The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 3–The 112th Congress

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 3 YET.

“The newsroom turned into a courtroom because I decided the American people needed a fucking lawyer.”

NewsroomLeona

The news media is vitally important to a free society (unlike, say, sports or comedy, the subjects of Aaron Sorkin’s other two TV-based drama series). It’s only through the news that you know anything of what is happening in the world outside your own immediate experience. It is therefore vital that, when you receive the news, you’re not being presented with opinion – you’re being presented with facts. Those facts will shape your own opinion, and if you don’t trust their source because of bias or corruption, then you’re not equipped with enough information to form a reasoned view on anything. Conversely, if you blindly trust their source despite bias or corruption, the same result is true.

That the American TV news has failed in this was pointed out in painstaking detail in this week’s episode of The Newsroom, beginning with Will McAvoy making an onscreen apology for his own complicity in this failure – from miscalled election results to outright misinformation from news organisations held hostage by commercial interests, specifically the advertisers from whom the broadcasters gain all their revenue.

Will’s diatribe, the concentrated detail of which took a lot of paying attention to, was obviously Sorkin’s own attempt to diagnose the problem with TV news in the US. The increasing divorce of US TV news from facts and its ongoing affair with opinion as a rebound can often seem strange to us in the UK, where (by and large) our TV news is regulated and obliged to remain free of bias. It’s frequently accused of bias (especially the BBC), but the fact that the accusations are balanced from both sides of the argument indicates to me that it at least tries to live up to that obligation.

US TV news, by contrast, often seems closer in style to UK print media, where paranoia, half-truths and corruption are regularly peddled according to the corporate whims of their owners and sponsors. That sector of our news media has now so thoroughly disgraced itself in the eyes of the British public that we’re in the middle of a lengthy judicial inquiry into its ethics and practices; by Sorkin’s argument, the misinformation fed so frequently to the American public by its TV news outlets would probably merit something similar.

One of the major criticisms that many (including myself) have had of The Newsroom from its first two episodes is precisely that Will McAvoy and co’s eager attempt to claw back integrity from the increasingly jaded news media is simply too utopian; that in the real world, those commercial interests simply would not permit an approach so potentially damaging to profit. Sorkin seems to have anticipated this, and this third episode was framed with a new subplot of ACN’s corporate owners giving idealistic news veteran Charlie a damn good bollocking for going against the corporate line.

As a framing narrative, it was effective, with Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, CEO of Atlantis Media, parent corporation to ACN, glowering silently at Sam Waterston’s Charlie for most of the time, even during a comical attempt to liken his strategy to that of Rocky Balboa in Rocky II. The casting of Fonda is a nice nod to her own iconic role as a crusading news anchor in 1978’s The China Syndrome, but here she’s on the other side of the debate – and when she finally speaks up, it’s like the wrath of a deity of pragmatic profiteering.

The corporate inquiry was peppered throughout by flashbacks to events at News Night in recent months, beginning with Will’s eloquent apology then building through the months of campaigning prior to the 2010 midterms to the climax of election night itself. Along the way, the show’s ideology took precedence over its soap opera aspects as the ACN staff laid into Aaron Sorkin’s target of the week – the Tea Party movement.

As usual, this revolved around characters having a seemingly implausible supply of facts and statistics readily at hand to debunk the arguments of their opponents. But fair’s fair – it’s a news organisation, half the characters are researchers, and those researchers feed the figures to the anchor as interviews progress. Plus, I’m sure they’re capable of remembering the research they’ve done; certainly I’ve been able to pull those kinds of facts out of my mind in pub arguments when I’ve researched them earlier in the day for pieces on this blog.

I was again struck by Sorkin’s clever tactic of having McAvoy, as his main character, be a moderate Republican. As Will himself comments, it legitimises his attacks on ultra-right wing targets. And make no mistake, the Tea Partiers who gained so much ground in the 2010 Congressional elections were ultra-right. As Will himself complained, they were a fringe movement (with, initially, some valid arguments) hijacked by corporate and religious extremists, who themselves went on to hijack the mainstream Republican Party to the extent that US politics has been largely paralysed in uncooperating deadlock ever since.

That they were gaining so much influence was worrying given their apparent incomprehension of the issues they were protesting against. So Will (ie Aaron Sorkin) basically spent clip after clip debunking some of their more notorious misconceptions. These included Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies” – “so basically, she’s not ruling out the idea of an armed overthrow of the elected government” – and the (at the time) little known fact that this ‘grass roots’ movement was in large part being funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, hardly “average Americans”.

As this went on, it became clear from the cutting back to the CEO inquiry that the corporation were not too pleased about this. Attacking corporatism means losing advertising revenue, not to mention the political awkwardness of losing the support of corporate-backed legislators. But back in the trenches, persistent asshole Don was none too pleased about it either, laying into the infinitely more competent Jim about how this totally undercut his attempts to gain success for the 10 o’clock bulletin straight afterwards.

