Monday, August 27, 2012

tv review: 'the newsroom' - season one commentary

So yeah, I haven't posted much here. Mostly this is because I've been working on other projects, and that'll mean updates here will be somewhat sporadic. That being said, I am going to write posts here when there are things that I want to talk about.

And today, I want to talk about The Newsroom, a show that should be so much better than it is, one that I will watch next summer in the hopes of improvement, but one I don't expect to get any better.

You know, the more I watch The Newsroom, the more I think it's a lot like Glee. Both shows that come straight from the highly liberal edge of Hollywood, both shows are drenched in idealism and shallow characterizations/stock characters, both shows have a flair for classic musicals that isn't always appropriate, both shows often deal with their romance subplots in utterly asinine ways, both shows can occasionally have uncomfortable sexist undertones, and both shows are kind of gigantic messes when it comes plotting and scripting. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I start to see many of the worst traits of Ryan Murphy bleeding into Aaron Sorkin - their messages have gotten broader, shallower, and losing some of the nuance that gave both shows the potential to be truly excellent. Both writers are absurdly convinced of their own rightness. And both writers have absolutely no intention of addressing the very real problems with their shows - in fact, from all of the buzz I've heard about Glee going forward, many of the problems are going to get a lot worse.

Part of the issue for both writers is a case of message-mongering. Ryan Murphy sees himself as a writer who wants to redeem, reclaim, subvert, and elevate gay characters on network television, all done through his author surrogate (Kurt). He wants to spread a message of acceptance and tolerance and being yourself and all that stuff Sesame Street liked to yammer about whenever Cookie Monster wasn't around - but then again, from a basic consideration of the message, that's not entirely a bad thing. Meanwhile, Aaron Sorkin takes his message-mongering to the political arena, to rail against the utter collapse of moderate Republican ideals in the face of far-right paranoia, the rise of an American theocracy, and the subversion of the news media and government by corporations. And once again, that's not entirely a bad thing - he's not saying anything that isn't true or bluntly obvious to anyone with a brain.

The problem is that both writers have lost the valuable nuance in their work that elevated them above the after-school special trap that they occasionally fall into. I won't go into many details regarding Glee for now (saving that for a later post), but I will say that Glee works best when it focuses on the bitter, cynical reality of watching the dreams of its characters stumble, fail, or even be destroyed completely. The scene where Rachel and Finn break up in the season 3 finale - a scene that sent an avalanche of death threats against Ryan Murphy via Twitter - works so damn well because it's a sign that reality means Rachel's dreams won't all come true. It subverts the idealism and shows there is a very real cost to Rachel's choice to go to NYC, and the fact that Lea Michelle and Cory Monteith act their asses off in those scenes is what seals the deal. As a thematic payoff to Rachel's entire arc in the first three seasons of Glee, it's fantastic. In fact, in most of the scenes where Glee decides to embrace the sad bitter truth of most of these kids' lives, it really gains dramatic resonance.

So let's cut back to The Newsroom, a show that has the same idealism, and it's also a show that works best when the sad bitter truths of reality come crashing back down. While there are great scenes underscoring the successes of ACN, some of the best scenes are when some of that righteous idealism is punctured. Take the scene in one of The Newsroom's best episodes, 'Bullies', where Will attempts to dress down a gay man for supporting Santorum, and the man (rightfully) shreds Will's self-righteous labelling and privilege-based arguments in a vicious counter-attack. It's arguably a defeat for the 'protagonists' of this show, but it's the kind of defeat edged with the nuance of reality - the best kind of nuance. It's a complex question, and the simple answer Will tries to bring forward just does not - and cannot - work. It's an example of Sorkin stepping up and delivering in a way that hasn't been seen for a long time. It undercuts the fantastic idealism with reality, and that's what makes it resonate.

It's also the reason why Don, played by Thomas Sadowski, is the best fucking character on the show. He's the character that wants to have the grand dreams like MacKenzie, and he wants to have the perfect romance with Maggie, but he's also far too damn analytical, cynical, and bitter to get away from the truth that he has a mandate that completely junks most of the idealism. It helps a lot that Sadowski as an actor is doing way better than he needs to for this sort of source material - set up as a romantic foil against John Gallagher Jr.'s character Jim (who I utterly despise, on a side note), Don is just a far more interesting character as a whole. He wants to be the idealist newsman, but he's not allowed to be. So he alternates between losing himself in his job (where he's both confident and competent) and trying desperately to make things better - and for the most part, it's never worked. He's ultimately a tragic character, one for whom dreams won't come true, and if anything, he's the underdog character that The Newsroom should be focusing on with far more attention.

