Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows are loved by some and loathed by others. While some have adored the likes of Sports Night, The West Wing and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, others have found them pretentious and too concerned with politics – and more particularly promulgating a left wing philosophy that has had some US conservatives frothing at the mouth.
In many respects cable TV has always seemed like the proper home for Sorkin’s slightly more cerebral brand of TV and he’s finally gone that route with The Newsroom, which he created for HBO. It’s almost surprising Sorkin hasn’t made this show before, as setting a series at a television news programme allows him to explore his twin loves of politics and the media without shoehorning it in, which has been a slight problem with some of his earlier shows (Studio 60 is one of the best programmes of the past decade, but for a series set at a weekly comedy TV show, it talked about the Iraq War an awful lot).
Jeff Daniels plays cable news network anchor Will McAvoy, who we first meet giving a talk to students at a university. After trying to eschew a question about what make America the greatest nation, he finally snaps and lays out why he doesn’t think the US if the greatest country at all. His lack of patriotism inevitably causes controversy and he’s forced to take a hiatus. When he returns he discovers half his staff have left and his employers are forcing him to hire producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a woman he hates.
With a largely new staff, Will sets out to change the news by telling his own version of the truth and attempting to go deeper into stories to explore what things really mean, rather than just how dramatic it can be made to sound. However convincing the audience and the network that this is the way to go is another matter.
Rather neatly, the series is set in the recent past, so that the news it’s talking about are things that really happened. Some have loved this aspect of the show while others have found it slightly contrived. The issue is The Newsroom is able to look at these events with hindsight, allowing Will and those around him the sort of haughty omniscience they wouldn’t have had in real life. However it does allow the show to explore how the media creates and manipulates the news, even if means the series is set in a world Sorkin thinks ought to exist, rather than the one that does.
If that sounds rather dull, it thankfully intersperses the politics and media theory with plenty of drama and entertaining plots, from issues with Will’s private life, to the difficulties faced by newbie staff members such as Maggie (Alison Pill) and Neal (a slightly underused Dev Patel) as they try to make a name for themselves.
The show faced some controversy over its handling of its female characters and you can see why – or at least you can understand why some were upset about it. The show has a tendency towards presenting men as strong pillars who spend their lives fighting the good fight, while women are either cockteases, battle-axes, klutzes, slaves to their emotions or a mixture of those things. Sorkin fought back against the sexist claims by saying the show was populated by smart women who’ve made a success of themselves in a male-dominated profession, as well as pointing that the head to the network is a strong woman (Jane Fonda).
That’s true, but there is something a little bit patronising about the way it treats its female characters. That’s particularly true of Mackenzie, played by the wonderful Emily Mortimer, who should be a strong, fascinating character – and she is about half the time – but the series forces her into pratfalls, klutzy moves and histrionic emotional reactions that are presented as if they’re the natural product of the fact she has ovaries. It’s also rather problematic that the show doesn’t seem to challenge Will’s need to have power over Mackenzie, all based on a previous relationship that she’s totally blamed for ruining. Hopefully these issues will be addressed in Season 2, although as Sorkin rather dismissed concerns first time around, perhaps they won’t.
Luckily around all this is a smart, entertaining and surprisingly funny show. It’s perfect for those who like their TV to actually be about something, as it’s at pains to talk about politics and the way the media reports news. Admittedly it has an unashamedly left wing slant on things – despite Will saying he’s a Republican – but if you’re open to that, you’ll love what it’s got to say. It also looks very good on Blu-ray, with the format showing off the series’ clean aesthetic. Politically aware US TV is still rare, and slightly sexist leanings aside, this is a good show.
There are also some decent special features including an interesting roundtable cast and crew discussion hosted by Aaron Sorkin, where they talk about the show and how proud they are to be part of it. There’s also some deleted scenes and a few worthwhile featurettes.
Overall Verdict: An Aaron Sorkin series is always worth watching and The Newsroom is no exception. The way it treats its female characters is slightly problematic, if inadvertently so, but otherwise there’s a lot to like about this smart and well written show.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac