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“What Kind of Day Has it Been” — Josh Bids Farewell to The Newsroom

I have enormous respect for the talent and skill of Aaron Sorkin.  He has written the screenplay for some of my very favorite movies (A Few Good Men tops the list, but I also love The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War, Moneyball, and many others), and he is responsible for two of my very favorite TV shows of all time (Sports Night and The West Wing).  His third TV show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, didn’t connect with viewers or critics and was cancelled after a single season.  When it was announced that Mr. Sorkin was returning to TV with a new show for HBO, this was exciting news.  I was eager to see Mr. Sorkin return to form after the failure of Studio 60, and working with HBO seemed like a match made in heaven.  (Fewer episodes, high production values, and a reputation for prestige productions.  What could possibly go wrong?)

Unfortunately, from the beginning, The Newsroom seemed to repeat many of the mistakes of Studio 60.  While both shows featured some wonderful actors and episodes filled with clever Aaron Sorkin-written verbiage, both shows seemed to be missing that special je ne sais qua that made both Sports Night and The West Wing so magically delicious.

It seems to me that The Newsroom had two main faults from the outset.  Number one, the shows’s central device, of being set several years in the past so that we could see the show’s characters report real-life news stories, never really worked.  It removed a lot of tension from the show, because we knew how all of these events turned out.  It also resulted in the show’s having a feeling of smug superiority as we watched these characters do a better job reporting these events than any actual reporters did, often leaping ahead to conclusions far faster than anyone had done at the time.  This often felt unrealistic, as the benefit of hindsight allowed Mr. Sorkin to write his characters as being consistently ahead of the curve.  While I loved the bold political point Mr. Sorkin made in the season one finale, in which he (through the voice of Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy) accused the Tea Party of being the American Taliban, I often found the show to be a very preachy polemic.  (The West Wing was a very liberal show, but I rarely felt that show to be preachy.)

The second, and more serious, problem with The Newsroom was that I really didn’t care about any of its characters.  When the show began, I was struck by how derivative all of the show’s characters and relationships were of the far better, far … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Newsroom Season Two

The two-hour finale of The Newsroom season two, “Election Night” Parts I & II, were in my opinion probably as good as the show has ever been in its two short seasons on HBO (ten episodes in season one, only nine in season two).  This is good news and bad, as on the one hand I quite enjoyed these two episodes, while on the other hand I think The Newsroom remains the weakest of all four of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows.  (Yes, my feeling right now is that this show is weaker than the much-criticized Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, though I have never re-watched Studio 60′s single season, so I readily admit that perhaps absence has made my heart grow a tad fonder for that show without good reason.)

In The Newsroom season two, Aaron Sorkin took a different approach than he did in season one.  While the show continued to be set in and around the real history of  2011 and 2012, allowing the characters to be involved with actual news-stories and political events, this season Mr. Sorkin crafted a season-long story-arc that was focused on a completely fictional event: the news-team’s discovery of an operation called Genoa, in which US troops used illegal Sarin gas during an operation in Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, as was made immediately clear in a framing sequence right at the start of the season two premiere, the story that News Night (the fictional news show featured on The Newsroom) reported about Genoa wound up being completely false, a huge journalistic screw-up that threatened to end all of our characters’ careers.

This story-line was hit and miss for me.  On the one hand, I loved the idea of a season-long story-arc.  While I enjoyed the device in season one of having the fictional show take place in and around real-life events, by the end of that initial season I was tired of Mr. Sorkin’s approach to those events, because usually they were used to make his News Night characters appear smarter thany all of the real-life journalists who reported those events.  It seemed a little too much to me.  I am all for TV characters being idealized — and that certainly worked perfectly in Mr. Sorkin’s greatest TV triumph, The West Wing — but in this case it seemed like all of the characters on The Newsroom were just a little too good, a little too perfect, for the show to be at all realistic.  It’s easy to criticize the media, looking back two-to-three years late with 20-20 hindsight, and making his characters super-perfect robbed the show, in my opinion, of some of its story-telling strength.

So I was excited by the story-telling … [continued]

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The Newsroom Returns For Season Two

Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has returned for season two, and I have seen the first two episodes.  If you loved season one, I think you will love season two. And if you hated season one, I think you will hate season two.  Because not much has changed.

For me, I find myself caught in the middle.  There is quite a lot to appreciate about The Newsroom.  The production values of the show are tremendous — the series looks absolutely gorgeous — and each episode is replete with phenomenal Aaron Sorkin banter and bon mot that is so unique and so unlike any other dialogue you will find on TV.

At yet the show also remains frustrating, in that — shocking for an Aaron Sorkin TV show — I find myself staggeringly unattached to, and almost actively disinterested in, any of the main characters on screen.  After his wonderful dialogue, I have found one of Mr. Sorkin’s greatest skills to be the way he is able to combine the main topic of his show (politics, sports, television production, etc.) with screwball comedy and romantic story lines, in which many of his main characters find themselves caught longing to be with the person they are not with.  This has been a key aspect of audience engagement with Mr. Sorkin’s shows, I think, as we have rooted for Casey (Peter Krause) and Dana (Felicity Huffman) to get together, and for Josh & Donna and Charlie & Zoey and Sam Seaborn & Mallory and Toby & Andrea and C.J. & Danny and even for Matt (Matthew Perry) and Harriet (Sarah Paulson).

But I don’t particularly like or root for any of the characters on The Newsroom.  Well, that’s a little harsh.  I do quite enjoy the character of Will McAvoy.  I think Jeff Daniels is dynamite as the show’s lead.  He is able to make Will endearing even though the character often behaves like a prick (or, as MacKenzie colorfully describes him in episode two of season two, “a douchebag”).  But I am not all that taken with the low-boil romantic tension between Will and MacKenzie, and I am painfully bored by the Jim and Maggie (Allison Pill) storyline.

In the first episode of season two, when we see the two of them stealing longing looks at one another while seated at their desks across their crowded workspace, my wife turned to me and said “It’s just like The Office!”  Except that Jim Harper is no Jim Halpert.  And Maggie Jordan is definitely no Pam Beesly.  One of my favorite moments in episode two of season two was when Maggie’s former best friend Lisa absolutely eviscerates Maggie for her terrible behavior.  It’s a satisfying … [continued]