When you look up the phrase ‘Guilty pleasure’ in the Merriam Webster online dictionary, underneath the definition there’s a curious appeal to the reader. ‘What made you want to look up guilty pleasure? Please tell us where you read or heard it.’ Well Mr. Webster, in lieu of activating a free trial – another one of your appeals, this time triggered by an uncontrollable urge to find out what the next word in the dictionary, ‘guimbard,’ means – I’ll tell you that this whole escapade was triggered by the latest trailer for The Newsroom, soon to start its third and final season.
If you hadn’t already guessed, The Newsroom is a drama concerning a team of intrepid journalists seeking to bring back real analysis and depth to a broadcast news industry teetering under the weight of vicious partisanship. And unlike nearly everything else Aaron Sorkin has written for television, the show is firmly anchored in the real world, offering commentary to a wide variety of developments in the recent past. Season 1 saw them report on world events aplenty, from the shooting of Gabbie Giffords to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, while Season 2 was underpinned by a story arc concerning the compilation of a report on possible use of chemical weapons by the U.S. military. And the third and final season promises Snowden-esque shenanigans involving the leaking of classified government secrets, along with a debate on the effectiveness of social media as a medium for newsgathering.
Now on the face of it this all sounds rather gripping, but it also goes a long way in explaining why, after one more season, The Newsroom will cease to be. For a drama to work it needs some form of conflict, and this usually occurs between its characters over motivations as varied as love, or honour, or money, etcetera. The Newsroom has that in spades. Gruff lead anchor Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, is secretly in love with his Executive Producer Mackenzie McHale (the charmingly slapdash Emily Mortimer), who’s also secretly in love with him, while most of the junior staff are all at it with each other or gazing at one another with deep, unrequited longing. This ‘will they, won’t they’ dynamic suffuses the personal interactions between the staff, to the point where they’re almost completely waterlogged with schmaltz, leading to such dialogue disasters like “That’s just a physical law of the universe, you own me” and “Mackenzie, I love you, but a Japanese man’s honour’s at stake!” Social Network this is not.
And then there’s the social commentary. And therein lies the show’s fatal weakness: in a bid to reach for an objective critique of the news media of the recent past, it needs to find a spot on the political spectrum from which to do so. In the case of The Newsroom, that spot’s decidedly left-leaning. While Jeff Daniel’s lead anchor is a self-confessed Republican, he’s been left behind by a party more concerned with religious purity and corporate kowtowing than the core values he subscribed to back in the day as a prosecuting attorney. This lends a patina of legitimacy to a series of egregiously liberal pronouncements by McAvoy, including a proclamation live on air that the Tea Party are the American equivalent of the Taliban and that audience members at a GOP debate in Florida booing a gay soldier should burn in hell. And he’s not the only outspoken member of staff. The Economics correspondent passionately touts the success of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act – the law that forbade mergers between commercial and investment banks – as the underlying reason behind an American golden age, where “we…won World War II, put a man on the Moon and put a computer in everyone’s lap.” Only, Ronald Reagan happened to assume the presidency in 1980 and that’s where the culture of deregulation – wherein lie the roots of the recession – began. Sam Waterson’s News Division executive even pronounces that “America just elected the most dangerous and addle-minded Congress in my lifetime” (and Waterson is old.)
And in that same scene, Sorkin gives away the reason why The Newsroom is no better than the partisan news media it claims to distance itself from. “We did the news,” Skinner says. “For the centre…Facts are the centre. We don’t pretend that certain facts are in dispute to give the appearance of fairness to people who don’t believe them. Balance is irrelevant to me. It doesn’t have anything to do with truth, logic, or reality.” He may as well have been talking about everyone else in his staff. All the arguments they advance about the U.S. social contract are just that. Glass Steagall wasn’t just killed by Reagan and Clinton – its erosion started in the early 1960s, and wasn’t the only contribution to American economic hegemony. World War II destroying much of the rest of the world helped quite a lot in that regard. And to your common variety Republican – the non-Will McAvoys out there – the 112th Congress succeeded in gaining massive spending cuts at the behest of those deficit-raising Democrats. And to be fair to the Tea Party, they don’t go around staging public executions in football stadiums.The fictional staff at The Newsroom might have an edge in reporting the facts, but they’re still stuck together with a liberal glue and repackaged as common sense.
