Aaron Sorkin is perhaps the best known writer working in entertainment today. He’s part of a very select group of people where an entire show can be sold purely on the fact he created it. He’s renowned for taking on the issues of the modern world, dissecting and criticising the problems he’s sees with America and the things that are taking it away from being the glorious nation he believes it is at heart. As a result he’s often been criticised by those who have a different view of the world – usually a more sharply right wing view – and that was certainly true of the first season of The Newsroom.
However if you agree with him, his shows have almost been like a rallying cry. They are fantasies about undercutting the bad things about the way the world works and turning it into the way Sorkin and many others thinks it ought to be. He did it with politics in his days on The West Wing, television with Studio 60 and even something like A Few Good Men is more about how the justice system is supposed to be than how it actually is.
Because of that throughout his career he’s been accused of creating straw men. On The West Wing it was setting up right wing Republicans to be knocked down by the Democratic White House. However there he was always very good at allowing the other side to put their points, even if they would eventually be shown the error of their ways – but the key to its success was that its real targets weren’t so much the specific issues but the processes underneath that corrupt what democracy ought to be about.
The problem with The Newsroom – Season 2 is that while still an entertaining show, here the straw men often seem rather lazy and easy, with the scripts making little effort to suggest there’s another side, resulting in a show that sometimes seems more sneering than righteous.
It also spends most of the season concentrating on a storyline detailing the run-up to and the fallout from a single story that the newsroom of the cable news network ACN decides to air. It’s a huge story involving an American combat mission and if proven could lead to some of the most powerful people in America spending the rest of the lives in prison.
It’s a great opportunity to show how a major story comes together as well as the pitfalls along the way and the number of confirmations and corroborations something is supposed to have before a massive piece of investigative journalism makes it to the air. Initially it does an excellent and fascinating job of doing that, but then it all goes rather TV with plot twists that seem a little over the top and it allows the story to unravel in a way that feels far too convenient.
For most shows that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but one of The Newsroom’s main selling points is that it’s supposedly set in the real world, taking on real world news stories and creating Sorkin’s version of how he thinks networks should have covered them, rather than how they actually did. However by concentrating on a plot-strand that feels less smart and more generically TV than the rest of the show, it lowers the power of the whole of the show. It’s particularly true as the time period is covers includes not only the 2012 Presidential Election but also such things such as Benghazi, the latter of which gets stunningly short shrift considering what an important story it was, considering it was a massive melange of both causing and reacting to the news.
It’s certainly not all bad news, as most of what surrounds this central story is really good, and Sorkin’s wonderful way with language is very much intact. It also has a great pace and a cast full of truly excellent actors, led by a stalwart performance by Jeff Daniels as news anchor Will McAvoy.
The Newsroom has some brilliant female actresses too, including Alison Pill, Emily Mortimer and the amazing Olivia Munn, who at some point seems destined to become a huge name. In the first season, The Newsroom was criticised for what many saw as a sexist edge, as while it had plenty of powerful female characters it also had a tendency to constantly undermine them with dumb pratfalls and hysterical ranting. Although Sorkin defended his handling of female characters (as he’s had to on many things he’s worked on from The West Wing to The Social Network), he definitely seems to have toned things down this time around, even if he does still make the women in the show more neurotic than the men.
And I also can’t help but notice that like Sorkin’s other shows, The Newsroom does a decent job of talking up support for gay and lesbian people, while having a total lack of actual LGBT people, except those who occasionally pop up just so the show can make a point about gay rights.
I know this sounds like a very negative review and I almost wish it didn’t, because I do really like The Newsroom. However I think my main issue is that the first season teed the show up to be something spectacular – a pin sharp series that could incisively take on key issues of the modern world, skewering the way politics and television is letting down the general public, all set within high pressure world of great characters and high drama. And while still a really good show, Season 2 feels like it’s dropped the ball on what it could have been.
Overall Verdict: I still really like The Newsroom, which is full of great actors and plenty of drama, but with a central plotline that feels more convenient and cheap than everything around it, it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Season 1.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac