the newsroom: the humorless daily show

This is pretty funny and it reminded me of how terrible The Newsroom was.

That awful promo picture probably says it all, actually, but I’ll talk a bit more.

Now, I know there’s a second season, but I didn’t watch it, mostly because I don’t have HBO, but also because the first season was the worst. I wrote an essay about it right after its finale but it never got published anywhere. Anyrate, I’m going to share it now, here.

The Newroom, Aaron Sorkin’s newest show on HBO, has caught a lot of flak over its first season, and it’s all rather deserved. In fact, I’d call it one of the worst shows I’ve watched in recent memory. I was calling it the worst show of the year, but someone pointed out to me that that’s probably a pretty big overstatement, which is true. I mean, I didn’t watch every awful show out there, but I did watch this one, so I know it’s pretty terrible, but I’m sure ABC or CBS or NBC probably had a few shows that were much worse. I mean, Two and a Half Men is still on television, I think.

Anyrate, back to Aaron Sorkin’s newest show, which is, essentially, a remake of his old show, Sports Night. Sports Night is meant to be a behind the scenes look at shows like SportCenter on ESPN. There’s a strong female producer, a wise old managing editor, feisty yet likeable anchors, and a team of dishevelled but competent nerds working off screen to make sure everything works out well on screen. Their show is struggling to keep up with the big sports shows, presumably ESPN’s own show, which the show is meant to be about. Also, there are all the evil and intrusive executives who want to ruin the show by making it have good ratings.

If you watched The Newsroom, the last paragraph should sound familiar, mostly because it’s the exact same show, except about news. But stealing from yourself isn’t really a crime and it shouldn’t be the deciding factor on whether or not a show works [though it’s certainly not good practice to remake your own show that failed over a decade ago]. Let’s get to some of the real problems with The Newsroom.

Structurally, we’re revisiting news we’ve already seen. The first season covers about a year of time, starting with the BP oil spill and going all the way to the beginnings of the debt ceiling debate. What we have here is a show that is telling the world how the news of the recent past should have been covered. Fair enough, I say, and good on them. It is, really, the way news should be covered, in my opinion. All the facts and so on, cutting through the nonsense and lies of politicals. However, the show tends to be so selfrighteous and sanctimonious and uses stupid reasons as to why it can do what it does. Will McAvoy is justified in criticising GOP candidates because he’s a republican. Why do we need to hear that every episode? and why can only a republican criticise a republican fairly? It’s an unnecessary caveat. These GOP candidates, especially the tea party candidates like Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman, can be criticised for their ideas purely because they’re bad ideas. It’s not a partisan thing, it’s a human one. You don’t need to be an insider to understand that. Which leads me to another thing about Will McAvoy. He’s so in your face and boisterous and constantly correct that it becomes unwatchable, even if you agree with him.

That’s one of the big problems with this show: it doesn’t know who it wants as an audience. As a news show, it wouldn’t need to worry about this. However, The Newsroom is not a news show. It is a melodrama and so it first needs to be a good show before it can sell its message. Is this show trying to convince conservatives that their political positions are ill conceived? I’d say that’s the ultimate goal, but it’s a show catered only to those who already agree with it. No one wants to be yelled at about their core beliefs through the television. It’s why Fox News gets a certain kind of viewer and MSNBC gets another. They’re watching because they’re already sold on the ideology. So The Newsroom is clearly not about converting its audience. So then it’s for us, the liberally minded viewer who already tends to agree with the ideology espoused by the show. And that’s where the sanctimony and selfrighteousness comes from. It’s literally preaching to the choir. It’s The Daily Show without any of the jokes. It doesn’t show the nuance of stories or display the absurdity of major news coverage. What it does is yell at the screen, gesticulating wildly, telling all of us to pay attention to stories we probably already know about and paid attention to. It’s like when the person next to you in a movie theatre says, Watch this part. You’re already in the theatre sitting in front of the thirty foot screen. We’re going to watch.

The biggest problem that this show is that it forgot to include humans in it. The Newsroom does certain things extremely well. It makes the gathering of news absolutely riveting. I can’t think of a feat larger than that one for a show. To make people talking on the phone, gathering facts actually exciting. But Sorkin, to his credit, really makes it happen. The characters, though, are barely there. The minorities are cast into their appropriate stereotypes almost immediately. But the show tries to get away with it by having Will McAvoy immediately acknowledge it, as if that makes it better. It’s pretty much the same thing as ironic racism, in that, just because you acknowledge that you’re being racist doesn’t mean that you’re not being racist. Worse than that, the show apparently only knows how to portray woman as emotionally needy and unstable, neurotic, spiteful, awkward teenage girls stuck in adult bodies. However, occasionally they’re able to perform their job, but only after breaking down into an emotional mess and begging big strong Will McAvoy to be kinder to them.

