Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

The West Wing in CNN or Grey’s Anatomy with journalists? The Newsroom reviewed.

I watched the first two episodes of The Newsroom last night. I was well prepped, considering features on the series and interviews with Aaron Sorkin have be unavoidable over the past month, including Dan Rather’s rather misplaced reviewing technique on Gawker and …

Fri, Jul 13, 2012, 12:50

   

I watched the first two episodes of The Newsroom last night. I was well prepped, considering features on the series and interviews with Aaron Sorkin have be unavoidable over the past month, including Dan Rather’s rather misplaced reviewing technique on Gawker and this excellent piece by Mick Heaney. The prospect of Sorkin taking on American television news is mouth-watering. It’s a subject and setting primed for him. But subjects and settings matched with good writers don’t always add up to something awesome, as we’ve seen from Shonda Rhimes’ CSI:PR take on the world of public relations with Scandal.

Newsroom is all of the things I thought it wouldn’t be. It’s muddy, fractured and slightly bemusing. From watching the first two episodes, I’m not really sure if it knows what it is. Hand-on-heart “today we celebrate our Independence Day”-type monologues are interspersed with the subtext of an open wound love story between Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the news anchor who has fallen from grace following a cracking take down of America in the open scene of the first episode, and his new executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), along with another three way love story between the Ugly Betty-esque assistant-turned-associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), her reluctant boyfriend and newsroom hotshot Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) and MacKenzie’s right hand man Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr).

photo via Vanity Fair

Kicking off as the BP oil rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, Sorkin’s non-stop over-written dialogue pummels you from start to finish. There are relentless air-hockey-frantic conversations where there should just be one liners. The sentimentality for ‘real news’ and puritanical approach by the new newsroom kids is simply not believable. The female characters are hysterical – even the cool, professional MacKenzie turns into a dithering shrieker by episode two.  There are weird unnecessary moments of slapstick; a white board falling off an easel, someone tripping over bags, a melodramatic phone smashing incident. Key moments are set to a ridiculously sentimental score by the acclaimed composer Thomas Newman. And there’s no such thing as subtle when episode two wraps with a shot of the Statue Of Liberty glowing at night.

As we’ve seen from the Sorkin supercut and the use of the term ‘Sorkinism’, the writer’s style has become part of popular culture, along with the programmes he creates. A writer becoming a star in this way is somewhat unusual. Aside from the writing style of Quentin Tarantino, you’d be hard pushed to find a casual boxset fan who could identify who wrote the script of what they’re watching. But Sorkin has transcended that. And as with all writers, musicians, filmmakers or artists who have a very identifiable style, familiarity can sometimes breed contempt if it isn’t backed up by a kickass concept, tone and cast. All of those three things are slightly wonky here, and it’s hard to take Sorkin’s 90 mile-a-minute dialogue seriously when the backdrop feels more Meredith Grey than Wolf Blitzer. Crucially, The Newsroom doesn’t feel believable, and even though the setting hosts one of the most cynical professions around, it decides instead to be sanctimonious.

When I was tweeting about it last night, a few people said episode three was much better, so I’ll give that a shot. But for now, it feels as though Newsroom is an opportunity missed. Of course, my expectations were too high, but also when you make a programme that doesn’t really seem to know what it’s about, nor have any characters that you truly care about (although Dev Patel as Neal Sampat the smart IT guy, and Sam Waterson as Charlie Skinner, the tipsy news division president are quite likeable), you’ll end up with something that is as confusing as US TV news itself. The Newsroom staff are looking for real news with a purpose, it’s a pity that doesn’t seem to result in a show with a purpose.

 

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