August 27, 2012

The Newsroom’s Context Problem

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The Newsroom is not a truly bad show, but it is not a particularly good one, either. More than anything, The Newsroom, which ended its first season Sunday night, is frustrating. Vulture summed it up pretty perfectly this weekend with a “Frustration Almanac,” an alphabetic list of the show’s many specific flaws and issues. It’s easy to pick out The Newsroom’s failings, large and small, and imagine how the show might be better if something (or, more likely, some things) was different.

I think much of this stems from the basic idea of The Newsroom, a unique mix of fact and fiction. News Night, the fictional nightly news show on Newsroom, tackles the events of the recent past as they should have been reported, armed with the power of hindsight through the magic of television. It’s a compelling premise, but one that never reaches its full potential.

What makes The Newsroom distinct from other programs is that you are penalized for being an active viewer, an inescapable weakness of the show that was demonstrated again and again over the first season. People familiar with Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin’s television oeuvre (the consistently excellent Sports Night and The West Wing, and the often imperfect Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), will note blatant rip-offs from his previous programs. This gives The Newsroom an awkward recycled overtone and diminishes the impact of Sorkin’s often-unparalleled writing.

It makes it harder because we know his tricks. We’ve seen them before and, perhaps because there was an element of freshness then, they were done better. In one episode, News Night anchor Will McAvoy reveals he was once considered for a late night talk show, but turned it down to do “the news.” This packs a little less punch than it should, if only because the same exact conversation happened on television 14 years ago, when Sport Night’s Casey McCall admitted he turned down Late Night to keep talking about sports.

However, it’s not just minor Easter eggs (to be nice) that make Newsroom hard to watch for Sorkin fans. That same episode is structured as a flashback derived from a character’s session with a psychiatrist. While a flashback episode is common enough on any T.V. series, this very specific type of flashback was used on both Sports Night and The West Wing, as characters on each show helped frame a story by relaying it to a psychiatrist. If only for the selfish reason of “not this again,” I literally groaned while watching this. Third time is not the charm — it is repetitive and, regrettably, now boring.

Likewise, people who have any knowledge at all of real life events better forget it, as all that matters on The Newsroom is the newsroom. Death, destruction and disaster take a backseat to the team at News Night, and The Newsroom’s audience is hurt by any knowledge of the real life events the show wraps in its own fiction.

God help the viewer who has the bad luck to fall under Sorkin’s wrath. His is the only show I can think of that targets potential audience members, and intentionally isolates them. Are you, heavens forbid, a consumer of gossip magazines or trashy television? Did you dare pay attention to the Casey Anthony trial when there were economics happening? Do you “troll” the Internet, or even just sometimes use it? Well then, as this season proved, you’re explicitly not welcome at News Night, much less The Newsroom.

Critics of The Newsroom have been loud since its premiere. There have been articles lambasting the show for everything from outrageously simplifying the reporting process to its, let’s say, complicated depiction of women. However, the criticism that stuck with me most, and which I think addresses an issue inherent to The Newsroom, is the show’s prioritization of the importance of its own fictional characters over real, actual flesh and blood people.

This is, unfortunately, best highlighted in The Newsroom’s, and thus the News Night team’s, coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. As Will reports on a real life event that caused the deaths of actual people, his fictional news team is preoccupied with their own relationships. If you’ll excuse my excessive moralization, The Newsroom privileges the seemingly minor problems of their fictional characters over the truly tragic events that affect the real world and real people. And that makes for some uncomfortable television.

I can just see the News Night team freaking out that their coverage of the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin might be hindered by Will’s bad hair day. Or, more realistically, Will doesn’t give Barack Obama’s support for gay marriage enough attention because he’s having a “New York renaissance.” It’s either that, or Will going missing right when Todd Akin designates some rape as “legitmate,” and is discovered in a church questioning God for the sudden death of his long-time personal secretary after everyone found out he had been hiding multiple sclerosis. Also, his father probably had an affair for over 20 years.

Whatever it is, we’ve seen it all before, on the news or from Sorkin himself. And while the truth might be stranger than fiction, mixing the two only diminishes both.

Original Author: Peter Jacobs