TV Review: ‘The Newsroom’

"The Newsroom" Review: Season Two

Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama returns with its few strengths and abundant flaws still intact

As if conceding the first season harbored a serious structural flaw, “The Newsroom” returns with a flashback framing device to help explain its we-told-you-so leaps into the near past — in the second season’s case, to a stretch beginning in 2011 preceding the last presidential election. Such an admission, however, would be the only subtle thing about Aaron Sorkin’s in-your-face HBO drama, which has the rare ability of bringing conservatives and liberals together — the former outraged by its politics, the latter embarrassed by how preachy they sound. Usually interesting despite its abundant excesses, the show’s irritating moments continue to outweigh the satisfying ones.

It’s a shame, really, since Sorkin writes about media with an insight and savvy that remains all too rare, particularly within the TV space. Yet while that represented a delectable garnish on a program like “The West Wing,” here it’s more akin to force-feeding.

Setting those elements aside, “The Newsroom” is most seriously marred by its interpersonal relationships and the shifting romances within its newsroom at a fictional cable network. Yes, everyone is clever, funny and fluent in rat-a-tat Sorkinese, but the show hasn’t provided much incentive to care about them, or (in more extreme instances) stop the gnashing of teeth every time their love lives enter the picture.

Admittedly, some viewers have accepted the show on these terms, concluding the positives supersede its negatives. Besides, where else are you going to hear TV characters talking about SOPA?

That forgiving impulse, however, is put to the test by the first four episodes of season two, which find the younger characters making one career decision after another motivated by romance, and anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, still terrific) ever pugnaciously speaking his mind.

Through McAvoy, the imperious host of the show within the show, Sorkin does deliver a rather bracing rebuke to the rudderless nature of the then-nascent Occupy Wall Street movement. As usual, though, the writer (whose voice shines through loud and clear) reserves his harshest critiques for intransigent Republicans and a too-compliant media.

In that vein, Will is bedeviled by an earlier commentary comparing the Tea Party to the Taliban, while a subplot involves producer Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) taking leave to cover the Romney presidential campaign. On the trail, he encounters an attitude toward the press that’s nothing short of contemptuous, and reporters terrified of losing access who numbly avoid tough questions despite all the empty rhetoric.

Admittedly, there’s ample truth in the criticism, but given the campaign’s outcome, the exercise feels a bit petty, like kicking a man when he’s down — or at least beating a dead elephant.

Will is also accused of being smug, and a whiff of that permeates the entire series, with characters making prescient observations with the benefit of hindsight. Rick Perry’s candidacy, for example, is dismissed because, “Eventually, he’s going to have to speak,” after the Texas governor’s campaign imploded for that very reason, highlighted by his “Oops” moment during a televised debate.

It’s too bad, since the good sequences will surely make Sorkin aficionados long for more, such as Will saying, “Snark is the idiot version of wit, and we’re being polluted by it,” or financial news anchor Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) using her substantial trove of Twitter followers as capital in a negotiation to help Maggie (Alison Pill), the focal point of a workplace Jim-Maggie-Don (Thomas Sadowski) triangle that remains the show’s weakest link.

Ultimately, one needn’t be a purveyor of snark to view “The Newsroom” as a disappointment — too smart to be dismissed, but so abrasive as to feel like Media Lectures for Dummies. In that respect, it’s well suited to cable news, just not in the way intended.

TV Review: 'The Newsroom'

(Series; HBO, Sun. July 14 10 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by HBO.

Crew

Executive producers, Aaron Sorkin, Scott Rudin, Alan Poul; co-executive producer, Denis Biggs; writer, Sorkin; story by Ian Reichbach, Sorkin; camera, Todd McMullen; production designer, Richard Hoover; editor, Ron Rosen; music, Johnny Klimek; theme, Thomas Newman; casting, Nancy Perkins. 60 MIN.

Cast

Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadowski, Dev Patel, Olivia Munn, Sam Waterston

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  1. Omar says:

    Of the laments in the review, there seem to be three in particular. First, the events taking place are in the past. By this criteria the movie Lincoln or the John Adams mini-series must invoke great frustration or ennui — in fact many of us found both to be riveting and edifying. Second lament, mentioned at the end is “abrasiveness,” which leaves me mystified, as on it’s face, I cannot see why the fallacy of ‘equal time’ as opposed to expressing ideas artfully, vigorously and astutely, is considered an advantage. The third is the love entanglements…I find them a way to segue,to relieve tension, humorous and harmless patter and banter…a device many writers have used…neither what draws people to the show, nor enough to drive anyone away.

