by CJ Josh
The TV series of Aaron Sorkin from Sports Night through to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip share many recurring themes; owning one’s mistakes, unresolved relationships, the definitions and tensions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and the Sorkin hallmark of ‘what could be’.
The West Wing is his most successful TV series to date and delivered seven seasons, while the others were axed after only one.
Fans have longed for another series from Sorkin and expectations for The Newsroom have been high. After seeing several episodes I think it is worth watching – more for its potential than what it has delivered to date.
Paul Redford,who worked with Sorkin on Sports Night and West Wing and has a quality television pedigree, is a co-executive producer on The Newsroom. He forms the cornerstone of an excellent production with outstanding casting.
The typical Sorkin line-up of characters are there, with the ‘star’, Will McAvoy, being an interesting combination of the Josh and Toby characters from The West Wing. The sage older male is played this time by Sam Waterston. His Charlie is pretty much the same character as John Spencer’s Leo, or Robert Guillaume‘s Isaac Jaffe from Sports Night.
Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHalef has the flaws of Donna, the strength of CJ, both of The West Wing, and the brains of Dana Whitaker, the no nonsense producer of Sports Night.
Sorkin has often been criticised for his portrayal of women and The Newsroom doesn’t go a long way, as yet, to answer his critics. We have only had one scene featuring Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, the tough CEO of the media company which produces the show within the show, News Night. The irony of having Fonda in the role is heavy given she is the ex-wife of CNN founder, Ted Turner.
The character of Maggie, the assistant producer who was thrust into the role through being in the right place at the right time and someone’s gut feeling (remember when Josh hired Donna?), has a way to go in being a fully fledged character. Her relationship with co-worker Jim appears to be strongly influenced by Tim and Dawn of The Office.
At least the obligatory annoying character is played by a male this time, with ex-Executive Producer, Don Keefer, being the ‘Mandy” of The Newsroom. Maybe he’ll go out one day and never return too.
The repetition of Sorkin storylines is annoying to the devotee and one wonders if he feels he has not reached enough of an audience in the past and can afford to trot them out again.
Given Sorkin has his cohort of characters, his defined environment and his unquestioned way with words, what makes The Newsroom different enough to be worth watching?
This time Sorkin is taking on reality. Rather than the parallel to reality storylines of The West Wing, Sports Night and Studio 60, The Newsroom takes on contemporary American politics by using footage from real news stories, politicians and pundits and weaving it throughout the show within the show. The Newsroom’s storylines are compelling and will cause some division within its audience.
Sorkin is presenting facts and scenarios on topics, such as the origins and influence of the Tea Party, and telling the news his way. He asks the questions one hopes are asked in newsrooms and provides reflection, which one suspects the modern newsroom doesn’t have the time or budget to do.
The potential of the show is there and a second season was commissioned after the second episode aired in the United States. One hopes that the new crew of writers joining for this second series will balance the over powering self-righteous tone which seems to be gaining momentum as the show continues.
There is no point in saying this show is better produced, cast and written than most TV dramas – which it is – or that it’s better than endless seasons of reality television because it’s aimed at a different audience.
What will be interesting is to see if Sorkin can change the way we are used to seeing story-telling on television by positioning his drama amongst real news events.
Every now and then writers do this, such as David Lynch (Twin Peaks), David E Kelly (Ally McBeal) and David Simon (The Wire).
As with other Aaron Sorkin shows, The Newsroom will have a niche audience, but will Sorkin go beyond his usual bag of tricks and show us a new direction in tv drama.
The Newsroom provides the debate against tabloid news, and fights for the stories which may have not got a run in the US mainstream media.
And The Newsroom, while flawed, is providing the alternative to tabloid television.
by Ben Harris-Roxas
In scriptwriting there is one edict above all others: show, don’t tell. With The Newsroom we’re continually told that News Night, the fictional TV news show depicted, is an amazing, brave and wholly original TV show. We’re told that Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and Mackenzie Hale (Emily Mortimer), as the show’s anchorman and executive producer, are the “media elite” (hilariously that is a phrase uttered seriously by Daniels’ character). We’re told that the newsroom is made up of talented, committed people who are covering news differently.
At no stage do we, as the audience, believe any of it. We’re never shown it.
As always with Sorkin’s characters all speak with a single voice – Sorkin’s – and there is little in the way of meaningful characterisation. Tension arises from from the characters’ biographies and backstories, not their motivations. It’s screwball comedy without the comedy. The cast is exceptional though. Sam Waterstone steals every scene he’s in, playing network executive Charlie Skinner. Daniels and Mortimer deliver solid performances. The rest of the cast do their best to struggle through the hypomanic dialogue. I found the young, neurotic assistant producer character (Maggie Jordan) particularly annoying, though that has more to do with my response to the character than Alison Pill’s portrayal.
As you can tell, the show irritated me and I consider myself to be a Sorkin fan. The biggest irritations are undoubtedly the show’s deliberate historical revisionism and script recycling. The Newsroom is set in the recent past and features actual news items. Deepwater Horizon, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the execution of Osama Bin Laden all get the Sorkin treatment. We’re served up an alternate history version of how a more principled media outlet would have tackled these events. The overall effect is a slightly disorienting, concocted and smug recounting of events. “Hey dummies, this is how you should have covered it,” one can imagine Sorkin thinking while writing.
At his best Sorkin is capable of crafting elegant and memorable turns of phrase. Who can forget The West Wing’s “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett”? Expect to hear some of your favourite lines in The Newsroom. Verbatim. Whole situations and pieces of dialogue in The Newsroom are lifted from The West Wing, Studio 60 and Sports Night. It’s not just lazy writing, it draws you out of the drama on-screen. Sorkin is effectively punishing his fans for knowing his work.
We live in an era of increased media balkanisation and a seeming race to the bottom. A dramatic look at TV news, now, could be really worthwhile. The Newsroom isn’t that show.
I recommend that rather than aggravating yourself with The Newsroom, watch some some old episodes of The West Wing instead. You’ll be hearing the same lines anyway.