A Soapie By Any Other Name?

Aaron Sorkin’s latest offering, The Newsroom, captures some of The West Wing’s magic.  All the Sorkin familiars are present:  fast, witty, dialogue; poignant drama; hyper–intelligent characters; the idealism to paint politics as it should be.

This time, however, Sorkin has traded the dim corridors of the West Wing for the bright lights of a cable TV news show.  The stage is set for something great. But two episodes in, The Newsroom lacks an indefinable spark.

The Newsroom’s characters are both its strength and weakness. Will McAvoy is the protagonist.  Dubbed the Jay Leno of anchormen, he treads a carefully apolitical path, until he publically declares something which would only ever shock an American.  He admits America is not the greatest country on earth.  The horror.

Will’s boss, proud of Will’s moment of honesty, pounces on the chance to create a news program that doesn’t pander to ratings, and brings in a new Executive Producer in the form of Mackenzie MacHale, who happens to be Will’s ex–girlfriend.  She offers the perfect foil to Will. Where Will is a seasoned cynic, quite happy to bask in popularity and let ratings drive content, it is Mackenzie who dreams of a news show that actually broadcasts the news – a news show that aims to educate the electorate.

Mackenzie is smart, funny, quirky and benevolently ruthless in getting what she wants.  She delivers a series of Bartlet-esque speeches, spouting the virtues of America and free press and American citizens who are not as dumb as Will thinks. The effect is slightly undermined by Mackenzie claiming their reports will speak “truth to stupid.”  Still, Will is convinced, and in the pilot they work together to deliver a fine hour of journalism. It’s a West Wing-esque moment, where at least on screen we get the President, or in this case, the anchorman, we deserve.

This promising start derails in the second episode. The characters are inconsistent, and the plot teeters too close to a soap opera for comfort. Mackenzie has appeared competent and professional thus far, but she now bumbles through meetings, knocking over whiteboards, and accidentally sending emails to all 175, 000 of the company’s staff, informing them that she cheated on Will and broke his heart.  Apparently, she is capable of reporting from a warzone in Afghanistan, but the vagaries of modern email are beyond her.

Meanwhile, the half–baked love triangle between Will’s assistant, Maggie and two other staff members continues, making viewers struggle to remember why they care. To make matters worse, Maggie, who has been introduced as a painfully soft-spoken girl, develops a snarky attitude and spends the episode sniping at her new Senior Producer, who happens to be one third of the love triangle. “I don’t know why I’m being so mean to you,” she says, a few times. Neither do we, Maggie, neither do we.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t end there. The Newsroom is set in 2010, so it deals with actual events in recent history.  In the pilot, which covers the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, dramatic irony works in the show’s favour.  With the benefit of hindsight, viewers urge Jeff to be gutsy, to side-step the story of the dead and missing crew members and to be the first to report the story as one of environmental disaster, of negligence from the government and a billion dollar company.

The second episode focuses on illegal immigration and a new, arguably racist bill in Arizona.  But what felt fresh in the pilot is laboured in this episode.  In The West Wing, Sorkin had the chance to stay interesting and relevant by rewriting recent history.  In The Newsroom, he risks regurgitating it.

If later episodes do not shake off the problems plaguing the characters’ portrayal, the show risks becoming half news hour, half badly-written soap.

Still, The Newsroom offers an interesting premise and a strong cast who deserve more than they have been given:  enough for Sorkin faithfuls to hope these are just teething problems, and the show will soon find its feet.