As promised, we’re going to quickly dip our toes into the somewhat toxic pool of The Newsroom analysis. Like with any review or analysis, anything we say is ultimately futile and inconsequential, because, in the end, it’s not going to change the way you feel about the show, and it’s certainly not going to alter Aaron Sorkin’s vision or persuade him to reconsider his writing style. But in the case of The Newsroom, anything we say, any argument we make, feels especially meaningless in the wake of all the criticism and (less so) praise it’s received. But, hell, let’s be a Greater Fool and try anyway.
Let’s just say out of the gate that we like the show, and while that might put us in the minority we stand by our verdict. But what’s interesting or pertinent to us is not so much that we like it – or if it’s “good,” assuming there’s some kind of objective rubric which can calculate a show’s quality (which there’s not) – it’s the question of whether or not the show is worth watching. And we think the answer is: absolutely. Doesn’t that fact that the show seems to be so reviled (or snickered at) in so many corners yet still watched obsessively indicate there’s something of worth there? Certainly, The Newsroom doesn’t garner the same level of propulsive minute-by-minute Twitter reaction on Sunday evenings as Breaking Bad (nor does it come close to the AMC show’s unanimous, breathless praise), but it’s definitely one of the most talked about shows, even if much of that talk comes with head shaking, finger wagging and head scratching. And if the show was bad, unrelentingly terrible, it wouldn’t have lasted, or at least the discussion would have quieted down. We can’t imagine that if Work It had not been canceled after one week the din about its repugnancy would have continued. We would have had our fun and then watched it fade away, nary giving it another thought. But with The Newsroom the debate continued for ten episodes, and seemed to increase as we approached the season finale. Clearly, people were entertained by the show. Which, we certainly concede, isn’t necessarily the same as enjoying the show.
But what makes us put our reputation on the line and proclaim that the show is good? Well, first of all, we have to admit – and we’re happy to do so – that the showed is flawed, deeply so. Are the female characters taken to flighty, histrionic, shrill extremes? Absolutely. We’re all for multi-dimensional characters who have a hard time keeping their personal lives out of their professional lives, and vice versa, but there were moments when Mac and Maggie (whose names together sound like a Sharon, Lois & Bram-esque children’s folk duo) were stretched too far, too broad, in a way that undermines the integrity we’re supposed to believe these characters so greatly possess. We’re told that Mac is a genius Executive Producer, a fearless iconoclast who is just as capable running the control room as she is running around Iraq. We’re eager to accept that person – a strong, confident, stubborn woman, sign us up – but then that person needs to have more self-control and self-awareness. She (or he) needs to be a better example for the rest of the group, whether it’s a team of cable news producers or an overseas news crew going into the Red Zone. And Maggie is meant to be portrayed as desirable, to not just one but two successful, smart men. We certainly can see what Don and Jim see in Maggie – a pretty, intelligent, driven little firecracker – but we also could see how they would be deterred by her indecisiveness and mood swings, why they would run far, far away. But we could apply similar judgement to Will McAvoy, who’s often an irrational, irascible, incorrigible punk, capable of misanthropy in one minute, philanthropy in the next, vindictive and generous all at once. However, that is what makes him interesting, and the same can be said for Mac and Maggie. They are not defined by their jobs, nor are their jobs defined by them, and it’s unrealistic (and boring) to imagine a hermetically sealed world in which personal feelings and romantic histories don’t color and inform one’s professional life. But, like a good pepperoni pizza, it should be in moderation.
And speaking of flaws, Sorkin seems to be enamored with the powerful, emotional, bring-down-the-house speech. He is, so it very much feels, in love with his own voice, and the important, grand statements that he makes through his characters. And, to his immense credit, he often pulls off these dramatic moments that so easily could slide into melodrama, into treacly, manipulative schmaltz. We have to confess that we were very uneasy about the decision to turn the killing of Osama Bin Laden and subsequent American euphoria and handshaking and backpatting into a plot point; it so easily could have veered into exploitation, playing the notes that they knew would strike a chord. However, it was handled just about as delicately as could be (although we’re not convinced McAvoy needed to be stoned on pot brownies while delivering the news; seems like some superfluous silliness, even if it did prove relevant in the finale), and we came away impressed with the job Sorkin had done with what we consider still a very sore subject (essentially the episode trades on 9/11 and its emotional resonance, and if you don’t do that right you’re basically Rudy Giuliani). But while Sorkin/McAvoy has proven to be responsible in some parts, other times he is (they are) too pedantic, too much preaching to the choir, and too idealistic (although as the inspiration for the show is Don Quixote it’s not as if Sorkin has been evasive about his lofty, quixotic aspirations). It feels that we’re supposed to believe that McAvoy is the first and only person who has ever passionately spoken the truth. While he’s certainly in the minority, he’s not alone, and there’s some revisionist history in appointing him as American’s White Knight. And, yes, this is just a fictional TV show about a fictional cable news network. But when you base your plots and points so deeply in facts, you can’t just pick and choose the ones that suit your needs.