    The show is captivating in provoking thinking, with rare wit and admittedly controversial, debatable yet informed points of view that enlarge a dialogue. We can but pine for the presence of thinking, wit and informed controversy (think Buckley or Schlesinger) that enlarges or at least engages a national dialogue when we tune back to our actual news coverage.

  2. John Lawlor says:

    Newsroom is a fine show. Acting, Directing, Writing first class. When compared with the rest of TV it is brilliant. My family is staying until the lights go out. It’s the only reason I get HBO package. In how many other shows does one care about the characters and learn something?Cynicism is easy. Newsroom is difficult. Go Aaron Sorkin.

  3. Julienne Ford-Hammond says:

    I worked in a News Bay in GB for several years. This show is the farthest thing from reality I’ve ever seen.

    • Ken S. says:

      It is always kind of funny to read someone criticizing a show about THEIR industry for not being realistic. As if Mad Men is a realistic portrayal of an ad agency, or Boston Legal was a realistic portrayal of a law firm, or CSI is a realistic portrayal of a crime lab. Realism is life and life is boring. That is why we have movies and TV in the first place.

  4. Josh J says:

    It’s not the politics that make the show irritating — it’s the complete CHEAT of storylines/history. While I love Sorkin-isms, Lowry is correct that this feels like force-feeding politics because how can you be wrong when you already know the outcome??!!!! Of course, everyone on the show is smarter than the average person BECAUSE THEY ALREADY KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN!!! That, ladies and gentleman, allows for great pontificating, but is lazy writing.

  5. Luxury Jets says:

    I have to agree with Woody – more Sorkin and less complaints.

  6. Rebecca says:

    I actually really love this show. I can see how if you do not agree with the politics it could be irritating but I am fully on board. I think the cast is fantastic with the exception of Munn who IS NOT AN ACTOR. Really looking forward to the show coming back and giving me something to look forward to on Sunday nights and then talk about at the office on Monday!

  7. Woody says:

    Having seen Brian Lowry moderate a number of TV panels, I’d like to see Mr Sorkin interview him regarding this review. It would quickly become apparent that Mr Lowry is no match for the intellect that creates this show. I’m not sure why Mr Lowry’s got his panties in a bunch about the Newsroom, but his analysis is as transparent as his biases. The merits of this show are born out by the passionate discussions both pro and con that rage regarding it’s existence. More Sorkin on TV please. I’ll suffer his worst any day over the drivel that other TV writers produce.

  8. seagoat8888 says:

    The Romney press storyline may seem petty except that it’s still an important impediment to democracy when politicians control their media narrative by holding access hostage.

    I don’t disagree with your qualms about the show, but your specific examples suffer from “centrism” mush. Anyone who followed Perry before the national headlines started knew he was a buffoon of a public speaker.

    • Julienne Ford-Hammond says:

      The Politics simply ruin the concept of an objective “REAL” News Bay. It is a one-sided back-up band for their candidate. Sad to see a once respected career, turn into three blind mice…or follow the leader.

      • seagoat8888 says:

        The “show” depicted makes no efforts to hide its being biased (unlike Fox or MSNBC), so I’d have to guess that if you don’t like the politics in the show, it just aint your politics. If the career you mean is Sorkin’s, then I don’t think you’ve been paying attention for any of his career.

  9. Peter Riva says:

    At some point you have to re-read your review as being snarky in the extreme.
    Why do we love this show? Where else can you get mental justification for the hindsight feeling of “that’s what i thought it meant” or “that’s what I knew what must have happened?” In a sense, this show is like a quick cram before an exam on recent history – history no American has access to via our domestic media – unless you watch and absorb foreign media in many languages.
    Of course, as to the silly triangle relationship? Get a room, get it over and let’s move on. It’s not worth 10 minutes total screen time.

  10. Joseph Garyjohn says:

    Brian Lowry. Every time I read him I’m reminded what good journalism really is. Will McAvoy should be fired and replaced by Brian Lowry. THEN I would watch The Newsroom!

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