Staring into The Newsroom’s Funhouse Mirror

The Newsroom is a new drama series about the cable news wars that airs Sunday nights on HBO. It's penned by Aaron Sorkin -- the guy behind The West Wing (a successful show on NBC, which I rarely watched) who also wrote films such as The Social Network and Moneyball. Sorkin is known for his talky dialogue, which can resemble either free-form poetry or random babbling.

The show premiered three weeks ago, but its basic premise wasn’t really unveiled until this week’s episode, called “The 112th Congress.” The show opened with fictional Atlantic Cable News (ACN) News Night anchor Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, apologizing to his viewers for having broadcast news based on ratings appeal rather than relevance.

I’m quitting the circus,” he says. “From this moment on, we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate.

(By the way, we’ve had similar arguments at The Reader. Publisher John Heaston would rather write cover stories about burning issues such as the ongoing local polling place controversy, while I would rather see covers about things like The Maha Music Festival or the top-10 hot Omaha eateries. So much for my credibility.)

The idea that a network news show -- cable or otherwise -- would spend more than six minutes at the top of its newscast with a vitriolic chest-pounding “editorial” would seem ludicrous, except that such diatribes became nightly fare a couple years ago when Keith Olbermann was still on MSNBC.

In fact, it’s hard to say which cable news network ACN is supposed to be based on. The show references MSNBC, Fox and CNN as well as non-cable network news. But in the end, the closest comparison is MSNBC both in tone and political slant, even though McAvoy is portrayed as an avowed Republican.

Shortly after the on-air apology there’s a meeting between McAvoy and ACN news division president Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston, that outlines the episode’s topical premise -- that the Tea Party has “enslaved the Republican middle.”

The Tea Party has been radicalized and their original organizing principals obliterated; and no one should be laughing anymore,” McAvoy insists. “They should be scared shitless! How is this not our top story every night?

In keeping with Sorkin’s and America’s love for instant nostalgia, the show takes place just two years ago, during the last half of 2010. The pilot episode, for example, closed with News Night blowing the lid off the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, reporting over the course of a single one-hour news cast details about the spill’s cause that in reality would take months for real reporters to uncover presumably doing more than just making a few calls on their Blackberrys or doing random Google searches.

By the end of Sunday night’s episode we see where the series is headed, as Leona Lansing, the CEO of ACN’s parent company (played by Jane Fonda), threatens to fire McAvoy if Skinner/Waterston can’t pull him away from relevance and back to ratings-building trivia.

What happened to human interest stories? Obesity, breast cancer, hurricanes, older women having babies, iPhones?” barks a horn-rimmed Fonda from behind her power suit. “He was good at that shit.

Waterston deflects her attack by instead defending News Night’s obvious lefty slant. “Facts are the center. Balance is irrelevant to me. It doesn’t have anything to do with truth, logic or reality,” snaps a bow-tied Skinner/Waterston. “Evolution? The jury’s back on that one.

And so on.

While all that is going on, there’s a cliche love triangle building between News Night producer Jim (the insecure good guy), associate producer Maggie (the faithful ditz) and former executive producer Don (the insufferable asshole) that’s a replica of the Jim/Pam/Roy love triangle that was stretched out over five seasons of The Office. Let’s hope they get this one wrapped up by the end season one. There’s also love friction between McAvoy and his new News Night executive producer MacKenzie McHale (played by Emily Mortimer), who we find out is McAvoy’s former lover who spurned him for her ex-boyfriend a few years earlier. Could sparks fly again? Not the most believable story arc, Mr. Sorkin.

Anything resembling reality is undermined by bonehead moments during ACN’s fictional news casts that force anyone who’s ever seen a real broadcast news show to blurt out loud at the screen, “That would never happen.” Add to that Sorkin’s habit of stringing together nonsensical, overly dense dialogue that would never (could never) be uttered by a normal human being and The Newsroom begins to more closely resemble a parody or satire of the cable news industry rather than a dramatic reflection of it.

What makes it worth watching is the cast. No, not the miscast underling roles played by moon-eyed Alison Pill as “Maggie,” twitchy John Gallagher, Jr. as “Jim” and squinty Thomas Sadoski as “Don.” Rather, the central players: Emily Mortimer, the always charming Waterston, and of course, Jeff Daniels, who is more believable as an Olbermann-style cable news anchor than Olbermann was.

But the real reason to watch The Newsroom is that Sorkin is trying to make a dramatic series that (maybe) can impact reality. He’s trying to do with The Newsroom what John Stewart and Stephen Colbert manage to do with their shows -- create television that both entertains and informs and, ultimately, impacts today’s electorate by thrusting a funhouse mirror at our world and forcing us to ask, “Did this really happen? Could this really happen? And what can I do to stop it?”

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 07:32 am
on Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

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