The Good And The Bad Bits Of The Newsroom

Aaron Sorkin’s current show about a TV news show was panned by reviewers, but I quite liked its first episode and thought its problems were fixable. The reviewers had seen the first four. I now see what they were talking about.

It’s such an extraordinary mix of exciting potential and staggeringly clumsy writing that I’ve had trouble stringing together a sentence about it that uses the word ‘but’ fewer than five times. So I’ll give up on a coherent overview and just list the things I like and don’t like.

Bad

All the relationships. Sorkin apparently no longer understands humans on any level. He’ll start with a tired premise (they fancy each other but won’t admit it! I just thought of this one!) and then take them directly to INSANE MONSTER MODE, where the characters devote their entire lives to ridiculously elaborate Machiavellian schemes to randomly torture people or achieve the opposite of what they want to prove to everyone they don’t want it.

It’s impossible to give a shit about anyone who behaves this way, so from the moment it starts, every further minute spent on relationships is painful. And they never go anywhere and they’re about 50% of the show.

The sexism. It’s getting hard to call it anything else. I’m losing track of the number of plotlines, minor and major, one-off and recurring, that take the form of: “stupid woman is an irrational idiot, man schools her humiliatingly whilst being a selfless manly patriot.” You can write anything. Don’t keep writing that.

The plotlines. I guess the ‘bad’ list has some fairly big stuff on it. I like the news stories they choose to feature, and I often like a lot of what happens in direct relation to them. But the show’s own stories are bizarrely inept.

(Mild plot outline spoilers)

A whole episode hinges on someone accidentally inserting an asterisk into the e-mail address of someone she e-mails regularly, twice, on the same day that the company introduces a system that makes that e-mail the e-mail to everyone in the company. Another spends a freakishly long time describing the plot of the movie Rudy, so that it can be referenced in a final scene that completely misses the stated point – in Rudy, apparently, they give Rudy the thing he’s never had. In Newsroom, they give a millionaire more money.

And in another episode, to quote the Onion, “Who reads a tweet from The Rock to their girlfriend at a party?

Are the two main characters really called Will MacAvoy and MacKensie MacHale?

Good

It’s a show about making a news programme. I don’t know why, but I can just watch these forever. They’re putting on a performance, so it’s tense and immediate, but it’s also important work, not just entertainment. That’s entertaining.

Sloan. Olivia Munn as the qualified but socially inept financial reporter turns out to be the best character. She’s one of the few whose personal dramas always take a backseat to her work, and the work/life balance of screentime is closer to what it was in the West Wing: mostly work. The one episode where her emotions affect her job, it happens out of a determination to do her job better.

The preaching. I know this comes up almost exclusively in the criticism category for others, but for what it’s worth I like most of the soapboxing. Some of the speeches are powerful, elegantly worded arguments worth making, and I don’t get to see a lot of that. It’s one of the things I liked about the West Wing. It doesn’t bother me hugely that what the character is saying is clearly what the writer believes, it’s only when the reason to say it is flimsy that it becomes a problem. There’s plenty of that too, but it’s nice to see the good rhetoric on telly again.

The closest I can get to a conclusion is that the episodes without a Maggie and Jim plotline are more entertaining than painful. I will continue watching it forever.

4 Replies to “The Good And The Bad Bits Of The Newsroom”

  1. Huh. Funny timing. I never made it through the pilot — I found it irritating and phony, even though I enjoyed the script I read before the pilot was even made — but an hour before I saw this post I was thinking that maybe I should give the show another shot. I figured I shouldn’t judge a show by its pilot, and even if I wound up not liking the show, I watch plenty of stuff I don’t like just to take part in the conversations about it. I think I will download — er, watch a few episodes on that HBO channel I totally pay for legally.

  2. Pedantry attack: The Onion is the satirical newspaper, The A.V. Club is the pop cultural analysis site/paper. While the former publishes the latter, and they come bundled together in print form, they have entirely separate editorial staffs.

    The distinction matters, I think, because anything specifically attributed to The Onion is going to be a funny lie, while anything specifically from The A.V. Club is going to be basically truthful (if still carrying a satiric edge).

  3. While I see what you mean about how the premise of every relationship is tired and flat, I still love the way Sorkin writes dialogue, and that comes through most, for me in the friendships instead of the preaching monologues. The scene early on where Maggie has a panic attack, while not original, and let The Guy be the Manly War Vet to The Helpless Girl, had dialogue which bounced back between the two.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, I like show where people speak good. Also fast.

    Plus, even when the premises of the relationships are cringe worthy, they’re still better than Studio 60.

  4. I remember reading the best description of this sort of show: Competence Porn. Seeing incredibly talented people do their job well. Its like every time you see Josh Lyman kick ass and get a bit of legislation passed.

    Also, one of my favourite characters in the show has got to be Don, the previous EP. He seems to be doing the whole news integrity thing without having the weight to throw around like Will does.

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