan as those whose work they’re decrying. OK, Will is employing facts rather than rhetoric or opinion, but the repeated target of his (admittedly well-constructed) arguments seems quite one-sided. Is the US liberal media (small though it may be) not guilty of any similar transgressions? I’m no rightwinger, but I’ve seen plenty of left wing polemic that could equally easily be demolished by the use of actual facts. Sorkin has the getout clause that Will is a centrist, moderate Republican, but thus far we’ve seen scant evidence that he holds much in the way of conservative views. I suppose it’s fair to say that the liberal media play a far smaller part in shaping the American political narrative as a whole, making them less of a viable target. Still, some balance would be welcome.

Having said all that, the politics seemingly took second place this week in an episode primarily devoted to advancing the character drama. This it did very well, and I’m warming to this aspect of the show more than I did at the beginning, when the characters seemed little more than cyphers.

It all began at a typically awkward workplace New Year’s Eve party, which at least means the story has now advanced to 2011. Much relationship-based skulduggery was unfolding, as Don (still, at this point, being an unperceptive asshole) tried to set Maggie’s roommate Lisa up with Jim, while Neal was functioning as the comic relief nerd, in his overly earnest attempts to convince his workmates that Bigfoot is actually real. I thought this thread, returned to throughout the episode, did his character something of a disservice after having skewed the stereotypical perception of ‘nerds’ last week. But aside from giving a few cheap laughs, it did ultimately have a payoff at the end of the show.

As did Will’s comically hilarious attempts to date various women, with the dubious advice of the none too helpful Sloan (The Daily Show’s Olivia Munn). “This is not my area of expertise”, she commented – a reference to fellow Daily Show alumnus John Hodgman’s book The Areas of My Expertise, perhaps? In any case, a slight degree of contrivance, that put Will in social situations with women he was bound to disagree with, allowed us to see how his forthright principles make him a pretty lousy Don Juan. Each encounter started well, developed into an argument, and ended with Will having a drink thrown in his face. A bit forced maybe, but done so well by Jeff Daniels that it was hard not to laugh while simultaneously nodding in agreement with him.

Significantly, the first of these ill-advised pickup attempts was a gossip columnist for ACN’s own parent company, and it was she who held the key to the theme of the whole cleverly constructed script – the disturbing rise of the celebrity gossip culture, and its increasing precedence over news that that actually has any real import. As the episode progressed, Will found himself at the centre of a suspiciously well-informed campaign of gossip attack that had details of each and every one of his failed conquests.

Again, Will’s diatribes made Aaron Sorkin’s stance on this culture fairly clear – why, Will kept arguing, is a ‘celebrity’ personal life somehow fair game for the kind of invasion of privacy that most people would find monstrous? And why, when so many genuinely important things are happening in the world, do so many choose to focus on this instead? The whole ironic “guilty pleasure” thing was dismissed summarily (shortly before its exponent, Will’s second date of the week, threw the requisite drink in his face).

In the UK, we’re familiar with such arguments from the interminably long Leveson Inquiry into press standards, which despite its length seems to throw up new horrors every week. And yet, while I tend to share Sorkin’s views, I found his contempt for that public appetite for gossip a little difficult to deal with. It’s one thing to condone the tapping of a public figure’s private phone message, but quite another (and far less serious) to enjoy the glut of reality shows that came in for so much withering criticism from Will. I too think they’re asinine nonsense (as I wrote in a VERY ranting blog post once), but I’ve realised that I have no right to deny other people’s enjoyment of this stuff whatever my opinion of it. People have different tastes. And if enjoying the panem et circenses of reality shows is a choice freely taken (without underhand exploitation of their ‘stars’), who am I to deny it?

Still, the gossip campaign against Will continued to mount until, finally, it became clear that it was the advancement of a vital plot thread whose apparent abandonment I was ready to be critical about this week. Charlie suddenly realised that, given some of the information, the gossip had to be coming from inside their own organisation. And suddenly it became clear that this was the ‘context’ Leona Lansing had talked about manufacturing last week, the climate by which it would be seen as righteous for ACN to sack Will. This was a very clever way of both advancing the story and addressing the theme of invasive celebrity gossip, and it was at this point that I marvelled somewhat at Sorkin’s clever construction of the narrative.