But interviews and discussions with Sorkin have revealed, much to my frustration, that he's not looking to explore these directions - which is a problem. Instead, he's going for much broader, shallower arcs and arguments, eschewing the nuance and complexity of the debate in order to reach a wider audience that he desperately wants to have - and that's the wrong way to do it. There are ways of framing debates on issues The Newsroom wants to discuss, and they're done in a way to reach a wider audience.

Now if I'm going to be completely honest, I'd prefer it if Sorkin upped the complexity and did his diatribes in the manner of Keith Olbermann, a pundit that I can't help but notice seems a major influence in the stylistic flourishes shown in Will McAvoy. To discuss Olbermann for a few minutes, I will stand as one of the few who will stick up for the former anchor of MSNBC's Countdown. Yes, he was partisan and arrogant and occasionally bellicose, but I could ignore all of that if he was outlining his arguments in a way that was logical and made sense, perpetuating an intelligent and well-informed debate. Yeah, he went off the rails a few times, but I am willing to forgive that for the number of times he did make valid points.

But I also understand that his brand of elitism (the usage of the word here is not intended as a pejorative) and  hard intellectualism isn't for everyone, so perhaps the message needed to be conveyed in simpler language. But here's the kicker - between Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert commenting from a comedic perspective, and Rachel Maddow from a more serious perspective, we already have this sort of commentary every single day. So what does The Newsroom bring to the table that watching old episodes of The Daily Show doesn't?

Well, what one would expect is that, since The Newsroom is coming off of the pedigree of The West Wing, that any political commentary on older issues would have the specific brand of nuance delivered through Sorkin that earned him his fame, accompanied by the fast-paced banter that Sorkin does so well. The commentary on the specific issue might not be up to date, but that wasn't the point - if the bigger issue was still examined from a nuanced perspective, intelligent viewers still might be able to wring something valuable from The Newsroom.

And we didn't get that. Instead we got an onslaught of torrid and awful romantic subplots that completely lacked nuance (Don mostly excluded, and if I'm being absolutely fair, I don't entirely mind some of Will and MacKenzie's subplots either, simply because they're good actors), a convoluted mess of a conspiracy plotline that went nowhere, and a load of shallow, worthless commentary on past stories that just didn't bring anything new or all that special to the table. Take the 9/11 mosque issue: where Sorkin had a real opportunity to have Will slam down on the opposing reporter for choosing to demonize the Islamic faith and revealing her true bias, he instead does a lazy comparison of all of the historical wrongs Christianity has been associated with. No analysis, no deeper examination of the argument, not even a coherent refutation because it completely goes around the issue to say, 'Yeah, well, Christianity is bad too!' That sort of argumentation is lazy, childish, and worthless, and shows no desire to actually think about a good analytical takedown of the idiocy associated with the 9/11 mosque controversy last year.

My point is that if Sorkin is going to use The Newsroom as his soapbox to espouse his views on Life, the Universe, and Everything (as he seems to do), then it'd be nice to see views that have complexity and go beyond vague platitudes or the shallowest of arguments. Give me something with reason, that's researched and thoroughly thought out. Otherwise, I can't see The Newsroom as anything more than pandering to people with similar viewpoints (I include myself in that number), and as comfortable as it is to be told that I'm right about people on a regular basis, that's not why I review television.

And with that, we come to the romance subplots and why they don't work here. Now, to be fair, they didn't work at all in Studio 60 either, but I suspect there's a slightly different reason around that. To me, Studio 60 was Sorkin unfettered at his absolute worst, unleashing tides of bile on anyone or anything that scorned him in the entertainment industry, and placing such rage through the frameworks of a semi-comedic show doesn't really work. Now, while I will be very slightly forgiving of Sorkin channelling romantic frustrations through his artistic body of work (I mean, nearly every author/creator will do this at some point, and I can't exclude myself here), such frustrations need to be properly integrated into the narrative, or things will come out trite, unnecessary, or just insufferable.

You know, a lot of praise has been heaped on The West Wing for the apt political commentary that it was (with a few exceptions, but that's for another time), but what some people seem to forget is that The West Wing was built upon the strength of his characters and their relationships. It's Basic Writing 101 - conflicts mean more and acquire more resonance when you care about the characters involved in those conflicts. The West Wing worked as well as it did because it took a selection of great characters and forced them into conflicts, which we cared about because we cared about the characters. And while I could do a lengthy essay on what makes great characters in both human and more arch terms, one can comment that the deft juxtaposition of smart plotting, great banter, and solid scripts made characters from The West Wing complex and memorable.

