I watched the Newsroom, and it wasn’t all bad.
What’s one more thing the internet doesn’t need? Thats right, another review of The Newsroom! That being said, I’ll throw my hat into the ring anyways. The Newsroom has been pretty universally panned by critics from The Atlantic to the New York Times to people who simply watched the west wing, can quote every line from it, and have been hoping for something magical like that to appear on their televisions one more time. For most of us, Aaron Sorkin is the last best hope for that kind of experience.
The West Wing is (in my humble opinion) the best show that has ever been on television. For me, nothing else even comes close to what Sorkin managed to do with that cast and those scripts. Everything came together in a perfect symphony of characters you cared about, immense gravitas, witty one liners, great music, and lots and lots of walking. The bar is set really high, so automatically the Newsroom is going up against a juggernaut. As someone who wanted to love Studio 60 but couldn’t, I had high hopes that the setting of a news show would be a better fit. Sorkin likes to tell personal stories, and all of his personal stories are political stories. It made sense. Below I’ll talk about some of the ways it failed, and some of the ways it didn’t, and it’s all under the cut for those of you avoiding spoilers.
Click the cut to read more!
The things that went wrong:
1) the titles and the music.
I know. I *know* this seems nitpicky, but honestly one of the best parts of the West Wing was the incredible title music by W.G. Snuffy Walden, and the design of the titles themselves which were top notch. The titles are designed really well here too, but they drag on for too long and the music (even though I love me some Thomas Newman) seems…out of place. It’s too slow and too preachy. This isn’t Angels in America! The original west wing titles were different as well, and only changed halfway into season 1, so I’m not ruling out that a title and music change will be made eventually. Anyways, the music took me out of the experience instead of bringing me into it, which was a negative for me.
2) the women
now, I’m not going to go all ‘sorkin has a huge woman problem’, because I don’t actually think that’s totally true. We can get into an Amy Gardener debate later (I will probably agree with you) but for the most part, I have really enjoyed his women. The Newsroom however, really fell short in terms of the ladies. Alison Pill spends most of the episode a nervous wreck who isn’t doing a good job of convincing anyone, let alone the viewers, that she deserves to be there. She cries at her desk, gets into a big fight with her boyfriend about whether or not he’ll meet her parents, and generally has no other purpose. Well done. Emily Mortimer’s ‘Mac’ (who I actually really like) has quite a few problematic scenes as well. She enters the show before we meet her, in many conversations held about her tenacity and skill as a wartime correspondent. This is a woman who’s been shot at, knifed, and generally lived on the very edge for the past three years in crazy conditions. She’s pretty fucking badass, or so we’re meant to believe. Why then does she spend so much of her air time matchmaking colleagues, blotting tissues to the other girls face as she cries about her boyfriend, and generally only being there to give a backstory to Jeff Daniel’s Will, who is completely unlikeable and unwatchable without her? failure. Olivia Munn, who gets time in the credits and in all of the print articles about the show, doesn’t even show up in the episode. Lastly, I think the main problem the Newsroom has with women, is that this isn’t a show about great people (like the west wing was) - it’s a show about great men. Sorkin has sad it in many interviews, and the characters espouse it throughout the show. This is a show about great white men who informed the world by telling the news. Where do women fit into that paradigm? As former girlfriends playing the ‘I can make you better’ trope and nervous and nagging assistants? I don’t see a CJ Craig in here. I don’t see a Dana. I see a lot of Donnas without better female characters to make them bearable. I hope this will improve.
