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