Thursday, 31 March 2016

The 150th Review: The Newsroom - A Love Letter to Aaron Sorkin's Writing

A newsroom undergoes some changes in its workings and moral as a new team is brought in, bringing unexpected results for its existing news anchor.

This was a series about a group of journalists trying to change the way modern news reporting works. Aaron Sorkin, HBO and a show about network news seemed a perfect fit, nonetheless the first season had a rocky start. You can remove any elements of suspens from The West Wing, but at its best, Sorkin's writing remains unmatched. A Sorkin drama is one filled with dramatic turns, characters trying to overcome their flaws and storylines that are meant to get us to ask big questions about our ethics and values. To prepare this 150th post I've been re-watching some episodes of The West Wing recently, and it's easily apparent; what is it about Sorkin's writing that is so appealing: it's his rhythm, his sense of tempo, build and resolution. Maybe even the show's lack of any real pessimism or irony as well. In broad terms The Newsroom is very close to its predecessor, like The West Wing, it has a fantastic cast, a sweeping music, the walk and talks and these rapid fire dialogues. 

It's not that characters who inhabit these alternate universes are perfect. Far from it. They are flawed in the most human of ways. But they are also brave and courageous in ways I would like to believe we all can be. They have backbone, as few do, when push comes to shove, and integrity always wins out. Who doesn't want to live in a world like that? Jeff Daniels plays the angry, smug, flawed character of Will McAvoy perfectly. Pontificating with enough "I know I'm being a jerk" self-awareness that he doesn't quite enter the realm of outright villainy. Though, Will McAvoy needed to be at least a little heroic or else the big noble crusade he's leading everyone on will be in vain. Plus, Sam Waterston's superb performance as Network president Charlie Skinner may be the role that broke him away from Jack McCoy (RIP Law & Order). The most resilient actress in The Newsroom is Alison Pill, whose Maggie Jordan was almost ritualistically punished for the sin of rejecting Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr. being the avatar of Sorkin's good guy). At the end of the series, she's treated a little bit more fairly as she flourishes, grows up and asserts herself. It's progress, but no one's out of the woods just yet. 

The actors get the job done, but it's Sorkin's clever dialogue that brings the show to life. It's raw, gritty and takes a hard look at what's wrong with journalism in this day and age, but still provides hope of a new, better day. In "We Just Decided To", the first episode of this series. Everything that frustrates, enrages and/or depresses me about the current climate we live in was addressed when the lead character, newsman Will McAvoy, responds honestly to a college co-ed's question about why America is the greatest country in the world. Whatever else it is The Newsroom is - noble and earnest - Sorkin wants to emphasize how the news media has failed us by satisfying their own business interest first and forget in the mean to be independent, a belief held by many of us. 

An episode of Aaron Sorkin television is a fully constructed ride, all twists and turns carefully contoured. You may not like every minute of it, but you have to appreciate the sureness of its form. The Newsroom accomplishes what a first-rate dramatist like Sorkin has always done best: rouse your emotions while magically fooling you into thinking rousing you I.Q. For all its many flaws, this series deserved more time to flourish. After an all ill-conceived first season, Sorkin realigned the show for Season 2, making a fictional news scandal the season long arc, rather than rehashing old news every week. Season 2 had at least one female character get the nasty Sorkin treatment and it fizzed like the best Sorkin can. It was a series reborn. Perhaps the most audacious stroke of storytelling performed by The Newsroom is to place it in the recent past, and have the series demonstrate how a principled news broadcast, agressive in its pursuit of facts, would have covered actual events such as the 2010 BP oil spill. 

Viewers who actually watch dramas for the drama should savor the third season. It pays off for the patience in the growth of its characters and the bonds they formed over the first two seasons. Finally, Sorkin loves to bring everything back around at the end, and the finale presenting the pilot in a new light is a wonderful motif. Mr. Sorkin, if by some kind of magical reasons you come to reading this, thank you for finding such a wonderfully entertaining and inspiring way of suggesting that we can be better version of ourselves, the one that affects positive change because "We Just Decided To". That is really what it comes down to, isn't it? 

Overall The Newsroom might have been the most entertaining show on TV, while being exactly what you'd expect from a writer such as Aaron Sorkin.

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