There are moments when you are reminded of the importance of television, of how much of a defining role it plays in our lives, of how millions of people are glued to their sets for hours on a daily basis and how the television has become the focal point of our homes. The Newsroom is one of those reminders. Aaron Sorkin, the worshiped creator of The West Wing, has returned to television, fresh from the successes of The Social Network and Moneyball. Unable to resist its lure he has been drawn back into the inimitable world of of the TV series.
The Newsroom opens with a galvanising call to arms, a monologue delivered expertly by Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, an arrogant, cynical news anchor holding on to the last vestiges of the brilliance of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. It’s a cry for the return of integrity in our media and a reminder of Sorkin’s masterpiece monologues, but as the show progresses you soon realise it’s as vapid and jingoistic as the problems it rails against, almost a carbon copy of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It seems as if Sorkin has made no progress since Studio 60 was cancelled; now instead of a bitter shot at network executives he’s making a bitter shot at everything.
All sense of reality is quickly left behind as the show becomes a fantasy world concocted by Sorkin. It doesn’t deal with the real problems of the rolling twenty four hour news behemoths, doesn’t touch on the blending of opinion and fact; it makes some pot shots about news not being intelligent enough and then binges on hindsight about how the news channels should have handled the BP disaster. Sorkin always wants the grand plot; the news anchor clears out his staff and starts again, or the TV producer breaks down on air and in step new blood to revive a dying show. It is too optimistic, it believes that everything can be fixed over the course of an episode; as in the Studio 60 pilot, it is naïve and ignores the complexities of the real problems.
Despite this flawed premise, The Newsroom does have moments of brilliance. The crisp cinematography is possibly the best on television, the dialogue is to the high standard of Sorkin’s previous shows and he still has his ability to make instantly likeable characters. From the slightly unbalanced Division President who proclaims ‘I’m too old to be governed by the fear of dumb people’ to the meek assistant Margaret, played by Allison Pill, and the fiercely verbose new Executive Producer Mackenzie, played by Emily Mortimer, he has an uncanny capacity to make us care about and identify with the flawed people he populates his shows with. Then there is setting the show at the time of the BP oil spill, which initially feels like a misstep, making a news program seem outdated and irrelevant – until you begin to realise that this is still relevant on a political and societal level because nothing has changed, nothing has been improved since the disaster; the American government is a stilted machine, polarised to the point of ineptitude. But, unfortunately, The Newsroom doesn’t just make this point – it beats us over the head with it.
What is apparent through all of this is Aaron Sorkin’s love of television. It is evident in all he has done and how he is unable to stay away from making shows about shows. He understands the incredible influence that television has on our lives, and how it is underserving us all; whether through sports, solitics, comedy or news, he understands how much effect a single television show can have on the consciousness of society. This is where the real message of Sorkin’s sermon lies, and that is the most frustrating thing; he is right. Television should be there to inspire us and challenge us, not pander to the lowest common denominator. We all know this and we need someone to stand up and point out that television is broken, but this is not the show to do it. It’s trying too hard – in trying to take on too much at once, it relies too heavily on a grandiose plot, and confuses an intelligent show with one that makes lots of Don Quixote or Gilbert and Sullivan references, making glib comments that the news should be smarter but overlooking the multitude of problems plaguing the media. Broad ideas alone do not make a smart show, nor a good one; “smart is a pejorative,” as Simon Stiles says on Studio 60, ironically as viewers stopped watching in their millions.
The Newsroom reminds us to demand more, not to let ourselves be patronised, to expect some integrity from those with the power to inform people, but who too often rely on misinformation and sensationalism to attract as many viewers as possible. It’s easy to be critical, as I am of the show and as Aaron Sorkin is of everything, but at least the discussion is out there, and hopefully it has made people think. Unfortunately, I fear it has more likely made people sigh at problems out of their control and turn off their TV – or worse, turn over.