Monday, July 16, 2012

tv review: 'the newsroom' S01:E01-04

Let me begin with a disclaimer that I'm sure many will use as ample reason to completely disqualify this review: before watching The Newsroom, I have watched very little by Aaron Sorkin. I've never seen The West Wing or Sports Night(they're on my list of things to watch, but so is Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad). I've never seen Studio 60. I really liked Moneyball, but I found The Social Network frustratingly flawed in ways that I have difficulty articulating. It's a good movie, but it's not quite a great one.

In other words, when people talk about 'good Sorkin' and 'bad Sorkin', I don't have a lot of context to step in and pass judgement one way or another. It's frustrating because I feel it separates me somewhat from the discourse, but on the other hand, it also provides me a unique opportunity. It's not often I get a chance to go into something relatively blind, experience something from a fresh point of view outside of the history of the man behind the pen. Sure, I had heard a lot about Aaron Sorkin and his work (anybody who spends any time on the AV Club is familiar with the man), but I lacked a certain amount of context. All I knew before going into The Newsroom was that it was written by Aaron Sorkin and it had Sam Waterston (quasi-legendary for playing Jack McCoy for years on Law & Order, although I remember him more fondly from The Great Gatsby, if I'm being completely honest). It was enough to get me into the door, and I was planning on relying on the show to hook and keep me there.

So in the tradition of these reviews, I'm going to attempt to provide some analysis into why The Newsroom both does and doesn't entirely work in its present incarnation. Now, granted, a show can evolve a lot from the first four episodes onwards - Community and Glee are both shows that started evolving in the first four episodes and never quite stopped, for better and for worse - but I'm starting to feel like I have something of an idea of what The Newsroom wants to be and how it's going to get there.

To be completely honest, I'm not sure if it ever will. This is a show with nothing short but the ambition to inspire the news organizations across the United States to change their focus, ratings be damned. And that's not all: The Newsroom is not content to be merely a soapbox for Aaron Sorkin's views on the news broadcast world (and by this point, it's fairly obvious that it is), but to criticize all the things that Aaron Sorkin finds unappealing personally, which ranges from politics to gossip columns to 'the worst period generation period ever period' (ie. my own generation). And it's not just the main anchor, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), that he uses as his pundit, but the majority of his cast serve as characters solely to spew Sorkin's rhetoric. 

Now, I'm not going to lie here: the majority of things Sorkin says appeal to me. Yeah, even the 'worst period generation period ever period' stuff (although I'd like to remind Mr. Sorkin that a certain generation that birthed mine would be wise to start taking responsibility sometime sooner rather than later). I can't lie and say that when Will McAvoy spends an entire episode calling out the Tea Party for the corporate-backed lunacy that was an embarrassment to traditional Republicans that it is, I'm entirely behind him. I can't lie that when he castigates a woman for being obsessed with the idiotic tabloid antics of some Real Housewife of New Jersey, I couldn't help but in my gut let out something of a cheer. And when Will McAvoy gives his speech about why America is no longer the greatest country in the world and fills it with painful truths, I couldn't help but feel a shiver run down my spine because someone - even if it's Aaron Sorkin's author surrogate - is finally saying something that desperately needs to be said.

Now I know what some of you are going to say, that we've had The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report already saying this sort of thing for years with a comic twist, and that's completely true. It's also completely true that given The Newsroom is an HBO program, most viewers would not only already support these sorts of beliefs, but would probably be a little annoyed by the pandering (they also expect more depth and complexity and dimensions to characters, but I'll come back to this). But I do believe there's a place on broadcast television for a show like The Newsroom, with the sort of ideas and beliefs it promotes. I'd argue that if Sorkin wanted to reach a wider audience and really instigate a change, he wouldn't be putting this sort of thing on HBO, but that's a different thing entirely.