But in The Newsroom, like with Glee, it seems as if Aaron Sorkin wants to strike a more idealistic viewpoint, and in doing so has reduced his characters from complex humans to an assorted collection of archetypes and mouthpieces, albeit with great banter. Glee did something of the same thing, but through a combination of good acting, decent plotting, legitimate chemistry, and scripts that at least tried to have character consistency (plot/tone consistency has never been a strong point for Glee), it managed to have some character moments that really resonate.

So what do we have in The Newsroom? We have the relationship of Will and MacKenzie, one that fell apart for absolutely fucking stupid reasons with MacKenzie, and while the leads do have chemistry, I have a hard time really caring about the relationship when Will is such an obvious author mouthpiece and MacKenzie most often just becomes a vehicle to drive the plot. It really doesn't help matters that the character traits (or the absolutely asinine things MacKenzie does as a part of the plot) are so arch and broad that they don't make her a compelling character on her own. Instead, she's defined by her relationship to Will and other characters - you know, one of the absolutely fucking worst way to write a female character.

The same problem appears with Maggie, but every negative trait in MacKenzie gets exaggerated five times worse here. Yes, Sorkin, I am willing to acknowledge that your female characters might be 'book-smart' (a high INT stat, if we might use D&D lingo for a moment), but they sure as hell aren't very 'people-smart' (in other words, they use WIS as their dump stat). It doesn't help that Allison Pill has absolutely no chemistry with any of her associated male leads - apparently she's quite a good actress in other roles, but I just find her unfathomably awful here. Like MacKenzie, some of her personality is defined by her relationships, in this case Don and Jim. But part of the huge problem with that is that Don has a strong personality of his own and his arc and motivations are significantly more complex than anything Maggie's going through, and the relationship with Jim just serves to emphasize the absolute worst elements of both of their characters - and with Jim, that's really saying something.

I feel I need to get this out of the way or it's going to colour most of the rest of the analysis, but I find Jim's character utterly detestable - partially because he has no chemistry with either of his love interests, and partially because he comes across as a smug, condescending douche. Now, granted, Don also behaves in this manner, but he owns that behavior. He's fully aware he's something of a jackass, and while he struggles with it at points, he's also embraced it. But both the show and Jim himself are convinced that Jim is a good character and a good guy - and he's not. Apparently John Gallagher Jr. is a good actor elsewhere, but here stepping in as the tertiary mouthpiece for Sorkin and one of the worst parts of the beta couple just make his character infuriating to watch.

I guess I should say something about the rest of the main cast, but I generally find them inconsequential or tolerable enough to not warrant much notice. Sam Waterston is awesome playing Charlie, but then again, he's always been a great actor that I've liked, and he's never really gone through a significant arc as a character. Sure, he's tied to elements of the plot, but I think his best character moment was on '5/1', where he was contemplating both the reliability of his source and the interesting topic of when they should report the death of bin Ladin (something I really wish was elaborated on in greater detail here, if I'm going to be honest). Likewise, Olivia Munn as Sloane hasn't really stood out to me, considering she never really grows as a character in herself. Sure, she's snappy and feisty, but I can't help but feel that Sorkin just wants to use her as a lecturer on economics or as a plot device whenever he feels it's appropriate - which made the sudden hard-left into her affection for Don somewhat frustrating. I'll admit it was subtly set up, and the scene between Don and Sloane in his office in the season finale was actually pretty good, but it also seems to be a completely doomed relationship since Maggie chose to move in with Don (dude, go with Sloane - she's eons better than Maggie is). 

And then there's Neal, and at this point, we need to talk about Sorkin views the youth of America and the Internet. Most younger critics, including myself, took issue with Sorkin lambasting my generation as the 'WORST. GENERATION. EVER.' (yeah, take a look in the mirror, Will, your generation was the one that spawned us and is going to leave to us your mess). But upon further reflection, I think Sorkin redeemed himself somewhat with the new intern stepping in, wanting to be a part of what ACN is putting out - although, if I'm being more critical, it does imply a message that 'if the youth of America just listen to me they'll all get better'. I do like that the intern is the girl that Will verbally assaulted during the pilot, standing as absolute proof that we can come out of all of this tougher and ready to put things back together, and I do like that Will hired her, a taciturn acknowledgement that my generation isn't so worthless after all.