3) I don’t care about the characters
Not really. I honestly couldn’t give a shit about Jeff Daniel’s Will, who rambles through the episode all mad and upset because…why? Because America isn’t as good as he wants it to be, even though he hasn’t tried at all to make it better, and even though he spends most of the show telling everyone how much he couldn’t give two fucks about anything? Well, okay then. He doesn’t have a dilemma, he doesn’t have a goal, he’s just angry and rude and bitter because one of the female characters…left him a long time ago, I guess? Who knows, the backstory hasn’t been established yet. Still, it was a disappointment. Sam Waterston rabbles his hoarse and throaty voice all around the newsroom acting as a mentor figure, but I couldn’t get into it because it felt just like a poor man’s Leo. Alison Pill’s Maggie was a complete put off, and so was her boyfriend who was wooden as they come. I really liked Emily Mortimer’s Mac, who was engaging and dynamic on screen, but didn’t care anything about her relationship with Will until the last minute and a half of the show when we see that it really WAS her in the audience, and there is a frantic just-missed opportunity for some kind of small resolution to happen between their characters, cut short with the closing of an elevator door. That, coupled with a little humanity for will from the story she tells about him and her parents? That was good television. But for the most part, I cared much more about her chemistry with her second in command Jim Harper played by the lovely and talented John Gallagher Jr (fondly remembered from his turn as ‘Moritz’ in spring awakening). Lastly, Dev Patel didn’t get NEARLY enough screen time, although I liked him a lot from what I saw of him.
4) the show thinks too highly of itself
at least the west wing had a sense of humility - it had great characters from opposing sides to come in and play devil’s advocate, it had characters humbled by circumstances they didn’t understand and events they couldn’t foresee. They fought amongst each other and those fights felt real. When Toby went at it with Bartlett it was silent in my living room as we watched with baited breath. When Leo got angry or disappointed with another character, you felt it right in the gut. The characters messed up and made mistakes, not only because they had to for the plot, but because they were real people whose actions had consequences. In the Newsroom, quotes were bandied about from Don Quixote and old movies and ancient poets and whathaveyou, and it just doesn’t make sense. These people love themselves, and in the episode they are always right. It made sense for Bartlet and his crew - these were elitist intellectuals who loved that stuff, and it felt right to hear it coming from their mouths. These guys? Not so much. The show thinks it’s good and thinks that everyone will automatically think it’s good, and you can feel it, and I don’t like it. The characters don’t have nearly enough humility or humanity to make me care, and that’s too bad. The show talks about a great debate, but a debate needs two sides, and we don’t see it.
The Things that Went Right:
1) Emily Mortimer:
If she wasn’t in this, I wouldn’t be watching again. Despite the problems with her storyline in episode one, she was the only character that brought any heart to the show. Maybe it’s how much emotion you can hear in her raspy voice, maybe it’s the way Jim harper talks about her to Don who’s trying to make her out to be less than she is, maybe it was the realization at the end that she WAS in the audience - I don’t know. I just know that I like watching her, and I want to see more of her. She’s great. Sticking her with lines like ‘I’m taking you shopping’ and matchmaking schtick are beneath what a character like hers could be.
2) the last twenty minutes
the whole beginning of the show, I hated. I didn’t care, the dialogue wasn’t being delivered the way I wanted it to and the characters hadn’t come alive in any meaningful way. But as soon as things started happening as opposed to people simply talking about things happening, the pace picked up a ton, and things ran smoothly. I was excited, watching! That kind of excitement, if they can keep it, will be what saves the show. There need to be less exposition and more action. If they can avoid getting bogged down in their own vocalized opinions, the show will start to run the way it should. I also didn’t care at all that they were talking about past events like the BP spill - I thought this would be a big sticking point for me, but once it started happening it was kind of cool that I already knew the outcome. That kind of dramatic irony might get a little old after a number of episodes (constantly waiting for them to ‘catch up’) but right now I’m digging it.
3) It has glimmers of potential
Will at the news desk, with everyone getting information and running it live - no scripts! no prompters! just the facts! It was good, and if they properly develop the characters, it could be great. The best part about Sorkin dramas, at least for me, is the way they set up relationships. As much as The West Wing was about great men and women, it was more about a great group of people, the ways they worked together and supported each other and lived a very specific experience together. The same with Sports Night. The same with the Social Network (which was much more dynamic when viewed as a tragedy of the relationship between Mark and Eduardo then as the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise and fall as a solitary figure). The same could be, and needs to be, true of The Newsroom. After all, newsroom implies a group of people working, not just one guy and the hacks he works with as background support. Sorkin’s shows tend to have larger scopes than his films, and the Newsroom is no exception. As many people have noted, this is not so much a show about the news as it is a show about America, and that can get preachy and too much very quickly. It worked for the west wing, because you could tell stories about america through the people who decided its policies and it made sense and worked well. Here? We’ll have to see. I’m waiting with hitched breath.
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