After Sky Atlantic’s rerun of season one finished last night, here’s a brief review of Aaron Sorkin‘s (The West Wing, The Social Network) news-based drama ahead of the UK broadcast premiere of season two next week.
Setting the scene
The pilot episode starts out on a high, laying out its mission statement in an eight-minute cold open which grabs viewers by the throat, with Jeff Daniels taking news anchor Will McAvoy from soproficially mute to passionately loquacious in the blink of an eye when a college student innocently asks him what makes America the greatest country in the world.
What follows is the unfolding of an idealistic agenda prompted by Will’s new executive producer and ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). She and Will embark on a ‘mission to civilise’ designed to seize back the news agenda from sensationalist, ratings-driven broadcasting and return it to journalism’s golden age.
The premise is strong if idealistic, with each episode based around how the newsroom at the Atlantis Cable Network’s (ACN) flagship News Night programme reacts to the unfolding events of real-life major stories, from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear crisis to the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Unfortunately though, the execution of these stories varies wildly in quality, veering from moments of genius to utter cringeworthiness, sometimes within the same act.
What doesn’t work? Two key things: the lighter soap/comedy elements, and some irritating characterisation.
The love triangle between good-guy producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr), associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) and Mac’s predecessor, the so-bad-he’s-good Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) is lightweight, predictable and quickly becomes tiresome as Maggie repeatedly breaks up and reunites with Don while never quite hooking up with Jim. And don’t even get me started about Maggie’s roommate Lisa, the fourth corner of a notional love square, who we later discover conveniently went to school with the infamous alleged child-killer Casey Anthony.
And while a series based around serious, heavyweight news stories does require some moments of lightness to offset the shade, I’m not sure that a comedy pratfall involving Will being unable to put on a pair of trousers properly really hits the spot. Too many of these moments were just plain silly rather than funny.
Characterisation, particularly of the female characters, has also come in for considerable criticism, much of it fair. It’s not so much that Mac, Maggie and Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) have obviously flawed personalities – all the male principals, not least Will, are equally dysfunctional. Sloan is fine – her intelligence and expertise counterbalanced by her social awkwardness, hardly uncommon. But Mac, a highly-rated executive producer with considerable war experience, veers between moments of extreme clarity and comedic levels of incompetence. Maggie, on the other hand, seems to be neurotic, histrionic and naive most of the time: a smart twenty-something in New York who we are supposed to believe thinks ‘LOL’ is short for ‘lots of love’ and prone to emotional outbursts which border on insubordinate. With Mac and Maggie, it often feels like consistent characterisation is sacrificed at the altar of Sorkin’s intricately layered and constructed storylines.
There are also times when the creator’s idealised – and occasionally politicised – viewpoint becomes overly sanctimonious or requires too great a suspension of disbelief. For instance, Will and Mac’s proposed presidential candidate debate format which the team spends months preparing for – temporarily sacrificing their ideals in the process – is brilliant in a perfect world but so obviously unworkable in a real-world context that it’s hard to believe no one – not least the ever cynical Don – called for a sanity check somewhere along the line.
The season’s overarching ‘threat’ of Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), the CEO of ACN’s parent company, seeking to create the right context in which she can plausibly fire Will bubbles under nicely until the closing episodes, with Will and Mac’s boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) learning that Leona’s son Reese (Chris Messina) has been authorising News of the World-style phone hacking. That much is fine, but the elaborate bluff that Charlie ultimately pulls to save Will – an envelope containing nothing more than a recipe for beef stew – left me incredulous. Really?!?
Having said all that, there is much I love about The Newsroom that outweighs its most infuriating aspects.
As one expects from Sorkin, his dialogue is crisp and fizzes off the page with a distinctive rapid-fire cadence that will be familiar to fans of The West Wing. There is also something appealing and very contemporary about the premise of the News Night team setting a higher bar for themselves, against the background of a journalistic world increasingly reliant on Twitter and the salacious activities and vacuous soundbites of C-list celebrities. There’s even a pair of exchanges between Mac and Will about Don Quixote tilting at windmills – with a little Camelot thrown in – which book-end the season as part of a deft tie-off which sees the return of ‘Sorority Girl’ and Will’s more sober answer to the question which initially lit a fire under him back in the opening scene of the opening episode.
Flawed as they are, there is something heroic and, yes, quioxtic about Will, Mac and the crew – they are the people we wish were really creating the news, just as we wished The West Wing‘s Jed Bartlet, Josh, CJ and Toby were really running the White House. And if the perennially semi-drunk Charlie and the tech-savvy Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) represent two very different generations of newsmen, we know that both their hearts are in the same place.
Even Don, the master of the dark arts (as Mac puts it), proves himself to be a true newsman at heart in the Bin Laden episode 5/1. That story was a series highlight for me, with every scene involving Don, Sloan and Elliot Hirsch (David Harbour) trapped on the tarmac at JFK a comic gem, before being turned on its head at the end when we realise they are on a United Airlines flight and Don has the privilege of breaking the news to people for whom it will have personal significance.
Flawed, yes, but still brilliant in parts
For all its faults, The Newsroom is one of those rare shows that can make me both laugh and cry. 5/1 aside, nowhere is this done better than at the end of I’ll Try To Fix You, when a series of apparently lightweight gun-related plotlines both on and off-screen culminates in the shooting of Gabby Giffords and the team’s display of integrity as the pressure mounts to compromise accuracy in the pursuit of speed.
Is The Newsroom the second coming of The West Wing? No. But nor is it Sorkin’s much derided Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (a show I loved, by the way). First and foremost it is an ode to old-school journalism, to a time when TV broke the news to the masses rather than merely reported it, when getting it right mattered more than website hits and bitesize soundbites, before Twitter became the go-to source of first resort. It is a hopelessly romanticised view of how some of the biggest news stories of recent years should have been covered – hindsight is a wonderful thing – with some staple drama tropes and moments of (sometimes unnecessary) slapstick thrown in.
But most of all, it is a show aimed at people who want intelligent TV which makes them think. Like the fictional News Night itself, this is a series which demands that people keep up, rather than dumbing things down and pandering to the lowest common denominator. For that reason alone, despite its evident flaws, it deserves to flourish.
Season 2 trailer
For a glimpse of what is to come, here’s a teaser trailer for season two, hinting at a new overarching plot.
Season two of The Newsroom premieres on Sky Atlantic next Monday (2nd September) at 9pm. Episode one is currently available to watch via Sky On Demand.