Day 110: Is The Newsroom Worth Fixing?

by Tom Noonan

There’s a sequence in the first season of HBO’s critically polarizing Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom that explodes from its surroundings.  As Coldplay’s “Fix You” begins to swell in the background, reports begin flooding into the fictional ACN newsroom that Senator Gabrielle Giffords has been shot.  Even as a date meant to contextualize the events scrolls across the bottom of the screen, you pretty much know everything that’s coming.  And if you knew Sorkin before this, and are aware of his tendency towards naming episodes after lyrics from the songs eventually featured in them (this one is called “I Will Try to Fix You”), then you probably knew an emotional finale would be centered around that Coldplay song.  Even if you knew all of these things going in, you’re still not fully prepared for what’s coming.

This is what Sorkin does best.  He gives you recognizable stakes, something that you’re already comfortable with, and then pulls out a new or unrecognized emotional response.  You knew how the Facebook story ended, but all the wounds still felt fresh in The Social Network.  You also knew about the Oakland Athletics’ record-smashing win streak, but those moments of silent despair when it seemed like they wouldn’t get there still felt genuinely tense.  Some of this could, and should, be attributed to the direction of those films, but there’s no denying that the common denominator is the guy known for his Rice Krispy dialogue (Snap, Crackle, and Pop).

The issues with The Newsroom have all been clearly delineated (I’ve even called it, at a lesser moment, a sort-of “modern day fairy-tale”).  The most problematic of these being, of course, that a show about a group of news-people trying to change the way cable news is done has very little room to develop because all of us watching know that nothing has actually changed.  This means that Sorkin can dramatically editorialize all he wants, but, by making the decision to set the show in our reality, unlike his alternate reality dramedy Sports Night, there’s no actual progress to be had.  At best, The Newsroom can be a template; at worst, it can sound like a ranting backseat driver who only speaks up after you’ve crashed.

Even these problems might have been forgiven if the original plotlines had any real weight.  Sorkin has never been particularly lauded for writing strong female characters, but here every woman in the cast is sacrificed in the name of comedy.  One confuses Georgia the state with Georgia the country while another accidentally sends an improper e-mail disclosing her romantic history to the entire staff.  Even the strongest female character on the show, an economic reporter played by Olivia Munn, is given an entire episode where all she does is worry about the size of her backside.  These aren’t characters, they’re one-liners, jokes delivered by a hack comic in a dimly lit basement.  And all this is only a side dish compared to the main course of faulty plotlines, the romantic comedy of it all.  Outside of the control room, this show is an utter mess, but it can be fixed.

Recently, I’ve been watching old episodes of The West Wing, and find myself floored by the show’s complete refusal to fall into any serializing tropes, taking itself far to seriously to ever enter the same room with the word “sitcom”.  The high opinion its writers (Sorkin especially) clearly had of themselves can be overbearing, especially when they’re taking clear aim at specific, played-out targets, but it also brings a certain emotional gravity to the show, one that is as subtle as it is potent.  There is a terrific episode with a particularly Sorkin-y running joke that has the President of the United States, played by Martin Sheen, in need of a good, but not too good, pen.  He complains for the entire episode about the lack of solid pens in his office until his assistant tells him that it was his secretary, a woman with the similarly Sorkin-y name Mrs. Laningham who had recently passed away, that put those pens in his coat pocket every morning.  Martin Sheen’s reaction to this, a quick, hurting glance up, removing him completely from the Oval Office, form any of the familiar political stakes, is one of the most painful things you’ll ever see on television.  It connects us with him, makes you feel for him, want him to heal, and then it moves on.

It’s moments like this that can save The Newsroom, moments like that sequence in “I Will Try to Fix You”, where all your gripes with the show, all the flaws, all the things it does so poorly just sort of evaporate because the whole sequence is mesmerizing and you’re expending all your energy pretending not to cry.  It’s a formidable eight minutes; a towering emotional section of an uneven show that reminds you exactly what Aaron Sorkin is capable of doing.  It soars, it really does, and there’s a kind of earnestness to it that has all but been banished from the marquee networks.  It’s something we could use more of in a cable landscape dominated by Walter Whites and Don Drapers.  It’s supremely hopeful in a way that TV isn’t supposed to be anymore.  These are emotions worth reaching into our recent past for, worth tugging at our mistakes to find.  If Sorkin wants us to continue to listen to his weekly editorials, which start up again on July 14th, then it’s about time he makes us care about the people reading them.