TV REVIEW: The Newsroom So Far

Aaron Sorkin's latest television project is his first since the ill-fated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and having found success in Hollywood with The Social Network and Moneyball, his attention has turned to the drama of a primetime news show, News Night. It has been savaged by critics here and across the pond so far, seemingly keen to pull down the Sorkin success story, but is it completely unfounded? Or has Sorkin perhaps got a bit too preachy for his own good?

The first episode, We Just Decided To, follows Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) after he delivers a blistering takedown of a female student who asks him during a public debate why America is the greatest country in the world. In typical Sorkin fashion, Will gives us a list of reasons of exactly why America cannot be considered as such anymore, providing us with statistics to prove it and a rather rose-tinted view of the country's history to show what it could be again (but more on that later). Brought in to aid the News Night rehabilitation, Will's ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) signs on as executive producer at the request of drunk executive Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and brings along her associate producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) for the ride. Already in place is beleaguered and accidentally promoted Maggie Jordon (Alison Pill), outgoing executive producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) and Will's blogger Neal Sampat (Dev Patel). News Night wants to provide a non-biased, intelligent look at the news that allows the American electorate to know exactly who and what they're voting for.

One thing that Aaron Sorkin has always been able to do is write a cracking pilot, filled with fast-talking, intelligent people who work to do their best in whichever field they're in, be it politics or television, all constantly residing in a pressure cooker of intensity. The Newsroom pilot is no different; from the fantastic opening speech from McAvoy about the ills of the United States to the race to get their show on the air. The characters in the first episode are all compelling, each coming with their own backstory, quickly explained but just as relevant. Particularly interesting are Mac and Jim's background, both having returned from several years reporting on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq and I am hoping we explore the effects of this in later episodes. A ragtag bunch of people at this stage in the proceedings, the future News Night team are brought together over the breaking news of the 2010 BP oil spill.

Yes, that's right. The Newsroom's central conceit is that it takes the news of the recent past and retells it, how it should have been told (according to Sorkin). Now Sorkin has stated in various interviews that this show is intended to be a love letter to the news and yes, to show certain things how it should have been told. Future episodes will take on the Republican Tea Party and the age-old debate of gun control.  I don't pretend to be anywhere near as fantastic a writer as Sorkin, but this technique just smacks of being lazy. There's no need to create these problems or find issues that provide allegories for our reality because they're already there in the past, waiting to be re-written. One of the main criticisms levelled against the show is that it's constantly on a soap-box, preaching from its office of intelligent people who know better. And I have to agree. Sorkin's programmes have always been politically aware and full of intelligent people who know better, especially in what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest shows of all time, The West Wing.

Following the policy-making of a Democratic Oval Office provided the chance to comment on real-world issues but within a specifically relevant setting. Importantly, The West Wing created an alternate reality, one in which the same history was present but the present and future was all slightly different. The Newsroom, however, is set very much in our reality, only two years or so before and it allows Sorkin to glorify his team as the true voice of American news, reporting these events how they should have been reported because, as is often wryly observed, hindsight always has perfect vision. Thanks to a convenient coincidence (Jim's sister works at Halliburton whilst his college room-mate works at BP), News Night are able to focus on the potential environmental disaster before anyone else even thinks that there might be that significant a consequence. All that being said, the pilot episode was fantastically entertaining, full of quickfire dialogue and tense moments. The final scenes of the News Night programme itself matched the sort of thrill that you used to get when Jed Bartlett delivered speeches back in the Oval Office.

What a shame then, that the second episode, News Night 2.0 goes downhill so rapidly, you'd think Sorkin had a cancellation wish. The actual story itself, an episode of News Night concerning the Arizona immigration law, SB1070, goes wrong when a source drops out and the team scramble to find less-than-suitable candidates to provide the 'for' side of the debate, is inspired. After Maggie's ex-boyfriend turns out to be an aide to the Governor and she accidentally insults him over the phone, Jim takes the fall for her whilst the bookers find someone to replace him. The News Night episode is classic car-crash television with a former Miss Oklahoma runner-up and a gun-totin' neighbourhood watch man providing much of the comedy. It was also good to see a show go wrong after the relentless righteous broadcasting we saw in the pilot episode and is perhaps proof that whilst Sorkin is attempting to re-write the news as it should have been reported, it might actually not go so well once in a while.

However, it is what is happening in the rest of the episode that drags the quality down by a country mile, specifically, Sorkin's writing for the female characters which is downright insulting that it borders on misogynistic. We know from the very beginning that Mac and Will once dated three years ago but with the way she starts to act, you'd think they had broken up the week before. Mac acts in increasingly unprofessional ways, careering about trying to convince every one that Will is actually a nice guy for no readily available reason. Attempting to satirise the media's reliance on hiring beautiful women, Olivia Munn's character Sloan Sabbith is a genius-level economist and as Mac observes, she's hired because she looks fantastic in a skirt. Then there's Maggie's unfortunate dating history which leads to the whole News Night mess in the first place. The initial scene between Maggie and Jim in which she convinces him that is perfectly capable of doing the pre-interview for the Governor of Arizona was great and really endeared her to me, especially considering my own position as a nearly-graduated, very unemployed person with a passion for the media. But then, it turns out that the man she speaks to on the phone happens to be an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her and she makes an unprofessional comment that means the Governor drops out.

Jim gallantly swoops to her rescue and takes the fall so Maggie keeps her job. Now I like Jim, he's adorable, John Gallagher Jr has great chemistry with Alison Pill and they're clearly being set up for a Donna/Josh type relationship. Whereas Donna and Josh would debate and match each other step for step, Jim is already placed as the superior with Maggie trailing behind him trying not to screw up again. So here we have two women, incapable of separating their professional lives from their personal, both having to be rescued from utter humiliation by the men in their lives. Way to go Sorkin. Coming from the man who gave us CJ Cregg and Abbey Bartlett and Donna Moss, all of whom were intelligent and adept at keeping their lives separate, this was incredibly disappointing. We're supposed to be past stereotypes like these and seeing Mac and Maggie, two characters who were so compelling in the pilot, descend into shrieking harpies became a real sticking point and really altered my opinion of the episode.

The Newsroom has been a highly frustrating watch so far because there is a great show in there trying to get out but unfortunately, the decision to place it in the past and the characterisation of the women of News Night has meant it has not got off to a great start. I'm going to stick with it because all shows take a while to find their feet and Sorkin is a fantastic writer, but I can't help thinking that this time, his tendencies have passed brilliant and become more than a little self-indulgent.

- Becky

You can find more of Becky's writings here or follow her on Twitter @beckygracelea

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