Perhaps realising this, Season 2 saw the team dial down the speeches and start faltering in their professional and personal lives. The biggest of these concerns the misreporting of the use of Sarin gas by U.S forces, a fictional incident itself based on a similar 1998 controversy over at CNN. The writing here is stronger, tauter through its detailed examination of journalistic ethics that remains largely unprecedented in American drama. And yet again, the show is let down by a sloppy structure. The season climaxes in its seventh episode, with the airing of the report on ‘Operation Genoa’ and the telltale inclusion of an interview with a General admitting Sarin gas was used on the mission. Only the interview is fake, the footage carefully re-edited by a senior producer intent on making said General give the impression he’s admitting something he clearly didn’t. The fraud is proven by the massive Chekhov’s gun of said General having chosen to be interviewed in darkness with a basketball match flashing on a television monitor in the background. And we’re led to believe, after countless Red Team meetings and private agonising over the conduct of U.S. troops abroad, that Will and the team didn’t spot the match clock wind backwards and forwards with a life of its own. Please.
It’s these sort of mistakes that have upset critics and helped to doom The Newsroom to cancellation after its next season. To Brian Lowry of Variety, the show turned out to be little more than a ‘Media Lecture for Dummies,’ while Benjamin Secher of The Telegraphthought that even its ‘orchestral score, the sentimentalist’s equivalent of canned laughter, feels smug.’ On top of the bad reviews came organisational failures. According to The Hollywood Reporter, each episode cost several million dollars to shoot, an investment that shot up when Sorkin’s fraught work ethic that didn’t see scripts getting to the cast until the last possible moment. This in turn led to a series of reshoots that forced new cast members like Rosemarie DeWitt to quit, citing scheduling conflicts. It seems that, even before the negotiations between HBO and Sorkin were about to begin, the end seemed nigh.
So why even watch it? For all its faults, The Newsroom remains infuriatingly entertaining. It’s at its best when it works at explaining the processes behind reporting our most recent history, whether it’s the Arab Spring, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, or the meltdown of the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. The picture Sorkin paints is one of managed chaos, never shying away from the pressures and pain behind getting the big news to the small screen. It’s not pretty, and often involves a lot of shouting and running, but then again that’s what Sorkin does best. He may not be living the glory days of The West Wing anymore, but everything that made that series inspiring and original is still present in The Newsroom. It has the same witty and fast-based dialogue, the same complex plots, even the same scene setups: just you watch as Will springs his courageous junior producer from the clink, and then watch as the best and the brightest of the Bartlett administration do the same thing. It’s practically brilliant, if not original.
Season 3 promises the same sort of agonised, crazed pursuit of the truth that earned the show top marks for improvement the last time around. And that’s OK, really. Because despite those dodgy chunks of dialogue, gaping plot holes and preachy left-wing politics, the show’s…alright. In a sea of drunk and racist ad execs, troubled detectives, meth baron chemistry teachers and murderous House Majority Whips, it’s nice to watch something where people are actually trying to do some good. The acting isn’t that bad – that Best Actor Golden Globe Jeff Daniels won last year attests to that – and it’s not as everybody isn’t into the idea of an intrepid posse of journos fighting a big bad. This isn’t the last you’ll see of Sorkin, by any means; he’s recently adapted Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs for the big screen, and seems set to adapt another biography of disgraced Senator John Edwards. But if you want to see his television swansong, do watch the next season of The Newsroom. Or don’t. Or do, but don’t tell anyone about it.
The Newsroom will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic in November
Originally published on GQ.co.uk, October 7th 2014. Reproduced with their permission.