The Newsroom Season One: What Needs to Change

There are hell of a lot of problems with The Newsroom. Let me first say that by no means is this a roadblock to enjoyment of the series, but as a season of television it is ridiculously problematic.

The biggest problem is mind-boggling inconsistency, which is one that then trickles down and causes more and more problems in the rest of the show, like patches of growing mold. What makes the show so inconsistent is that it tries to be far, far too many things at once. It feels like most of the show’s issues could be resolved if they simply excised about 10-15 minutes of each episode at least, given that some of them run for more than an hour. The recent finale is a perfect example of this. At about 53 minutes of the 62 minute total running time, the camera tracks away from Will behind his desk, a beautifully shot piece of television that would feel like a fitting conclusion to a show which mirrored its principle subject – a failed attempt at fulfilling a stupidly lofty ambition.

But instead of continuing to shrink Will’s desk down in the centre of the frame, something which is both thematically interesting and potentially iconic, we cut away to Maggie in the newsroom, smiling in admiration of Will McAvoy, “speaking truth to stupid” once again, and suddenly you realise there’s another 7 or 8 minutes of plot being shoved into an episode in which we spend 2 minutes wishing that Jim, Maggie and Don would all go back to whatever bastardised Friends-aping sitcom they came from.

Because, seriously, this is one of THE worst love triangles – actually, it’s basically a pentagon now – ever put on television. And because the scenes in this subplot are so heightened, it makes all the interesting, dramatic scenes around them feel out of place rather than the other way around. You find yourself moved less by the suicide of Solomon Hancock because it occurs within the same episode as Maggie screeching some insipid monologue about how wrong Sex and the City  was about being a single woman in Manhattan AT a Sex and the City tour bus AFTER paying homage to the credits of that show by having her be splashed with water by THAT EXACT BUS on which is the EXACT GUY SHE IS PROFESSING TO BE IN LOVE WITH.

And then what happens? She says she’ll go talk to Don, and then he asks her to move in with him, and she evidently says yes, and you end season 1 dreading that within the first  half hour of season 2 you can reasonably expect to see John Gallagher Jr. shooting a mournful look at Alison Pill while she talks to Thomas Sadoski.

The real problem here, as best identified by Todd VanDerWerff in his excellent AV Club review, is that Sorkin simply doesn’t seem to know when to stop. You get one reference to Sex and the City, then another just in case you didn’t get it the first time, then ANOTHER, and then ANOTHER. And it’s the same thing with Will’s triumphant broadcast spread throughout the episode – which was jarring, because is this a news show or an editorial news show a la Olbermann or O’Reilly? – after a whole season bashing the Tea Party, who does Sorkin think he’s convincing? There’s literally no reason to keep going after the same targets for year-old issues with such futility unless his sole aim is to have people at home sit there and nod sagely as they think, “Yes, that’s exactly what I thought at the time. I am so very clever.” Which is why it just comes off as a totally humourless Daily Show segment instead of an insightful and interesting segment from Rachel Maddow – who does what Will does more or less in real life and with more aplomb.

And then suddenly Sloan, one of the only most reasonable female characters on the show, is suddenly only single because this whole time – despite no foreshadowing or sexual tension whatsoever – she’s been super in love with Don. There is literally zero reason for any of these plots to exist other than to appease Sorkin’s masturbatory desire to replicate Donna and Josh’s will-they-won’t-they from The West Wing, except in that case it mostly worked (for a few seasons at least) because their potential relationship actually affected their work lives. Not once has Sorkin shown how Jim and Maggie’s told-not-shown attraction is affecting their work lives, so therefore there’s no reason for the audience to care because it ends up feeling like a completely different show to the other one where Jane Fonda yells at Charlie Skinner who yells at everyone but chiefly Will McAvoy who yells at the Tea Party, celebrity journalists, anyone he dates and Mackenzie.