But to move onto the rest of the cast: everyone is so earnest. I mean, great, earnestness is awesome, unless, apparently, you’re watching it happen on television. I never would’ve imagined it, but people being so earnest and sincere all the time is incredibly odd to watch. It’s not very enjoyable. Not at all. The show also never bothers to show why any of the characters act the way they do. Olivia Munn’s character has a PhD in economics and is a pretty attractive lady. However, she’s single apparently because she’s so socially awkward and without confidence that no one can stand being around her for more than five minutes. How does Sorkin demonstrate this? Well, for one, she mentions it in almost every scene she’s in. And, secondly, she demonstrates her complete social ineptitude by being the only person on the show to analyse and understand who people are and why they do the things they do. She’s extremely confident for someone so lacking in confidence and unbelievably insightful for someone who is meant to be almost autistic.

Then there’s the romantic subplot between Jim and Maggie. This is maybe what a show like this needs in order to humanise the cast. How does their relationship begin? Jim’s boss, Mac, tells him that he should fall in love with Maggie. She decides this after talking to Maggie for one minute. And what happens? Exactly that. Their story trajectory is so obvious by the end of the second episode that it’s infuriating to watch. I blame it on neither of them really being able to hold a scene or carry our emotions. I don’t care about their relationship. In fact, I think I hate their relationship. It’d be far more interesting if Maggie fell in love with anyone else, but especially, say, Neal [Dev Patel], the british fellow from an Indian family who is about ten times more interesting and engaging on screen. However, he’s already filling the cast as technerd #1. Will and Mac also have a romantic subplot because they dated for some time and then Mac cheated on him with her ex-boyfriend. There’s a lot of sexual tension and animosity which is usually demonstrated by them yelling at each other a lot resulting in him being awesome at his job and her being an emotional wreck. Clearly Will’s also a bit of an emotional wreck, which is shown through his consumption of alcohol and young women and his need to shout all the time, about everything.

There’s really no one in the cast that’s very likeable. Neal probably comes closest to being human and interesting, and also the only one living in the world we live in today. Mac apparently doesn’t know how to send an email in one episode. I wish that were a lie, but it’s meant to be funny or misogynistic or both. I can’t always tell what Sorkin is trying to say with things like that.

But, yes, The Newsroom‘s biggest failing is that it forgot to make compelling people for the show. Instead we have a lot of hollowmen and hollowwomen walking around, gathering news, yelling about things, putting on a great show, and then repeating.

I’d say that the news aspect of The Newsroom were enough to make it watchable, but the show fails there as well. In only rehashing the stories we’ve all seen and covering the aftermath that we already lived through, it plays like a clipshow of past follies. What would make it more interesting is if it actually covered news not covered by mainstream media. It mentions Wikileaks in one scene with the character quickly categorising it as a nonentity, which perhaps shows the limited scope of Sorkin’s vision. It mentions the NSA spying on citizens, but only to find a way to ensure Will keeps his job. What they should have or could have done there is actually use the real people involved there, the real NSA agent who was tried as a spy by our government and shown that story to the american people. Because, even though the show has a pretty focused audience, it could at least try to give them knowledge they didn’t know about. There’s no mention of any of the whistleblowers tried by the Obama administration or the assassinations carried out by that same administration. In fact, the show fails to mention any way that Obama has done anything even remotely wrong. It is an all out attack on tea party conservatives [and maybe rightly so] without mention of wrongdoings by any liberals anywhere. It doesn’t give us the nuance of news, it just tells us things we already know, but under the guise of being a big news network, and therefore an unheard of mission is being done by the cast. It fails to mention other news organisations who have been doing that job for many years without public attention. Neal, really, is the only member of the staff who understands how important the internet is to understanding the world and gathering news from the people who are actually living it.

And then there’s the episode when we find out that Osama bin Laden has been assassinated. Do we get a nuanced episode about what an illegal assassination of one arab man means for us as a nation or how that strike affected our relationship with Pakistan? Do we get anything but a lot of highfives and meaningful music? What we get from that episode is what we got the day it happened. It forced me to relive a day that shames me as an american: the day all of america stood together and applauded the death of one arab man.

To put it short, The Newsroom fails at being an interesting show because the characters are shells and stereotypes stitched together by the lazy hand of Aaron Sorkin who tells us how the news should have been without ever improving news or challenging what is and is not news.

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