Let it be placed on record that I waited a whole three episodes before I wrote this review. May it go down in the history books that as television critics of great repute unleashed their acerbic monsters on this show, I waited patiently for that moment, a moment not dissimilar to my first encounter with The West Wing, which I could frame and place on the mantelpiece of my mind as a reminder of why I spend countless hours of my life watching television. But it hasn't come.
Aaron Sorkin's latest offering traces the story of a cable news anchor called Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) at a network called AWN. It begins with him embarking on a tirade at a university seminar after a college student asks him why America is the greatest country in the world. As Will begins his eloquent soliloquy (which many have compared to Howard Beale's speech in the film Network) on why America is no longer 'star-spangled awesome', there's a palpable sense of anticipation as a viewer. If you are an avid Sorkinist, you would see the tell-tale signs of awesome just brewing. The tirade ends with a rousing monologue and despite its sentimental and somewhat patronising nature, the words collect together in a dramatic symphony and you're already telling yourself that TV just got better. And then, it doesn't.
As if a single monologue isn't enough, the show is generously littered with speech after speech about what news should be, what anchors should be, what corporations should be, and what America should be. So generous that they seem to become characters in themselves -- the result is a narrative controlled by rhetoric and idealism. Now, I'm all for idealism and Mr. Sorkin has always been about showing us how great things could be (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) but he has allowed the brilliant characters he created to dictate the narrative and control the message. In The Newsroom, the message becomes this looming monster that subverts any possibility of realism.
And then to those who argue that TV shouldn't be wound up aspiring to be a realistic portrayal: the first episode begins with the BP Oil Spill Crisis, the second deals with Arizona Immigration Law and the third with the Tea Party. Sorkin is making a decision; a decision to take events in our recent past and report them better. And to do this drowned in an ocean of naiveté, belittles the noble aim.
There are some great actors like Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Alisson Pill on the show. Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel enters the HBO fray as a geeky, British-Indian who Will initially calls "Punjab!". The familiar Sorkin banter -- characters fighting to verbally outdo each other with a defiant intellectualism -- comes and goes but it's a shadow of its usual self, undermined by the fact that the characters lack the development of a Joshua Laiman (Bradley Whitford's character on The West Wing), for instance. Three episodes in, it seems ridiculous to expect fully developed characters but the failing lies in the shows incapacity to establish its cast. A slew of characters, all played by competent actors, are thrown into this show that cannot decide how exactly they fit in.
As all of Sorkin's work, there's enough drama and idealism to make this show watchable and even moderately addictive. Filled with heady illusions of the news media's potential and the need for a well-informed electorate, it's governed by a deluded nostalgia for something that never was. But the dialogue will often be reminiscent of the rat-a-tat verbal warfare, coupled with lines like 'It's like being in a Fellini film' -- the brilliant dialogue that many fell in love with when they watched shows like The West Wing and even Studio 60. And there's enough drama floating around to keep you interested to an extent. If it's on TV and you stumble upon it, you probably won't change the channel. Will you be like a heroin addict waiting for his next fix, probably not.
Moreover, even as the show is unabashedly aspiring to superiority, it tackles issues like corporate ownership in the media in a most trivial manner. The narrative lacks the continuity that we need if we are to fall for these characters and apart from the damaged but honourable Will McAvoy, we see characters as brief, intermittent splotches on a canvas that doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
Much of the disappointment that I've directed towards this show is a result of what I expected and secretly wanted as Sorkin's next project. Rather than being cutting, insightful and gut-wrenchingly awesome, The Newsroom is naïve, misdirected and gut-wrenchingly patronizing at points. As McAvoy destroys a crazy right-wing oxygen-thief with his eloquent use of statistics, the deliciously emotional music kicks in and as part of you falls for it, the other part is saying, "Now, just hang on a minute!"
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