|July 20, 2012||Posted by Elliot Davies under entertainment, reviews|
The Newsroom is the latest brainchild of Aaron Sorkin, the prominent Hollywood writer who brought us A Few Good Men, The West Wing and The Social Network. The show focuses on a television newsroom at the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN), where anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) holds court with the support of his new executive producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), and newsroom staff including Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr), a producer, and Maggie Jordan (Allison Pill), an associate producer, all overseen by Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the news division president.
The format of the show will be familiar to fans of Sorkin’s previous work. Much as The West Wing focused on the inner workings of the White House, so The Newsroom focuses on the inner workings of the studio, and it does not take long for Sorkin’s characteristic style to come through. It is the world of intrigue, snap decisions and fast-paced action all over again, and we hit the ground running right from the first episode with the familiar rapid-fire dialogue and righteous monologuing. (There are fewer “walk and talk” scenes, but it can only be a matter of time.)
The plot follows Will McAvoy’s realisation that for years his evening news show, News Night, has been more akin to advertiser-friendly entertainment than actual news. Deciding to turn the programme around and start presenting straight facts and non-partisan analysis, he soon has to deal with falling ratings, unhappy bosses and a public smear campaign.
It is not the most complex story, and sometimes it feels as though events happen only to serve as a vehicle for clever dialogue; Sorkin has a habit of setting up arguments for himself to win. The numerous attacks on politicians (especially Republicans) can also come across as somewhat sanctimonious. Nevertheless the plot overall is sound, and the use of real news stories (the timeline begins in 2010 with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) makes it much more interesting.
Unfortunately, the show does not focus solely on politicking: not a single episode has yet gone by (so far there have been four) without a dip into the ocean of overblown clichés that is the characters’ private lives. There was Jim, who took a seemingly untenable job because of a vague attraction to Maggie, a girl he’d never met; Maggie and her blatantly manipulative boyfriend (yippee, a love triangle); and of course Will and MacKenzie, whose frequent arguments about their past relationship in front of the rest of the staff are so unprofessional and unlikely as to be simply farcical. It is a shame that not 10 minutes can pass without the viewer having to flinch at yet another display of frankly teenage angst, because it is neither entertaining nor enjoyable and detracts from the rest of the show.
The characters themselves are affable enough – likeable and clever, and acted by a capable cast – but do tend towards lacking depth. In a few cases this superficiality severely spoils characters; the glaring example is Maggie, the intern-turned-assistant-turned-associate producer whose quick promotions were obviously a mistake since they elevated her to the main cast. We are constantly pushed to feel sorry for her, variously because she is drunk, overlooked, suffering from panic attacks or just in the aforementioned idiotic relationship – and yet sympathy is hard to come by when she has done little (read: nothing) to earn it.
The same could be said of Will, ostensibly the main character, whose enjoyable opening monologue in the first episode was spoiled both beforehand by oddly-placed exposition (is that a woman in the audience? Surely not) and afterwards by a bad joke about vertigo medicine that certainly fell flat as though it had toppled off a high-rise building. When we are not supposed to be admiring Will’s newfound respect for the fourth estate, the running theme is that we should somehow pierce his gruff exterior and see him for the kind man he truly is – and yet we are given few positive traits with which to do so. Indeed, to date he has managed only to seem arrogant and rude, not to mention needlessly insensitive in his torment of MacKenzie.
The other major casualty is MacKenzie herself, who comes across as easier to empathise with but at the cost of her credibility. Despite having just returned from reporting in a war zone, she is portrayed as a fumbling, awkward producer who promotes women based on their legs, cannot work her BlackBerry’s email client, and gets flustered every time Will enters the room. It is a shame that the writing seems determined to undermine what could otherwise be an interesting and smart female lead.
The show’s portrayal of a contemporary newsroom culture is oddly outdated. Nowhere is mention made of Facebook, Twitter or any of the other social media that surely should be omnipresent; the closest we get is Will’s surprise when he discovers someone writes a blog for him. He is so surprised, in fact, that it sadly attempts to become a running joke for much of the episode. And the staff spends so much time debating morals and ethics that it actually becomes a major plot point, even though modern newsrooms rarely have the luxury of such wrangling and speechifying.
So is The Newsroom worth watching? Ultimately, yes. The plot is interesting if obvious, the characters are well-cast if unexplored and obtrusively emotional, and the writing is Sorkin’s usual delicious mix of wit and cynicism – if somewhat stale. The show might not be the incisive look into a modern newsroom many had hoped for – it is not The West Wing for journalists – but provided it is not taken too seriously it is nonetheless enjoyable, intelligent entertainment.