When I first heard about The Newsroom I couldn’t wait to see it. A US drama set behind the scenes at a popular (fictional) network news show, from the pen of West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin, it felt bound to succeed.
I loved The West Wing but even while I watched it, as Bush Jnr sat in the White House, I could see it was a fantasy of what politics could – should – look like with a Democrat president. Ideologically-driven intelligent politicians and staffers worked tirelessly towards a grand vision of America, and American politics. Partisan differences were (not always, but sometimes) put to one side for the greater good, and while there were a few conniving, backstabbing or corrupt characters they were the exception, not the rule. But despite the fact it was obviously a fantasy designed to sustain Democrats through the long years of a Republican presidency, it worked on every level as a compelling show.
This is a drama about how the news gets made. It’s set in 2010, and it uses real news stories – so the audience are familiar with how they were reported at the time, and developments since.
Lead character Will McAvoy is a popular network news host. A lot of his popularity comes from his perceived neutrality – he doesn’t take shots at Republicans or Democrats, doesn’t show opinions, and reports news-lite. Then his ex-girlfriend comes back from warzone reporting to take a job as his Executive Producer and argues him into believing that news should Mean Something and Take a Stand. The reinvigorated team tackle stories (including so far the Deepwater oil rig explosion and the shooting of Congresswoman Kathy Gifford) with a subtle, intelligent approach chasing not ratings, but good reporting.
It’s not that this isn’t a good idea – there is the gem of a brilliant show in here. Somewhere. But it’s so heavy handed that at times it feels as if, instead of getting actors to say the words in the script, Sorkin has personally come round to your house and is standing behind your sofa, beating you over the head with it.
The Newsroom team wait for confirmation when every other news channel is declaring. They ask questions no one else thinks of. They uncover shocking revelations. All with the benefit of only 2 years worth of hindsight!
Now, there’s much that could be improved in news reporting – particularly in the US, where, as the show demonstrates, ratings too often drive content. But this show might do a better job of making that case if there were at least one likeable character, and a lot less grand soliloquies about the media.
Will McAvoy is not a Democrat but a Republican. But one who believes in gun control and opposes the tea party – “I'm a registered Republican, I only seem Liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.” Great. Subtlety in political leanings. It’s just a shame the only time we see that Will is a republican is because he’s telling us he’s not a Democrat.
I’m not entirely sure if the audience are supposed to sympathise with Will or not. He’s a self-obsessed bully – but he knows his stuff. He shags a load of bimbos – but every time he has a date with an intelligent woman it turns out she has conflicting political views or carries a concealed weapon, so he has to give them a boorish political lecture instead of getting laid.
His ex was a fearless war reporter with several wounds to show for it. But she goes to pieces in his company and is so useless with technology she accidentally sends an email to the entire staff detailing why their relationship ended, in a setup signposted more heavily than the Olympics.
Four episodes in, I’m wondering if it’s redeemable, or one to switch off.