However, despite those shortcomings, we think the major reason that people have an issue with The Newsroom is expectations. When the series was first announced we recall sub-headlines in the vein of “HBO & Sorkin: A Match Made in Heaven” (we’re paraphrasing). America’s greatest screenwriter meets television’s most acclaimed network. If Sorkin could be so prodigious, so talented on network television, imagine what he could do without their constraints, with a full sixty minutes to play with, no notes from executives, and no interference from Standards and Practices. Indeed, in an interview with New York Magazine Sorkin remarked on what a pleasure it would be not to contend with commercial breaks, especially the one immediately before the end credits that so undermines the show’s final moments, noting “I always felt like the episode was getting punched in the face right at the end.” Finally, after the disaster that was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Emmy and Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin would be able to fully extend his (not west) wings. But maybe he flew to close to the sun. Or, perhaps, we (and he) were wrong in our estimations. Perhaps it wasn’t a match made in heaven. From the very first notes of The Newsroom‘s elegiac, sweeping opening credits cum overture (more on that here) we immediately began to wonder if we miscalculated. Is that what Sorkin wanted to do with his extra eighteen minutes? Get another sixty seconds for the extended symphonic opening title sequence as if that’s what we’ve all been clamoring for. As if that’s exactly what is most appealing to articulate, informed HBO audiences (not withstanding the Game of Thrones opening, of course). But more than the length, it felt so much like the opening for a network show, specifically like an alternate take for The West Wing theme. And The Newsroom itself feels so much like an alternate take on The West Wing, swapping the war room for the control room. Can Sorkin do and say more than he could on network TV? Of course. But does that mean his sensibility, his screwball rom-com relationships, his rat-a-tat-tat overlapping dialogue, and neat, personal revelations are congruent with the “HBO aesthetic?” No, not necessarily.
We wanted this show to be something different from what it was. To be Girls, but about professional women, Veep, but about politics, Mad Men, but about the 2010s, Breaking Bad, but about scathing media criticism. What what we got is a show that incorporates those things, but above is all is elementally Sorkian. A show whose characters (and expressions) are probably interchangeable with any others from Sorkin’s previous shows. Could you swap one of Will McAvoy’s diatribes with a sports sermon from Sports Night‘s Casey McCall with the minimum amount of tweaking? Probably. And to think otherwise is probably foolish. And some of the blame has to lie with us. Certainly, we can’t blame Aaron Sorkin for sounding like Aaron Sorkin. The same way that Wes Anderson shouldn’t be penalized for being Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino’s work is diminished for being too Tarantinoesque. That’s the brand, whether it’s on NBC or HBO or Netflix or Broadway or on screen at an AMC Loews. We expected something other than the show to which all the blinking neon signs were pointing, something other than what all the evidence suggested.
The real problem, and the immutable fact about the show that will prevent it from ever being the national panacea and cultural awakening that Sorkin must privately hope, is that the groundbreaking program that they so desperately want News Night with Will McAvoy to be has already been done. They speak in hushed (and then supersonic) tones about their mission to civilize, their quixotic vision to report “the news,” not spin, not opinion, not partisan recollect and propaganda, but “the news.” They want to throw out the old playbook and guide their newscasts by facts, by the overriding quest to educate the American public, to disengage all the lies and misinformation that has been funneled into homes every night since good journalists like Walter Cronkite hung up their thick black frame glasses. But the error here, an incontrovertible and inconvenient truth, is that News Night has already been done. Twice. And for a while now. Both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, albeit satiric “news” shows that air after South Park, deliver the same kind of unfiltered, cut-through-the-bullshit information and commentary that Mac and McAvoy talk about with such mythical reverence. Yes, it’s easier for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert because they can always fall back on being comedians, just delivering “fake news” on a comedy show, and they’re not held up to the same scrutiny of being “legitimate” journalists (although, perhaps they should be). But the fact that they are allowed to play a more honest, critical game because they’re on a comedy network doesn’t change the fact that they play a more honest, critical game. The arguments that Will McAvoy makes for the domestic terrorism of the Tea Party, the thoroughly researched quotes from our forefathers confirming that, contrary to popular belief, America was not founded as a Christian nation, the fun with Sarah Palin audio, the filleting of Michele Bachmann’s parasitical, dead-eyed nonsense, this the bread and butter of The Daily Show, and setting The Newsroom two years in the past (and quickly hurtling through time) does nothing to alter this fact. It’s as though we’re supposed to believe that everything that’s going on outside of the ACN building is true to life, that everything in their world is the same as our world, except for the existence of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (and, to be fair, other shows and blogs and newspapers and magazines who also have the insane, antiquated, doomed idea of reporting non-partisan, non-biased facts, corporate sponsors and rich donors be damned). Isn’t a “mission to civilize” just another way of saying a “Rally to Restore Sanity?” Which isn’t to say that the aspirations of the News Night are not risky or idyllic or commendable, that Will McAvoy is not the Greater Fool. It just makes it harder to consider them as prophets or martyrs or heroes, or even trailblazers. When there’s a guy a little ways down the dial who once interviewed a four-year-old science expert making the same exact points, and doing it with less self-satisfaction, and doing it first, it’s difficult to fully believe that News Night is our only hope, that they are the rebels with the cause. And once you lose your faith in that premise everything Will McAvoy does and says has less weight, and so does The Newsroom.
HOWEVER, we said in paragraph 2, line 1, that we like The Newsroom, and we still support that statement. We like it a lot, in fact. And we like it a lot despite its considerable flaws. The point is that perhaps we like it not for the reasons that Aaron Sorkin expected, or that television critics and the Sunday night Twitterverse expected, or that we ourselves expected. It may not be a trenchant, incisive, no-holds-barred, kick in the ass, silver bullet that will simultaneously save television and the country, laying bare our diseased nation’s grave ills and gross misconduct while shedding a light on the path to reclamation, all the while not just continuing the standard of HBO excellence but redefining it. But, really, that’s just too much to expect. Even from the Greater Fool.