“Newsroom” Frustration

As its first uneven season ends Sunday, Aaron Sorkin's HBO comedy-drama is still searching for its identity. Sounds a lot like the cable TV news game...

"The Newsroom" has earned its share of criticism – fairly and otherwise – from journalism professionals for its often less-than-documentary-accurate depiction of the TV news game.

For those of us who have worked in newsrooms of various types, elements of writer Aaron Sorkin's media world ring true (the stress of deciding what to report – and when – amid unconfirmed and conflicting information as with the Gabby Giffords shooting), though others (constant sanctimonious self-examination) seem more classroom than newsroom. While screaming matches and meltdowns aren't exactly unknown under deadline pressure, repeated episodes – especially those fueled by unrequited and unresolved love, and self-righteousness – quickly get tiresome.

The comedy-drama’s frequent shifts in tone, along with getting things very wrong and very right in places, make it perhaps the most frustrating show on television. But the HBO program, as it heads for its first season finale Sunday, is a success in at least one respect: “The Newsroom” is alternately maddening, entertaining and occasionally enlightening – much like cable TV news. And as with cable TV news, we watch in spite of ourselves, hoping it will get better soon.

Sorkin’s show, if nothing else, is ambitious. His approach of building plots around year-plus-old events (the Osama bin Laden killing, the Anthony Weiner scandal) is bold, handing the audience the advantage of hindsight. He also earns points for examining an in-flux industry that’s built on scrutiny and prone to navel gazing.

As with his past TV efforts, he faces the added challenge of putting on a workplace show that actually focuses on the work. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" may have been set in a newsroom, but the biggest story the WJM crew ever covered was the death of Chuckles the Clown (the sitcom’s more serious spinoff, "Lou Grant," is still TV’s reigning champ of newsroom depictions, with an honorable mention due the final season of “The Wire”).
Sorkin at least arrives at “The Newsroom” with a promising premise: a fed-up conservative host channels his latent Howard Beale-like mad-as-hell anger into mounting a weeknight cable news show that focuses on real news, demanding intellectual honesty and accountability from those on both sides of the political aisle.

Sorkin also enjoys the benefit of a strong cast led by Jeff Daniels as host Will McAvoy and Emily Mortimer as Mackenzie McHale, his hard-driving producer and ex-lover. Sam Waterson, who knows all about ripped-from-the-headlines TV from "Law & Order," rises above sometimes-pompous dialogue and takes his bow-tied old-school newsman character beyond caricature. Ditto for Jane Fonda, who lends nuance to her turn as the tough network president in what easily could have denigrated into an overwrought "Dynasty"-like aging diva role. Younger actors – including Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and Alison Pill – add energy and vibrancy, even if their hyper-verbal characters are at times saddled with shrill or overly earnest lines that border on preachy.
Annoying love triangles threatening to fester at any moment into love octagons have provided cringe-worthy moments – especially when playing out during the breaking Bin Laden story. The targeting of Will for sabotage-via-gossip by his own corporate bosses offers an intriguing subplot set to explode during Sunday’s finale. But it’s beyond any reasonable belief the self-appointed paragon of journalistic virtue is granting access to a magazine writer who helped break up his relationship with Mackenzie. Will’s sessions with a shrink provide another kind of exposure – giving us, by turns, insight into his psyche and making us feel manipulated.

Will is a conflicted character. We suspect Sorkin is as well. He is trying to make a statement on the state of increasingly partisan, ratings-and-scandal-driven, Internet-threatened cable TV news. But nine episodes into "The Newsroom," we’re still not sure exactly what he’s trying to say.

Sorkin's distinctive voice is less “All the President’s Men” than “A Few Good Men.” His best TV work, “The West Wing," ably focused on the tension between ideals and realities amid an unpredictable mélange of personal relationships and world events. "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," on the other hand, erred in trying to squeeze some drama from the behind-the-scenes workings of a comedy show, a decidedly lower-stakes setting.

The news world would seem to be both ripe territory and a firm middle ground. Sorkin, though, has quite a way to go to bring "The Newsroom" to the quality level of "The West Wing." He deserves praise for efforts to up his game in Season 2 by, among other things, hiring some fulltime consultants. "I just want to make sure that generally when I'm asking someone, a consultant or an advisor, someone the staff for an opinion, I'll say, 'Tell me what you think and then tell me what the really smart person in the room who disagrees with you is going to say to that?' Now I have the really smart person in the room," he told PopcornBiz.

That's certainly good news ­– and gives us hope Sorkin's show will find its identity as the rest of the TV news business tries to do the same. In the meantime, check out a preview of Sunday's season finale: 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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