The Maggie/Don/Jim romcom plot was also heavy throughout, but actually seemed more plausible than in previous instalments. Maggie is still inexplicably intent on salvaging her relationship with Don, but obviously hasn’t come to terms with her feelings for Jim yet. And plainly, despite his altruism in trying to salve her relationship, neither has Jim, hence feeling the need to lie about how well his date with her roommate went and whether he’d be seeing her again. Unfortunately for Maggie, Don chose this point to demonstrate that he’s still an asshole by underhandedly revealing to her that Jim was again with Lisa late at night (“she really should change that ringtone”). This led to an almighty slanging match in the newsroom which severely disrupted Neal’s latest attempt to promote the reality of Bigfoot in the meeting room (“this isn’t soundproof glass!”).

This may seem like pretty light stuff, but it was genuinely enjoyable to watch. And the show managed to pull an eleventh hour ‘serious’ plot thread from its sleeve with the sudden news of the January 2011 Tucson shootings at a rally for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Suddenly we were again into one of those electrifying, action-packed ‘breaking news’ moments that the show does so well. And along the way came another chance to reaffirm our heroes’ atypical integrity, as they refused to bow to corporate pressure to follow other news organisations’ lines in pronouncing Giffords dead without official confirmation.

Here again, the show’s setting in the recent past perhaps allowed too much perfection in Will and co’s reporting, but it also gave Don the chance to unexpectedly reveal that he’s not a complete asshole after all. In the face of corporate lackey Reece’s furious insistence that Will pronounce Giffords dead, Don spoke up to say, “doctors pronounce people dead, not the news”. It was an unabashed ‘punch the air’ moment, made more resonant by the sentiment being put forward by the show’s resident dickhead, and made Don finally seem like less of a cardboard cutout asshole. Mind you, I had to wonder at the time why Will couldn’t have commented with something like “some news outlets are reporting the Congresswoman’s death, however there is no confirmation for this at this time and we will update you when we have an official statement either way”.

It was another great set piece of reportage, but I did have one criticism. I really wish Sorkin would refrain from employing what’s by now a massively overused cliche of US drama – the climactic montage soundtracked by a ‘profound’ emotional song. In this case, it was Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’, which Sorkin obviously likes well enough to quote in the episode title. While it might work as dramatic shorthand, it’s such an overused trope by now that you’d think a dramatist of Sorkin’s skill wouldn’t fall back on it so easily.

Criticisms aside, this was another enjoyable episode of a show that, for me, is improving week by week from an already promising start. I’m glad to see that The Newsroom has definitely been renewed for a second season, as given time it might even rival the venerated West Wing in viewers’ affections.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 1–We Just Decided To


…in the old days, about ten minutes ago, we did the news well. You know how? We just decided to.”


Any new Aaron Sorkin show is something of a TV event. Sorkin’s one of a growing number of TV writers – including the likes of Joss Whedon, Matthew Weiner and David Chase – whose very name is enough to sell a TV series regardless of its stars, producers or network.

Yet Sorkin’s cachet of success rests pretty much solely on groundbreaking political drama The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons (the last three without him). True, both Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip were also excellent shows, but the former was cancelled after two seasons, the latter after just one. While everyone acknowledges Sorkin’s skill as a writer, it seems that the public desire for his work is greater with subject matter that affects everyone – the US government – than self-reflective theses about the workings of the TV industry. Given that, it seems rather brave that Sorkin’s new project, The Newsroom, is yet another meditation on that industry. Whether it proves to have the wide appeal of The West Wing or the more limited appeal of Studio 60 is a gamble that might not pay off.