But I'll come back to the show's aims and designs a bit later, because while I might agree with the designs, they're nothing without appropriate execution (I've said the same thing about Terry Goodkind's Sword Of Truth series, and really, when one thinks about it, some of the parallels are absolutely striking). And while the acting is fine across the board, there's a real problem with the method of conveying all of those big ideas that Sorkin wants to talk about, and that is the characters on this show. Basically, it's hard to overlook the fact that Sorkin wants to write something akin to Keith Olbermann's 'Special Commentaries' every night, but through other actors and with significantly more swearing, and because of this, when the story tries to return to the actual character beats of the plot, everything falls apart. 

Let's take a look at the second episode, of which I'm definitely not a fan. MacKenzie has been set up as a very intelligent, active woman who has spent many years reporting in war-torn hellholes - and yet suddenly all of that professionalism that we caught glimpses of in the pilot fall away when she tries to clear Will's reputation and accidentally mass-emails the entire company the story of how she dumped him, not the other way around. Maggie is set up as something of an inexperienced assistant, but she's loyal and tough - and then she comes across as something of a bimbo when she blows the necessary contacts she needs to get for the report because of an old college incident. Many people have taken issue with the fact that Sorkin hasn't exactly written his female characters with depth and dexterity, but I'd argue he hasn't done well across the board. Will's personality seems to shift from episode to episode, Jim's is hardly better (he's played by John Gallagher Jr.), and the stereotype that Charlie (Sam Waterston's character) seems to be fulfilling excellently is fun to watch, but not particularly compelling. And that's not even saying anything about Neal's idiotic obsession with Bigfoot in the most recent episode or the constant presence of the slimy, ratings-hungry suits that dart in and out of the room whenever there's a need to produce conflict.

The one character I do like (and I think I'm going to be somewhat alone in this) is Don, played by Thomas Sadoski. He's clearly intelligent and out for his own skin (that was certainly well-established early on), but as a character, he has begun to evolve in the last two episodes. He's not the sort of character who's going to do anyone any favours, and most of the time he comes across as a real slimeball, but I'd argue Sadoski plays his role with a hollow emptiness I find appealing - Don wants something bigger and something more, but he's committed to saving his own ass and staying absolutely by the book so he's not going to take risks. He's also one of the few characters on this show I find remotely compelling when he's not talking - the scene between him, Charlie, MacKenzie and Will in the most recent episode hardly had him speaking, but the amused and sardonic reaction shots of his face were damn near priceless. My personal favourite scene with him was in the previous episode, where he comes up to 'his' reporter Elliott and tells him to get it in gear to match up with Will, to find that something that makes Will watchable and Elliott completely insubstantial. Sadoski delivers the lines with such desperate rage that it's really quite something to take in, and kudos to the makeup people for making him look downright awful.

However, Don is also involved in one of the biggest problems with this show - the fucking love triangle. Let me immediately preface this by saying that I'm not a fan of cliched love triangle bullshit - and boy, oh boy, does The Newsroom misstep big here. In fact, I'd argue that all of the relationship subplots on this show fail spectacularly, but I think this is the worst. I'm not sure I can list all the ways this subplot doesn't work - Maggie comes off like a vacuous bimbo, Jim comes across as both a creep (and a liar, with the most recent episode), and... well, Don is an asshole, but he's at least enjoyable, so I'll let it slide. And on the topic of bad romance plotlines, the plot between Will and his stream of dumb hookups and MacKenzie and her boyfriend (with Olivia Munn as the financial analyst Sloan playing Will's half-hearted advice column, because it's clear she doesn't give a rat's ass - I'd find her character intriguing if she had one) is a bit better than the love triangle above, but it still comes across as forced and pointless dramatic bullshit. And as much as I don't want to admit it (I am trying to like this show, keep that in mind), the sexism tied to this particular part of the story is impossible to ignore, partially because of the show's stubborn insistence that Will is not over MacKenzie. If anything, it would be better for both of their characters to just get over each other and move on, something Will doesn't seem capable of doing. I'd call the writing sexist, but it's more childish than anything, lacking any real maturity when dealing with relationships as a whole. I mean, who in these relationships is behaving like an adult? Anyone?

