Tuned In

The Morning After: The Newsroom’s First Draft of History

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My review of The Newsroom is in this week’s TIME (here’s my blog post elaborating on it), and it was not a positive one. But there’s been so much ink and bandwidth used up on the show in advance that I’m more interested now in hearing what more people think of the show actually having seen it.

I saw four episodes before writing my review; if I had seen nothing but the pilot, it would have been much more positive. Like many pilots, this one contained the seeds of a better and a worse show going forward. Both of those, of course, being relative terms. If, for instance, you liked* Will’s Network-esque speech at Northwestern or Mac’s extemporaneous aria on the problems of journalism today, then you may like the coming installments better than I did, because there’s much more in that vein coming (and a much more pointedly political tone to the show).

*(By “liked” here I mean “thought they worked as drama” as opposed to “agreed with the content of.”)

I had my issues with those, and with the ways the characters were drawn, but I won’t repeat them here. But what almost sold me on the show by the end of its first hour–75 minutes, actually–was the last act, when the newly-banded News Night crew jumped into action to cover what we realize will be the BP oil disaster. If much of what we’d seen to that point was a kind of vintage Aaron Sorkin that could have aired on NBC, this was a sequence that let Sorkin take advantage of the HBO format.

By which I meant not swearing or nudity, but time. When the news comes online and the date stamp appears on the screen, something shifts. The air is charged. And there is, after all the theatrical banter and wordplay, powerful silence, a potentially powerful tool that the running time makes room for. The talk becomes more clipped and task-focused. Director Greg Mottola makes the setup of a live TV newscast vital and palpable–you can feel the interchanges between Will and Mac like they’re tossing fastballs at each other. You get a sense of what The West Wing often communicated: a sense of the thrill of doing a job well.**

**(As long as we’re talking about the difference between liking a drama and agreeing with it, much of the show’s media criticism is right on: that news outlets have put business concerns over journalism, that there’s too much focus on doing what the other guys are doing [nicely captured in the BP story], that it’s more important to get at the truth and point out B.S. when necessary than to bend over backwards for “balance.” I do think the show starts from a false premise, though: it tells us that Will has become the second highest-rated anchor in cable news by being bland and not offending anyone—which, in today’s cable world is exactly what Fox News and MSNBC have gotten ratings by not doing. Will’s don’t-piss-anyone-off, down-the-middle strategy is more like what has led CNN hosts to plummet in the ratings. It creates the story arc Sorkin needs—”Jay Leno” grows a pair and fights for what’s right—but it undermines the larger critique of cable news.)

The coming few weeks of episodes, especially three and four, re-create much more what I didn’t like about this pilot: the teeing-up of easy arguments to knock down, the torching of rhetorical strawmen, the dismissive treatment of female characters (and young ones: “Worst, period, generation, period, ever”). That trajectory turned me off to the show—it gets more shrill and hectoring in each episode, which tells me that’s what the show is more interested in—but the end of this pilot leaves open the possibility that the show, to use its own term, could be better.

But I will give Sorkin credit for this: the guy believes in using TV to make people talk about things—including TV itself—and The Newsroom does that. I won’t be reviewing the show weekly (in a few weeks, Breaking Bad returns on Sunday nights, and I’ll be covering that) but there should be an interesting enough debate around the show that I’ll check back in, especially once you’ve seen the same four episodes I have. In the meantime, give us your report.