Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Newsroom

The season's end of HBO's new show "The Newsroom" hits all the right notes in an otherwise tone-deaf series. I had been deeply ambivalent about the show and what it was trying to do after the first episode. I don't think I would be remiss in saying that there are only two essential and wholly good episodes in the show - the first and the last one.

But perhaps I am being too harsh, because in its own way The Newsroom is more ambitious than any other HBO - or indeed television in general - show. It is not about the gorgeous costumes, huge casts, lush sets, gratuitous violence and sex (hello Game of Thrones and Rome) - it is instead about the viewers' minds. It is not the first time that the show's most famous writer and creator - Aaron Sorkin - reaches for a lofty goal. His purpose is to reach the viewer's heart and soul, and through them the viewer's mind and reason itself. He realizes that there are essentially two ways in which to make an issue matter: one is to make it as personal as possible, the other is to appeal to emotions (anger and hate works for Rush Limbaugh, humour and contempt work for Stewart and Colbert). Sorkin attempts to do both. He is - to paraphrase the show's dialogue from the last episode - the Greater Fool.

Why the deep ambivalence? For one thing the attempt to make the cast seem more human and approachable was rather heavy-handed. By having the characters engage in slapstick (falling down, tripping over desks and open cabinets, getting tangled up in a phone wire) they are perhaps supposed to appear more vulnerable. The only thing that registered with me was how ridiculous and out of place it looked. The characters are already compelling and interesting without these cheap tricks. I don't need a big "See how much they are like you!" sign to sympathize with the characters.

The other attempt to make the characters more human and interesting, and - I suppose - inject more human interest in the show, is the romance. There is nothing in and out of itself wrong with that, but it constantly felt to me that the romantic subplots (because there are several) were intruding into the show's real heart. The bittersweet unresolved breakup and attracting between the show's main characters Will and Mackenzie was at times very compelling, yet Sorkin then injects a cliche and trite office affair between the young and restless associate producers, that then turns into a love triangle, which later turns into a love square (or would it be two love triangles?), and then introduces even more complications that just tend to slow down the pace of the main plot. That's not to say that there is no heart in it, but it seems added on and overblown. In another attempt to give the characters more depth, midway through the show the main character Will starts attending therapy. The therapy sessions are meant to be glimpses into Will's psyche and past, but they too feel mostly unnecessary. Sorkin delights in telling us, not showing us.

But now I get around to two main sticking points. The Newsroom is about a major syndicated TV news show (the fictional broadcasting corporation is a convenient acronym amalgam of CNN, ABC and NBC - notice the conspicuous absence of F to the O to the X). Every episode of the series the cast of The Newsroom cover a piece of news. What makes it brilliant is that the news they cover is not of the fake variety, but are actual important (for the most part - forgive me if I think that Anthony Weiner twitter scandal was complete and utter shitstorm in a teacup) events that have happened last year. The premise is that the cast of characters are struggling to make good objective news - objective, thoughtful, backed by facts, and dignified - what the character of Mackenzie insists on calling News 2.0 (that the actors did not cringe when using this line is a credit to their talent). However, their coverage is anything but objective! In Sorkin's world, courageous and credible and objective news show is one that incessantly criticizes Republicans (especially its Tea Party branch) and big businesses. Now personally I have no problem with criticizing either of these, but every time one of the characters goes on a moral rant about how they are bringing reason and objectivity into the news profession it just ends up sounding like a self-parody. That the characters do not apparently see their own bias and continue to insist on delivering "just the news" is bewildering.

Sorkin is unapologetic, however, about his goal. He wants to educate Americans, bring our attention to the issues of the past and remind us of the things that matter, and restore the faith in America, its style of democracy, and its citizenry. The problem is that quite often his characters tend to slide into snarky moralizing. What are otherwise perfectly valid and important and well-stated facts and arguments, begin to sound like high-handed condescending sermons directed from the pulpit of a news desk (or an office desk sometimes) at the ignorant unwashed masses. What makes it even more unpalatable is that the most of the time these sermons are directed at characters who are already in essential agreement with the gist of the message. It never seems that convincing is all that hard to do. A fiery impassioned speech backed up by facts delivered in Sorkin's signature quick-firing monologue style while the camera dramatically hovers or cuts shots mid-speech, always seems to do the trick. If only it was always this easy. And the final point in this negative part of the rant is that for all the cast's concern with educating the American citizen no impact on the citizenry is in fact shown, and the common viewers of the show appear very infrequently as crowds in the background, adoring fans asking for autographs, and occasional person or two in a store or at a party. The news-making characters of the show very rarely engage in any meaningful dialogue with 'the common man' (first and last episodes a big exception), which just makes them seem like they are living in their beautiful glass garden on top of an ivory tower.

Hold on, you might be saying. Isn't there anything good about the show? What about all the stuff you've said at the beginning? Well, this is still a show worth watching and admiring for what it's trying to accomplish, and how. For starters it has a great cast. There is great chemistry between the actors, they are convincing no matter how unconvincing the dialogue (or rather the monologue) is, and they make the characters seem real and interesting without the aid of slapstick, romance, or depressive ennui. Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer shine, Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire" fame is a funny and endearing character, Sam Waterstone's is at times uproariously funny and at times tragically sad, Olivia Munn is convincing as a socially inept genius economist, and Terry Crews (yes, THE Terry Crews from Expendables and way too many action B movies to list) really steals the show in the last few episodes. The show's young and restless (the associate producers) fall rather flat. John Gallagher, Allison Pill and Thomas Sadoski may be fine actors (I only recall Allison Pill from her previous works), but they try too hard and their characters are a mess.

The show's dialogue (as opposed to its monologues and declamations) is sharp, witty, snappy, and funny. The quick-firing exchanges are never difficult to follow and nearly always entertaining. The show's humor comes out in these exchanges, and the show's humanity and creators' love for their characters come out in the rare quiet moment. Ironically the characters do not sound as mouthpieces for Sorkin precisely when they are actually delivering the news. We expect our news anchors to talk to us, to be masters of monologue (if only most of them were), and so those moments when the character of Will McAvoy or Olivia Munn are speaking to us behind the news desk are precisely the moments when the passion of the show's writers is most convincing.

What really makes the show work, however, is its premise (fictional show about real news) and the goals of the show's creators. It strives to make politics, media and society seem human and relevant again through a medium that has largely failed to do so in the past. Although not a talk show like the Daily Show or the Colbert's Report, it attempts the same thing - people pay more attention to actually important news if they are being entertaining (through drama or comedy, or The Newsroom's case both). The thing is, it really does say all the right things. It really does raise the demons of our not-too-distant past that need to be revisited. There is a deep and abiding faith that the country is not lost, that its people are not a herd of mindless cattle, that its political leaders (Democrats and Republicans) can do better, that the media is not always out to fool us. In one episode a character accuses the cast of living in a utopian dream. Well, it might be utopian and it might be a dream. But in these flashes of brilliance when everything comes together, The Newsroom shows us why it's a dream worth having. Bring on Season 2!