But it's fairly easy to explain why these romance subplots suck - they're peripheral. They're plot devices, and certainly not organic by any stretch of the mind. It feels like since Sorkin had to make this show a drama and not a pundit hour, he had to crowbar this shit in, and believe me, it feels forced. Whenever The Newsroom is talking about the news and that process, it's pretty damn close to excellent. Hell, I can even tolerate the monologues more than most (I'll come back to this in a second). 

But since this show is on HBO, and since viewers of television have actually seen television with a message delivered by well-designed characters, thrilling plots, or at least comedy, people have come down hard on the characters of The Newsroom, and for good reason. Nobody wants to hear a bunch of self-inserts arguing with themselves over relationships nobody cares about. It also really doesn't help matters that I find it hard to buy that any of the cast has romantic chemistry, because The Newsroom is shot in a clinical, brutally methodical way that de-emphasizes emotion and chemistry in favour of dialogue and pensive snapshots.

And here's the final blow to this show, one that can be used as a strength, but can be easily spun as a weakness - there is absolutely no deeper nuance on The Newsroom in any of Sorkin's rhetoric. It is an Irony-Free Zone without question, and in a more cynical age of television, it can come across as corny, dated, and sometimes woefully out-of-place. The Newsroom, for lack of better words, is at its absolute worst when it deals in black and white, and it does so far too often. Part of this is Sorkin's dialogue - the man is legendary for his banter, but broad statements pandering to one end of the spectrum or the other is a bad fit for it. Sorkin's prose is verbose and requires a complex plot or dynamic to take best advantage of it. As much as Will McAvoy wants to present a 'fair & balanced' viewpoint, Sorkin refuses to do the same with his show, stripping away nuance and complexity to fit easy-to-digest platitudes encased in his trademark banter which becomes crack cocaine to anyone who buys into it. People like me are disposed to liking this sort of thing, because not only does it pander to us, but it also presents itself in a way with a 'complexity' that suggests higher learning. 

But let me make this absolutely clear - there can be a place for The Newsroom. As I said, Sorkin's dialogue remains strong, and as I said, I don't have as much of a problem with the monologues. There's a place for them. But it cannot be that hard to write characters with nuance and depth outside of a copy-paste list of traits. Outside of Don, none of the characters feel remotely organic, and I know from Moneyball that Sorkin can pull this off!

But more than that, I do think there's a place for The Newsroom. It's a show with potential, if nothing else, and to see it squandered is frustrating. The show is on the ball when it cuts back to the heightened reality it pretends to inhabit, talking about news stories we all remember. And even in that point, if Sorkin wants to continue using the show as his soapbox, I can tolerate that, but it shouldn't be so blatantly obvious. The Newsroom has the potential to be a show with insight and depth, but as it is, it's shallower than it should be, dense with dialogue but light on analysis, speaking in platitudes rather than realities. And I get that Sorkin might feel this is the only way he can communicate to the broader masses of American culture for which he feels nothing but pity and disdain, but he can at least try giving people (even the 'worst generation ever') some credit.

And I'm not denying Sorkin his message. The sort of things he says on this show are the sorts of things that most of America needs to hear - the fact that Stewart and Colbert built careers mocking it are evidence of that. But The Newsroom needs to fix the formula and fix it fast. The stock, starting characters are there, so develop them and give them something outside of monologues, stupidity, and romantic bullshit to say. Give them an arc, give them some humanity. Make them something we can connect to, relate to, or even respect, and The Newsroom might be able to work even without added nuance. 

As it is, I'm going to keep watching The Newsroom, and I'll probably keep reviewing it, because it's compelling enough to evoke lots of writing on my part, and I recommend others do the same. Watch it for the occasional brilliance or hate-watch it for the awful romance, I don't care. I can say this: right now, there's nothing like it on TV - even the news.

1 comment:

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