Compounding that is the problem of familiarity. Series set in TV newsrooms are hardly new; there’s been Murphy Brown, Drop the Dead Donkey, Frontline and Canada’s own The Newsroom, all acclaimed in their day. Not to mention a plethora of movies on the subject – Network, Broadcast News, The China Syndrome, Good Night and Good Luck to name but a few. If you factor in their obvious ancestors, dramas set in newspaper offices, that number gets even higher.

The net effect of this is that there’s already a media shorthand for the structures of such dramas. To be fair, this might be drawn from actual realism, but that doesn’t water down the fact that it’s a hard genre to approach without embracing, essentially, cliche. Despite Sorkin’s undeniable skill with a script, The Newsroom doesn’t really manage to escape the trap of that formula.

The first ten minutes are electrifying – significantly, this prologue doesn’t include any of the TV newsroom elements. Veteran anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), having been pressed for a political opinion at a university debate, finally loses his cool and unleashes an unprecedented torrent of honesty when asked to respond to the question, “why is America the greatest country in the world?”

His speech/meltdown is pure Sorkin, and delivered brilliantly. A profanity-laced, excoriating examination of precisely why America is not the greatest country in the world – but has been, and could be again if its current problems were addressed without intransigent liberals and conservatives butting heads rather than debating the issues. “The first step towards solving any problem is recognising there is one.”

It’s obviously Sorkin himself speaking, through the mouth of his character. But then, that’s what he’s always done, and if you have a problem with that, you’re probably not going to be watching anyway.

Of course, Will’s speech is filmed, put up on the internet and quickly goes viral, leading fictional news network ACN to put him on a three week suspension to ‘rest’. Then, after the title music (the usual Sorkin staple of swelling strings and inspirational piano, courtesy this time of Thomas Newman), we’re into the show proper, and its almost theatrically limited setting, the newsroom.

Turns out that Will’s staff have all jumped ship in his absence, to work on a new 10 o’clock show with his former co-anchor. This gives Sorkin the advantage of introducing the new staff – ie the cast – to the main character and thereby to the audience without masses of extraneous exposition where people tell each other things they must, rationally, already know. As usual with Sorkin, they’re a well-drawn, likeable bunch. But even Sorkin can’t escape the problem of cliche in a subgenre that’s already been almost done to death. His newsroom is actually staffed entirely by cliches. Let’s meet them:

NewsRoomWillThe Veteran Anchor Who’s Become Complacent, Yet Retains the Heart of a Crusading Journalist Under His Cynical, Embittered Shell:
Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, an anchor who’s become a soaring success thanks to his policy of “not bothering anyone”. An obvious analogue for Sorkin himself, he’s portrayed as a brilliant man with passionate views who’s a total pain in the ass to work with (some nice self-awareness, Mr Sorkin). Signals his lack of caring by not remembering any of his staff’s names. In the course of the first episode, he will regain his fervour for news as information rather than filler or political polemic, and gain a newfound respect for his staff that will be signalled by his suddenly remembering who they are.

NewsRoomMackenzieThe Plucky Executive Producer With a Passion for News Who Will Turn the Morally Bankrupt Newsroom Around:
Emily Mortimer as the oddly named MacKenzie MacHale. In keeping with the tropes of this character, she’s an award-laden war correspondent returning to the studio with the hardwon integrity she found in Afghanistan and Iraq. For added romcom value, she’s also Will’s impish, British ex-girlfriend and there’s still a simmering tension between them. Prone to delivering speeches about Don Quixote that are plainly straight from the mouth of Sorkin.

NewsRoomDonThe Asshole Who Wouldn’t Know a Good Story If It Jumped Up and Bit Him:
Thomas Sadoski as Don Keefer. Will’s former Executive Producer, and still nominally in charge when MacKenzie turns up. Ignores the good advice of the improbably professional staff all around him, and is so generally objectionable it’s hard to believe the script’s claims that he’s good at his job.

NewsRoomCharlieThe Crusty Veteran Newsman in Charge Who Wants a Return to the Good Old Days of Actual Journalism:
Sam Waterston as Charlie Skinner. A folksy Mark Twain lookalike who dresses as the Eleventh Doctor, Charlie’s been around long enough to remember Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Vietnam. He knows Things Should Be Better, and manipulates his staff accordingly. See also Lou Grant, Perry White etc.