Don continues to be the least believable character in the show, a serial asshole whose inability to learn from his own mistakes makes you continually wonder how he attained such a prestigious position. I saw a recent Facebook post proclaiming that “Aaron Sorkin can’t write characters who aren’t intellectuals”; this is a large part of the problem, but another part is that he can’t write sympathetic, rounded characters who disagree with him. It was notable that The West Wing’s portrayal of Republican characters actually became more rounded after Sorkin left the show.

Still, the continuing passion of most of the characters goes some way to making up for this, as does the increased portrayal of their own fallibilities. We saw last week how Will wasn’t immune to self-interest; this week, Charlie Skinner’s idealistic crusade to restore integrity to the news began to seem increasingly naive and optimistic in the face of his corporate overlords. Oh, and he also drinks too much – “you’ve had enough bourbon for a lifetime,” comments suit (and mother’s puppet) Reese.

With so much emphasis placed on the ideological crusade of the show this week, the soap opera aspects were less prominent than the first two episodes. I found this a bit of a relief. It’s not because I object to them altogether; I recognise that without being interested in these characters as people, it would be hard to sympathise with their crusade. It’s more that, generally, I think this aspect of the show is being handled in a rather more hamfisted way than it ever was in The West Wing.

Take MacKenzie, for example. She’s an immensely talented and capable professional, able to deal brilliantly and concisely with her egotistical star in their work environment. But introduce any element of their previous, personal relationship – as Will did this week by bringing a string of younger, sexier dates to the office – and she becomes a gibbering, competitive imbecile.

Then there’s Maggie. She at least takes Will to task for his insensitivity, and he listens to her. But she too is stuck in a relationship with the insufferable Don, which for some insane reason she seems incapable of permanently ending. And then the much more likeable Jim (who we’re being transparently manipulated into rooting for as her alternative) advises her to sort it out with Don, despite that being the worst result for himself. Thank heaven then for Neal, who lets Jim work this out via the convenient motif of working on a story about “people voting against their own interests”.

After an initial lack of impression, Neal is quickly becoming one of my favourite characters. He’s as impossibly ‘nice’ as the rest of the gang, but he comes up with the most interesting ideas regarding the future of news in an increasingly digital age – witness his impassioned defence of Wikileaks this week. He also seems to have a girlfriend himself, nicely derailing the usual stereotypes about socially awkward nerd. And it doesn’t hurt that Dev Patel has plainly been to the gym a fair bit since his painfully skinny shirtless scenes in Skins.

No, I’m still generally unconvinced by the ‘soap opera’ aspects of the show, which flowed so naturally in The West Wing. In fact, Aaron Sorkin has been taken to task (again – poor sod gets more of this than Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat) for failing to write credible, intelligent female characters. In MacKenzie’s case, I can see the problem – how can such an intelligent woman be so good at her job yet dissolve into babbling inanity when dealing with the same coworker on a personal level? But I don’t think you can reasonably level that criticism at the writer who created CJ Cregg.

And while there may be some of those problems with the character of Maggie, the one aspect of the show that struck a nerve for me this week was her portrayal of being prone to crippling panic attacks (which Don, typically, just lets her get on with out of his way). I want to be quite clear – this is not a gender issue, and it most certainly is not a ‘weakness’ issue.

I suffer from panic attacks just like these. They’re not ‘being a drama queen’ or ‘attention seeking’ – they’re a genuinely terrifying, crippling set of mental AND physiological symptoms which hit you at times you don’t expect and for reasons you don’t understand, rendering you physically incapable of dealing with the world around you. I tend to keep my own vulnerability to these very much under wraps, as it’s still often perceived as weakness or overdramatisation. I can only hope that the very convincing depiction of it in this show might enlighten its viewers in the same that The West Wing did for multiple sclerosis.

This episode cleverly had two, contradictory endings. One showed Will, Charlie and the staffers celebrating their perceptive election coverage in the usual karaoke bar. This climaxed with the email to Charlie summoning him to the meeting we’d been seeing throughout – a meeting that, just before the bar scene, had ended with Leona’s ultimatum that Will tone it down or be sacked. Clearly, Charlie’s crusade is already in danger.

Which I hope The Newsroom isn’t, despite its mixed reception. Sure, I still think it’s flawed, but episode by episode it seems to be building on its strengths. And if not eliminating its flaws, at least pushing them somewhat to the background. Only three episodes in, and it feels like it’s gaining complexity and credibility from its initial naively optimistic and utopian premise. I’d like to see more of that.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 2–News Night 2.0

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.”

NewsroomMeeting

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.

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

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 1 YET.

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

NewsRoomStudio

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.