“The worst show on television”, that’s what a recent article in the Guardian branded The Newsroom, HBO’s dramatization of a fictional cable news channel, which airs over here on Sky Atlantic. The crux of Brian Moylan’s argument is the same one that has been used to lambast Aaron Sorkin’s political drama throughout its three controversial seasons: that it is too sanctimonious and self-serving.
And that’s absolutely right. A large slice of The Newsroom is dedicated to providing Sorkin with a soapbox from which he can decry the sorry-state of journalism today and also propagate his dream of a virtuous news channel where commercial interests come second to reporting the facts. And where kids can still play safely in the street. And where sweets are only tuppence a pound.
Often episodes are too heavily weighted towards these sermonizing diatribes that serve no purpose other than to remind us that Sorkin really is a miserable sod. In the first episode of season three, for example, Jeff Daniel’s arrogant news anchor Will McAvoy makes aggrandizing speeches about the use of Twitter as a reliable source of information and how breaking unconfirmed stories on Reddit is undemocratic because it forces the FBI to reveal information before they are ready. Sorkin may have noble intentions, but it all becomes a little too much to bear in one series.
And that’s a shame because The Newsroom has so much more to offer if viewers can just tune out the intellectually self-serving invectives.
Beneath its smug surface, the show is trying to create a less cynical view of today’s media, inviting us to get to know a group of well-meaning characters who endeavour to do their best but find it hard to do so in the face of mounting legal, political and commercial obstacles.
Each episode is structured around McAvoy and his team breaking a major news event from the recent past, such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the killing of Osama Bin Laden, which gives the show a uniquely exuberant and manic pace.
Yet this is only an exciting backdrop to the some intense interpersonal drama and where Sorkin’s writing really excels in this series is the way in which he constructs well-rounded and relatable characters using only snatches of dialogue.
Most of our focus is on McAvoy, a well-intentioned, if supremely grumpy, news anchor who is often undone by his own hubris, and his on-again off-again relationship with Mac (Emily Mortimer), a clumsy but commanding ex-girlfriend who returns to exec produce his show and make its content more meaningful.
But there’s also the relationship between Jim (John Gallagher, Jr) and Alison Pill’s Maggie, two kindred spirits who are kept apart through sharing the same fatal flaw of self-loathing, and Dev Patel’s British tech whiz who tries desperately hard to prove his credibility and earn his colleague’s respect despite his self-perceived inferiority. It’s these flawed but likeable characters and the funny and heart-breaking ways in which they interact that make The Newsroom an enjoyable and rewarding watch, whatever its flaws.
Sure, it’s easy to be put-off by Sorkin’s sanctimonious proselytization on the state of an industry he knows very little about; but that’s really just a disappointing distraction from what is otherwise an excellent show filled with wit, heart and fantastic performances.
Many of you may rightly hate it, but for the few of us who can appreciate it for what it is, the final five episodes of The Newsroom are ones to savour before the lights go down and the music plays, and we have to say thank you and goodnight to one of the most underappreciated shows on TV.