But Sorkin's relationship with the Internet isn't nearly as rosy, and since Neal is the most Internet-savvy character on the show, he's the one that gets caught in the crossfire. I feel sorry for Dev Patel getting caught up in the most ignorant, absolutely stupid plotlines of the show (between 'Bigfoot is real' and the 'trolling' subplot which went absolutely nowhere - Sorkin, if you were looking to make a point about Anonymous, you blew it big time), but to be honest, I'm not sure where all of this hatred of the Internet and the blogosphere came from, particularly since Aaron Sorkin wrote The Social Network. Yes, I get that you find the lack of editorial standards and basic grammar infuriating - so do I, if I'm being honest - but when Will McAvoy bellows out in the newsroom, "I'm going to single-handedly fix the Internet", he looks like an antiquated dumbass. I'd be willing to excuse this as simply a character flaw for will, but then that godawful trolling subplot came up and I'm forced to conclude that Sorkin is just astoundingly ignorant about how the Internet works, and considering most of the backlash against The Newsroom has come from the Internet, the entire scenes come across as unbelievably childish and petulant.

The point regarding these characters and relationships is quite simple: they aren't compelling. Sorkin wants to write broader, more arch characters, but he also wants to have all of the very human drama to drive the plots of the story. The problem is, most of our primary characters just suck, because they're far too broadly defined and don't behave in a recognizably human way that makes them anywhere close to likeable. If Sorkin was going for broad character archetypes, he can't have the entire series based upon these relationships because they'll feel token and shallow. But if Sorkin wants to write characters that are more believably human, then watchers are going to expect greater nuance in his soapboxing - vague platitudes aren't going to appease viewers who expect more.

And here's the final issue I must raise with The Newsroom: despite all of the jargon and all of the fast-talking banter, Aaron Sorkin believes that his audience is either woefully uninformed or insanely stupid. Will McAvoy says it himself in the pilot that he has no faith in the intelligence of his audience - and time and time again on the show, he's proven to be not far from the truth. This tends to be a universal tenet - when Don delivers a small lecture during the first Casey Anthony episode, he walks through how another broadcast station delivers their shot-by-shot news, and the overriding message of that scene is to emphasize just how uninformed and stupid people seem to be who watch the news. It's a little insulting, but I do admit that I get where Sorkin's coming from - he sees all of the insanity and following success of elements like the Tea Party and I'm sure he can't help but feel infuriated at the stupidity there.

But here's where we run into the paradigm shift that needs to be mentioned, the paradigm shift not in the way Sorkin's newsroom operates, but in the way the real one does. As much as MacKenzie believes that her new show will bring people together, the finale proves that ACN has no intention of doing that. As much as Will and MacKenzie might feel they're producing a quality broadcast and 'speaking truth to stupid', the fact is that those stupid uninformed people that Sorkin seeks to preach to wouldn't even bother to watch his brand of News Night in the first place. The ideal that News Night might have the capacity to frame the debate of America is a noble one, but it's hopelessly crippled right out of the door by reality, with which News Night has shackled itself. And it really doesn't help matters that networks like MSNBC or shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report already fill the role News Night wanted to have.

And as for framing the debate? Half of that plot feels like an ego trip of Will's, particularly during the episode where Will demonstrates how he will be questioning the candidates running for the nomination - a questioning process to which no presidential candidate - left or right - would agree. Yes, I get his broader point that Sorkin's trying to make, but it's the execution that ruins that plot. Ultimately, it becomes clear that Sorkin never wanted News Night to bring people together by piercing through the haze of idiocy - ultimately, the great tragedy of the show is that it would only polarize people further, with the only folks Sorkin views as intelligent being the ones that believe his message without questioning it further.

You know, I really didn't mean to turn this into a rant, because ultimately, The Newsroom still does kind of work. Like Glee, it's a guilty pleasure watch. I don't hate this show, because I have a soft spot for idealistic storytelling, and Sorkin still does banter better than anyone else in the industry. And believe it or not, I still do see flashes of potential and genuine greatness in this show. The Newsroom could really work with Sorkin at its helm, but like with The West Wing, it might not be a bad idea for someone to collaborate with him to tone back the wilder, stupider impulses. Unfettered, I don't see the appeal of The Newsroom lasting.

But we'll examine this more next season. The Newsroom is coming back next summer, and I for one am looking forward to watching it either succeed or blow up spectacularly. In the spirit of this show, let's come together to hope for the best and expect the worst. I think we can all get behind that.

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