Television Review – The Newsroom
The Newsroom: Season 1 – Episodes 1 & 2.
I’ve never really tried to review a current television show in any sort of active context before, so take this with a few grains of salt. What I’m trying to say is that it is very easy to form a review of a book or a movie after experiencing it, because it is, to a greater or lesser extent, a complete experience. Similarly, it is easy to review a full season of a television show, because it is a complete experience. I was having trouble getting traction on what was bothering me about The Newsroom after just one episode. The internet raving wasn’t helping either. But now, I think I’m starting to see the shape of series.
I suspect that the reason The Newsroom has been getting so many negative reviews is rooted in the fact that the show isn’t really sure what it’s trying to be. The two, or possibly three, aspects of the setting that are being explored in these early episodes are jarring when put together and therefore, off-putting. Reviews from cyberspace have put the blame on Aaron Sorkin’s bad writing, but I think that’s only half the story, if it is the case at all.
If it weren’t immediately obvious from his body of work, and the first ten minutes of The Newsroom pilot, Aaron Sorkin has a very strong understanding of speechcraft. He writes good speeches. This doesn’t automatically translate into writing great dialogue. Still, Sorkin is a master of expositional conversation, logical confrontations and even impassioned shouting matches. Where he doesn’t seem do so well is basic formulation of dramatic elements. Or, more accurately, the way he treats the audience seems to change depending on whether he is writing the bombastic, political super-show or the nested office-based, romantic dramedy. One half of the show pulls no punches and expects the viewer to be fast enough to keep up with technical jargon, fast moving plots and complex ideas. The other half holds our hands and guides us through two of the oldest tropes to exist in dramatic literature.
The attempt at ‘drama’ is the weak point of the two episodes we’ve seen so far. The tension between McAvoy and McHale is a welcome relief from the pressure of the newsroom stories, but is also already wearing out its welcome after only two episodes. Mostly because of the ham-fisted e-mail subplot that inappropriately dominated the second episode. Not only did the subplot hit us over the head with the history of the characters, it did it in an exceptionally obvious way. How much better would the second half of the episode have been if Mackenzie had just sent the e-mail to Sloan by accident, and the drama had evolved from that much more organic source? As it was, the e-mail blast was a completely transparent Chekov’s Gun that got played out before we had time to forget about it.
So, what we have is what the reviewers with advance copies of the first four episodes were reacting to: the sensation that two different people are writing The Newsroom. One is a sophisticated writer with a keen understanding of the source material and a tendency toward preachy bombast. And the other is a sophomore drama major scratching out his first romcom play. The dialogue of the episodes jumps wildly between the two voices, jarring the viewer and derailing both stories.
There are redeeming aspects to both sides of the show. If you liked The West Wing or Studio 60, there’s a lot to love in Sorkin’s depiction of a news program struggling with the political and commercial realities of our partisan and ratings-driven world. The evolving relationship between Jim and Maggie isn’t terrible, and John Gallagher, Jr. is a true pleasure to watch in all his awkward glory. But the drama and the bombast have yet to find the middle ground where the relationships are smart and the speeches are slightly less… well… just less.
Having said that, The West Wing’s first season had a similar set of problems in character Mandy Hampton and her relationship with Josh Lyman. The early episodes made a big deal of the tension between Mandy and Josh, placing them at odds with each other repeatedly until it all just stopped about half way through the first season. Mandy’s plots never really got better, but the show improved once the clichéd relationship was cut. My point is that The Newsroom has a lot of the same potential as the early West Wing. There is a somewhat inevitable adjustment period that any new show must undergo as it discovers what is working and what isn’t. I just hope that The Newsroom finds its feet sooner rather than later.