Third-episode verdict: The Newsroom (HBO)

The CarusometerA Carusometer rating of 3

In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
In the UK: Tuesdays, 10pm, Sky Atlantic HD

The Newsroom is frustrating. It is perilously close to being brilliant – with Aaron Sorkin writing it, how could it not be? Yet it’s also very flawed and often falls far from the Brilliant Tree.

Essentially, this is a show in which Sorkin tells us how TV news reporting should have been for the past two years, by going back to incidents we all know about and using the benefit of hindsight to give us the facts that may or may not have been apparent at the time. As with The West Wing, it posits a team of dedicated and mostly talented people working towards the betterment of humanity. Here though, that team is journalists – as with Studio 60, this is a show within a show – rather than politicians and their aides.

Or should I say male journalists? Because this is where the problems start. There is an almost universal divide between competent, dedicated male journalists, focused on doing the best job possible, and dizty women worried about their relationships, usually with the male journalists. Even when they are doing their best, they either fail or it’s to help the men do the best they can and to glorify those men.

While this was to a certaint extent apparent in the first episode, the entire second episode had lead female Emily Mortimer failing to comprehend the basics of corporate email and worrying that the entire company thought that Jeff Daniels had cheated on her. This from a seasoned war reporter and executive producer.

Meanwhile, in the third episode we had her former producer using his war reporting experience to minister field training to help one of the female journalists during one of her panic attacks. We’re almost beyond pastiche at this point.

Even the arrival of Jane Fonda in the third episode as the Ted Turner-like tycoon who owns the network didn’t help, since she’s not on the side of the angels, but only cares about business, and is a bit rusty in the old acting department.

That leaves us in the unprecedented position of relying on episode two’s new arrival, Olivia Munn (of The Daily Show, Attack of the Show, Perfect Couples, Iron Man 2, et al), to be the competent, intellectual heavyweight of the female team. She’s a welcome oasis of professionalism and snark, although the effect is slightly spoilt by Mortimer recruiting her because she has ‘nice legs’.

Another problem with the show is that it’s on HBO. Nothing wrong with that you might think, until you realise that means no adverts and Sorkin is trying to pad out 40 minutes of actual material to a full 60 minutes. The show feels in dire need of an edit because there’s not quite enough there at the moment. It doesn’t help that without the talents of Thomas Schlamme in the direction department, everything is much slower than it should be: where there was once ‘walk and talk’, there’s now ‘sit and prosletyse’.

Bar Munn, who’s had about 10 lines so far in three episodes, there are no characters to really like yet. We’ve also reverted to Sorkin’s default of loving lawyers, with it apparently not enough that Jeff Daniels be a journalist in order to ask probing questions – he’s also a former lawyer because Sorkin loves lawyers. That’s kind of disheartening for people who thought the show might be a tribute to journalists, rather than a slating.

But squinting hard, ignoring these flaws and forgetting for a moment that a lot of the plots and ideas are recycled from Sorkin’s earlier shows, this is a very good programme. There’s sparkling dialogue, decent plotting and an actual message trying to be imparted. True, it’s the same message that Keith Olbermann was doing in slightly more hyperbolic terms until he was fired, but it’s a worthwhile message nevertheless. It’s also fun, even while it’s being frustrating.

So give it a try, because even if it is almost Sorkin by numbers, it’s one of his better shows and certainly one of the best shows on at the moment. With time – and HBO has already committed to a second season – Sorkin will actually have to give the female characters some work to do and there’s even a chance they’ll do it competently.

Carusometer rating: 3
Rob’s prediction: Will definitely last two seasons and might even go to three or more

  • The other David

    I hate to sound like a yes man, but I agree with almost all your points. I have to disagree, however, with your review of Jane Fonda's performance. Perhaps I'm just grasping for something after the poor lines and roles the females have had so far (with the little we saw and heard from Ms. Munn excepted), but I thought her performance of a high-stakes company executive fairly tight. Yeah, she didn't seem at the top of her game, but I thought her portrayal of a owner with their desire to do the right thing vs. having her business cut out from under her was handled well. And while I would anticipate that Ms. Munn will be some jewel-in-the-rough, I'd say she'll go off on some tangent (and out of the picture) to the main characters. (Well, maybe not, 'cause she's sitting on the floor in the cast photo you put up, so maybe she'll be stickin' around.) (As just another aside, when 'Mac' said said she would put her Ms. Munn on because she's got 'nice legs', I had this mental image of both women to getting up and slapping Sorkin.) But, yeah, a lot of the 'stories' in the show are presented with the hindsight granted to us over the past two years — kinda gets up my nose (i.e., it seems rather sanctimonious).

    BTW, just one correction if I may, the senior producer was quoting field medicine to the assistant producer based on his knowledge from a field manual (FM 22-51 if you're interested or have to deal with a case of combat stress).

  • I assumed he knew what to do because he'd be trained using the manual.

    Re: Jane Fonda – she had the lines, but she gave a slightly histrionic performance that lacked a little fire and grit for me. She lacked gravitas.

    As for Olivia Munn, she's down as a regular in the cast list and in the titles, so I'm assuming she's sticking around. But she's not had a lot to do and Sorkin does have this irritating habit of creating great characters and situations then forgetting to do anything with them: Emily Procter's character in The West Wing was great and then was promptly forgotten about within about five episodes; Mandy (Moira Kelly) in The West Wing faded out during season one and then just mysteriously disappeared in the second season. All the same, I'm hoping that he'll remember to do something with her.

    Feel free to continue to agree with me, though 😉

  • SK

    Unfortunately I got fed up with 'Sorkin by numbers' about halfway through the first episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, when I realised that the dialogue exchanges I so loved in The West Wing were mechanically generated from five or six different conversation templates, with the topics and statistics just plugged into the blank spaces (cf my Mad Men by Sorkin parody). I think it was hearing totally different characters, in a totally different milieu, having exactly the same conversations about totally different subjects, that tipped me off to the fact that Sorkin can't write dialogue in general, he can only write certain pieces of dialogue very very very well, and he does so again and again (it's not even that all his characters have the same voice, it's that they have the same exact conversations).

    After that it's like watching a magician after you've seen how the trick is done: the technical skill is impressive, but there's something vital to the entertainment value that's missing. So given it's on Sky, I don't think I'm interested enough to get the disks and so I doubt I'll be seeing it.

  • mariephillipswriter

    Hello! Long time no comment. I've been busy being really ill. Ah well.

    I HATED The Newsroom. Lasted half of episode one before I had to switch it off and watch an episode of the West Wing to clear its boring, smug, charmless, sexist taste from my mouth. Do let us know if it suddenly becomes brilliant; until then, I won't be heading back.

    Mandy was faded out of The West Wing because she didn't test well with audiences, apparently. I find her very irritating, so I don't mind.

  • Lisa Rullsenberg

    Welcome back Marie – and hope that is something TV-wise that can help with the post-West Wing gap. Doesn't like Sorkin will fill that gap though for you…

  • Welcome back! Great to have you her again – hope you're feeling a lot better.

    The first half of the first episode of Newsroom is quite tedious, but it gets better in the second half when it becomes all plot. Episode two is rubbish, episode three is about as good as the first episode. Fingers crossed for episode four – I'll let everyone know if it gets better.

    Mandy was irritating, but at least she wasn't wholly about Josh.

  • SK

    And sometimes, the very same words: