The Newsroom: not an original story

Aaron Sorkin is back writing TV with latest show The Newsroom.

In pop culture, the key elements aren’t always treated equally.

In music, bass and drum get undersold despite James Brown’s exhortations to “give the drummer some”. In comics, artists are always complementing a writer’s work but good art rarely gets credit when illustrating a bad script. In film, actors get praise, then directors, then everyone else.

Everyone thinks of Chinatown as a Jack Nicholson film. Some talk about it as Roman Polanski’s finest hour. Only the film geeks talk about scriptwriter Robert Towne and then, as film geeks do, they move on to the Towne trivia.

In television the writer gets shorter thrift but, occasionally, a name becomes a brand and thus we have The Newsroom sold as the latest from the pen (probably laptop) of Aaron Sorkin.

That’s fair enough. As the writer of three critically-acclaimed TV dramas (the under-rated Sports Night, sublime The West Wing and “better than just a po-faced 30 RockStudio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Sorkin has as much right as anyone to be seen as the USP of a new show in a cluttered market.

A name before the titles brings expectation and in Sorkin’s case it’s no bad thing. Snappy dialogue, big ideas and genuine drama made his name and that’s a draw. It’s disappointing, therefore, to find that the opening of The Newsroom is a little familiar.

News anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) has been treading water. A passionate, driven man taken to going with the flow has found that the pressure can’t be denied and he erupts, delivering an uncomfortable state of the nation address without warning, shocking all who witness his lacerating critique of 21st century America.

A perfect opening even if, especially if, it harks back to Network. But for Sorkin, it’s a retread. The beginning of his flawed but entertaining Studio 60 at the Sunset Strip was centred on the public meltdown of a well-meaning guy who just couldn’t take it anymore. The West Wing’s first storyline was the fallout from Josh Lyman’s (Bradley Whitford) on-air off-message rant

Sometimes an artist has a motif he repeats, and if that was Sorkin’s then it would be a nice comfortable welcome to a genre of his own. Sadly, it’s a red flag that only serves to highlight other possible repeat performances.

Studio 60 failed in part because of the central dramatic thread. Harriet Hayes’ (Sarah Paulson) star turn had to live with ex-boyfriend Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) pitching up as her new boss. In The Newsroom, McAvoy’s punishment/reward for speaking his mind is that his show is now produced by his ex-girlfriend  Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer).

Career-oriented Don Kiefer (Thomas Sadoski) is at odds with the new regime on News Night and just wants to play it safe and by the book so he’s already preparing to jump ship. Not at all like play-it-safe, by-the-book Ricky Tahoe (Evan Handler) who leaves Studio 60 because of a personality clash with his new boss.

And if the “will they or won’t they?” tension between Josh and Donna Moss (Janel Maloney) was good enough for The West Wing then it’s sure as hell good enough for The Newsroom. The bickering and flirtation between Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jnr.) and Maggie Jordan (Allison Pill) has begun and it won’t end until … actually, it probably won’t end.

Which one of us gets to be Sam Seaborn?

The recognisable situations and Sorkin types actually lend the series more believability and comfort than The Newsroom’s big clever device. With the show set two years ago, the fictional news team will be covering real-life stories from the time. So episode one centres on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Tea Party will be discussed and dissected and presumably by season two (already confirmed) we’ll be seeing how ACN would have covered the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and why The Social Network didn’t win Best Picture in 2011.

It’s a conceit that Sorkin claims was intended to add realism but it backfires. While major plotlines in The West Wing were fictional, from the president’s MS to the election of a non-white Commander in Chief, they were believable. The Newsroom’s take on real-life events is handled in a manner that only highlights the artifice; we’ve seen the real coverage and the “in hindsight” jars with what we already knew.

The intentions are sound. Show a passionate, talented team without any agenda or spin covering the story as we would all love to see the news reported. All well and good. Highlighting where others failed by showing a fictional team report using information the writer gleaned from reports by the real media? Not quite fair.

The opening episode illustrates the point. We all know from extensive reports the significance of the BP oil spill and the system that allowed it to happen but on day one, it wasn’t a full story.

In The Newsroom, a report of an explosion is quickly interpreted by an underling who writes the show’s blog as potentially the biggest environmental disaster since the Exxon Valdez. Everyone runs with that. Within an hour, an intern promoted by accident to assistant and then promoted again for no apparent reason to Associate Producer uncovers information that nails the negligence and systematic failures that caused the accident.

The producer from the “old guard” wanted to ignore the story. “Look”, says The Newsroom “That’s the real media. Isn’t it disappointing?”

We can only be thankful that it wasn’t set in 2001 or we may have seen a passing cleaner predict a terrorist attack based on a report that air traffic control had lost contact with a plane.

With this plot device, we’ll be able to call the election perfectly.

It’s flawed and it’s a little predictable (what am I bet that the mention of MacKenzie’s physical and emotional exhaustion from working in warzones leads to a Josh Lyman type PTSD episode?) but, bizarrely, it remains watchable.

Maybe it’s because all the pointers to previous shows identify the journalists as idealists already. Maybe it’s because there are jokes that work and political points that resonate and everyone wants to see thorough, searching news reports.

Or maybe it’s because for all the flaws, Sorkin playing his greatest hits is better than watching most other dramas. And certainly more entertaining than watching real-life American news.

More to come on this particular story…