10 July 2012

The Newsroom

Aaron Sorkin's new show The Newsroom barely manages to cling to "mediocre," digging its fingernails in to hold on, legs kicking and slipping, just barely above "tendentious crap."  There's only one reason to watch it, which I will get to at the conclusion of this post.

The Newsroom has nothing new to offer. It takes the awkward limbs of Sports Night and sews them to the mouldering torso of the West Wing, topping the lot with the head of a cartoonish liberal stereotype. The result staggers around clumsily.  The only part of this Frankenstein's monster with any life in it is the mouth, which keens a shrill and unceasing, "Why don't they listen, why don't they listen, why don't they listen."

At times, the sheer obviousness that The Newsroom is recycled becomes disconcerting - I start to wonder if this is actually wry commentary.  But it's not.  Jim the Nice Guy is a direct copy of Jeremy, the Nice Guy of Sports Night; they both have plaintive and bemused attitudes interrupted only at climactic moments of righteous denunciation. Jim/Jeremy bashfully woo Maggie/Natalie, twitchy vulnerable girls who are dating jerks. The alpha of the room, Will/Casey, who takes his job seriously but has lost his way, is brought back to self-respect by the female producer with whom he was once involved, Mac/Dana (they still secretly love each other).

This interpersonal framework, lifted almost without alteration from Sports Night, is then dressed up in the wishful political speeches of the West Wing.  Sorkin adheres to the Green Lantern theory of modern liberalism, as Matt Yglesias has named it, which holds that while centrist liberals like President Obama have the right ideals, they just don't want it enough.  In this view, if they would just stop being what Will calls "losers," and start exerting their willpower and fierceness, then they could get more done.

Jeff Daniels' Will spits iron and severity at fools, and it's rousing in the same way that the West Wing's President Barlett's thundering roar could give you a chill.  Unfortunately, The Newsroom is much less nuanced than the West Wing - all the conflict between realpolitik and idealism is gone, and those who want ratings are the Bad Guys and those who want to do the news are the Good Guys.  The resulting picture is not very good, because it's hard to paint realistically with a palette only black and white.

The show is set two years in the past, and the events of the show so far have been Deepwater Horizon, Arizona's SB1070, and the 2010 election.  With each event, the show's reporters show the benefit of hindsight as they dish out heaping piles of outrage - "Ask him about the debt ceiling!"  But not only does this seem like easy pickings and tedious wishful-thinking scenarios, it also leaves The Newsroom  mired in the past.  It's not a show that can look to the future, since it's shackled to endless re-hashing of lost battles.  I told you so I told you so I told you so

The show has serious, glaring problems.  Aaron Sorkin has surely realized that the personal relationships on the show are carbon copies of Sports Night, and that the plot is self-righteous and stagnant.  He has the uncomfortable choice of either making drastic changes that are obviously intended to fix this, or leaving things as they are and continuing to be ridiculous.  What will he do?

Finding out how and if he will fix these problems, which shout with leather lungs over anything the show might otherwise say, is the only reason to watch The Newsroom.

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