Speaking of Mackenzie, it breaks my heart to see Emily Mortimer utterly wasted like this. Each episode she’s reduced to a shrieking mess with no consequence to the story. At least in the pilot you got the sense that Will needed Mackenzie there to make him perform so well, but ever since her importance has diminished to the point where now everything in the show is about how superlative a journalist Will is and Mackenzie as a producer is just there to fill in the blanks. And the ties between their working relationship and their personal relationship are once again drawn so vaguely and tenuously that when Mackenzie marches onto the set to demand what else was in the voice mail, you just wish she’d get back in the control room and let him do the damn broadcast, or go back to THE MIDDLE OF AFGHANISTAN where she was good enough to win Peabody awards, seemingly something she was only ever capable of off-screen, conveniently enough.

Yes, the show has a LOT of problems. But it doesn’t stop it at least being fascinating to watch. The bizarre dramedy mish-mash that the show quickly descended into, reaching its absolute lowest point with Neal’s completely fucking stupid Bigfoot bit from ‘I’ll Try To Fix You’, creates a kind of morbidly fascinating Frankenstein’s monster of tonal inconsistency. The show’s inability to decide what it wants to be most singularly evokes Glee, a show whose tonal problems stem from a similar inability to mix its comedic and dramatic elements with any subtlety. At this point, The Newsroom feels like it should be on Showtime, not HBO, airing alongside Weeds and Nurse Jackie, both shows which have also struggled to get their dramedy formulae correct.

But if Sorkin can double down with a better writing team in season 2, develop the characters a bit more, excise the more cringeworthy interpersonal sub plots in favour of ones that create tension from, you know, news-related things – differing standards of journalistic ethics, for example, or actual competition between producers and researchers to break stories.

Work out how to turn Will back into the loveable, intelligent asshole rather than the smug prick he is so regularly made to be. Focus on some smaller stories: the voter fraud issue is an interesting one that is still being talked about in the lead-up to the election and yet most of that entire issue was pushed aside in favour of more general Tea Party-bashing you could read in thousands of Huffington Post articles. Reject the use of tragic or monumental real-life events as moving dramatic beats, like the odious use of that daft Coldplay song over the reveal of Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting which came off as sappy and exploitative rather than moving – have them be more like Don revealing to the pilot of his stationary aircraft that Bin Laden had been killed.

Less Mackenzie shouting and hitting people for no reason, because honestly, who would actually want to work with her after any of her behaviour? Fewer musical theatre references! We get it, you like musicals, it’s cute every couple of episodes but when the only cultural references you seem able to make are Camelot and Sex and the City – a brand whose cultural relevance was declared dead with the second film and the realisation that Carrie Bradshaw is one of the worst female characters ever conceived – your show just seems embarrassingly dated.

Maybe just get rid of the Neal character altogether? It’s just vaguely bemusing to watch a technophobe, writing a show in which most characters seem to have a fundamental mistrust of technology and modernity themselves, try and write an IT guy in with weird plots about pretending to be a misogynist on the internet – because the only way to make economics PhDs angry is to belittle Olivia Munn’s apperance – and infiltration of hacker circles without every saying the name “Anonymous” just comes off as silly.

And personally, I think season 2 would benefit from gravitating away from using real-life news as its fuel, because a) the show is going to run out of material fast, since season 1 ended essentially a “year” ago in the show’s timeline, and b) because it continues to sap the drama out of some of the show’s most intriguing scenes. In my mind, I think it would be most interesting for the show to start creating an alternate timeline, in which the same real-life events occur but in a different political climate, for example, whomever loses this presidential election should become president in the Newsroom universe.

So yes, I sound overwhelmingly negative about the show, but it’s only because as soon as you see one flaw you see them all. This is one of those shows where you can just as easily sit back and just be entertained for an hour, and in episodes like ‘5/1’ I found that happening. But it’s hard to watch the good aspects of the show be so camouflaged in atrocious romantic subplots, dated jokes, bizarre treatment of women and unnecessary diversions. There’s enough there to make the show…okay, sometimes good. It’s enough to make it watchable. And the rest of the time, watching the show grapple with itself has been just as, if not more, interesting in turn.

But this isn’t a show I want to spend all of my time criticising. I want it to be a show I can laud and love, but it’s really just not there. More about the process of breaking and making the news; less about the process of breaking and making up.

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