NewsRoomJimThe Bright Up and Comer Whose Unrecognised Nose for News Will Lead to Success for Everyone:
John Gallagher Jr as Jim Harper, a producer whose unswerving devotion to the alliteratively named MacKenzie MacHale has brought him to New York, where it becomes plain that he’s one of the only people on the newsroom staff who can actually spot an important story. See also Peter Parker, Jimmy Olson (which Don actually calls him at one point).

NewsRoomMaggieThe Klutzy, Hopeless Intern whose Hidden Talents Will Lead Her to Greater Confidence and Career Success:
Alison Pill as Maggie Jordan. Maggie’s been promoted from intern to assistant primarily because Will didn’t remember who she was. Spends the first half of the episode comically tripping over things, which unfathomably leads MacKenzie to spot ‘something’ in her and promote her to associate producer for no clear reason. She is of course right, and by the end of the ep, Maggie will be vital to sniffing out news details on the exclusive that will remake the newsroom’s reputation. For added romcom value, also in a faltering relationship with Don into which MacKenzie is trying to insert Jim as a better option.

NewsRoomNealThe Quiet Guy Who’s Always Glued To His Computer, But Will Come Up Trumps With an Exclusive Nobody Else Has Spotted Yet
Dev Patel as Neal Sampat, another Brit whose function is to write Will’s blog (the existence of which Will is entirely unaware of). Employing his usual tactic of likeability, Dev plays Neal almost exactly as he used to play Anwar in Skins, but it will be he who comes up with the breaking story that will Set the Newsroom Back on Track.

To be fair, I’m not knocking Sorkin because these are cliches. It’s actually quite a clever tactic for the scriptwriter to use such instantly identifiable roles to cement the characters in the viewer’s mind, and it’s notable that I felt I knew a lot about these characters already by the episode’s halfway mark. In common with the characters of The West Wing, they’re all improbably great at their jobs (even the asshole realises he was wrong at the end, and apologises) and have a degree of erudition that few people have in the normal workplace. They seem, in short, just a little too perfect.

But that’s Sorkin’s style, and perhaps I’m being a little influenced by having recently watched thirteen weeks of Mad Men, in which all the characters are made of flaws. This is only episode one, and I expect that, as in The West Wing, the flaws in the characters will show up as the season progresses.

And it’s a little novel to set the show in the very recent past, so that the all-important exclusive turns out to be the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s at that point that the grams onscreen give a date – April 20, 2010. At first it seemed a little weird to show this halfway through the story, as I’d naturally assumed until then that it was set in the present. But it was actually quite a clever move. If they’d shown that date at the outset, a keen news viewer might well have sensed what story the script would focus on.

And that advantage of hindsight means that the show can cleverly plunder a plethora of recent big news stories, while allowing the ace staff at ACN to appear preternaturally brilliant by knowing every aspect of a story before any of their competition. It also allows Sorkin to insert yet more righteous sermonising in the mouths of his characters; in this case, obviously, he unleashed his wrath on the incompetence of BP, the corruption of Halliburton and the inadequacy of the US Mineral Survey inspectors.

As I say, it’s only episode one, and it’s perhaps unfair to judge the show as a whole on the basis of that. It’s certainly exciting, and I can understand embrace of cliched characters and situations as a media shorthand to quickly establish the scenario. There’s obviously room to explore them with more depth as the show’s ten episode run progresses.

It has all the hallmarks of a Sorkin show – a mix of brilliance and contrived schmaltz; some electrifying dialogue and performances, but also many idealised, too-perfect characters whose erudition strains credulity. With Sorkin, I often find the positives outweigh the negatives – after all, even the hallowed West Wing was often far from perfect on these lines. But if you’ve enjoyed those in Sorkin’s shows before, you’ll definitely enjoy this – and hope that the flaws will be ironed out later.