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HBO's The Newsroom: Politics vs. Characters

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Fast-paced, long-winded, and tense is how I would describe Aaron Sorkin's new HBO drama The Newsroom, starring Jeff Daniels as petulant news anchor Will McAvoy. Most of my television viewing repertoire falls within the comedy genre, so I can't say I had high expectations -- or any expectations at all really -- for this series, yet I've been overall pleased with HBO's other young shows (Game of Thrones and Girls in particular) so I wanted to see what this show had to offer.

After watching the series premiere I must admit I was almost intimidated. The pilot incorporates certain political and historical references that frankly speaking I haven't exactly brushed up on in a while. But on the other hand I thought it might be a nice change of pace to watch a show that actually requires intelligence to comprehend. Who knows? Maybe I could learn something new from watching a fictional TV show. My view has since changed after viewing the second and third episodes, in which these references become part of long-winded lectures that take up most of the show's time.

Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker explains these jargon infused lectures in the show by describing Sorkin's style. She says, "Sorkin is often presented as one of the auteurs of modern television, an innovator and an original voice. But he's more logically placed in a school of showrunners who favor patterspeak, point-counterpoint, and dialogue-driven tributes to the era of screwball romance. Some of this banter is intelligent; just as often, however, it's artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter." In this case, more words equals boredom after a while.

The thing is, all the elements of good TV are present. The series centers on a workplace environment, which has been successfully done countless times in the past with shows like The Office, Mary Tyler Moore, and Sorkin's own successful precursor The West Wing. There is romance that includes the tragic former (possibly future) relationship between Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) that has elements of infidelity and all that fun tabloid stuff, as well as the "will they/won't they" couple -- Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) and Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) to root for or not root for. And of course many fast-paced, edge of your seat moments that make a drama dramatic. Yet something is still missing.

It's a challenge to find Emily Mortimer's character, Mackenzie MacHale, likeable. She routinely has outbursts that do not come off as aggressive yet intelligent advice that you would expect to receive from a superior or mentor. Rather they are inappropriate, emotional tirades that she fails to keep out of the office.

Being a woman in a high-power, cutthroat industry is exhausting sometimes, as I know from experience. I can't say that I haven't had a few awkwardly timed outbursts myself on occasion. But somehow I imagined that an experienced journalist, who had been working abroad in a warzone, and who is now the executive producer of an award-winning cable news program would be a little bit more in control of her emotions. I will say that it does add an element of comedy to the show, particularly the incident when she destroys an employee's Blackberry after accidentally sending a personal email to the entire staff. Though even if that was the intent, after repeated incidents, her unprofessional dramatizations begin to seem naive and irritating.

In a recent interview with Vulture, Olivia Munn who plays financial reporter Sloan Sabbith, defends the portrayal of female characters in The Newsroom. In reference to the outbursts by MacKenzie, as well as the similar tantrums of assistant turned associate producer Maggie, she says "But if you get bothered by the freak-outs, I can tell you that if you know these women, they come from a place of truth." She explains that the actresses themselves have a lot of energy and they bring that energy to the characters they play. I understand that and value the way each actor/actress brings individuality to the role they are playing. However, I still think the female characters in this show are being portrayed as over-emotional, and since it's not doing anything for the feminist cause, it's certainly not doing anything for the show either.

But it's not just the women; everyone on this show seems pissed off all the time. They go on lengthy rants and sometimes take the entire episode to make their point. This is not to say that their speeches are completely futile. I think they make a lot of solid, thought-provoking arguments, particularly Will's speech in the pilot's opening scene on why America is not the greatest country in the world. I just wish they could make these arguments in a few less words.

It's hard to figure out what the aim of the show really is. On one level, The Newsroom is a character portrayal of the emotional and sometimes complex lives and relationships of broadcast journalists. On another level, it is a possible platform for those writing and producing the show to get in some sort of political commentary. Is it just about character portrayals or is it about politics? Maybe it's both?

I do think the show succeeds in depicting the high-pressure work environment of a newsroom, which is entertaining in and of itself. And if you can get past the intense yelling and lengthy speech giving, the time that is spent focusing on and developing the characters themselves is encouraging. After three episodes I feel connected to their personal stories and I am eager to find out more. But on a show titled The Newsroom, it might be nice to see more of broadcast journalists actually being broadcast journalists in the future.