In ‘Studio 60,’ ‘Newsroom,’ How Office Romance Muddled Aaron Sorkin’s Media Critique

how office romance ruined the newsroom

A look ahead, and back, underscores why the HBO series, like TV news, should be better

By happenstance, I recently re-watched the pilot for “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” which remains one of the more accomplished prototypes I’ve ever seen. In hindsight, though, the progression of that series sowed the seeds for the flaws that have become so maddening and irritating in Aaron Sorkin’s latest media-related workplace enterprise, “The Newsroom.”

Call it how Aaron Sorkin found love, and undermined the loftier qualities that made some of his earlier works – most notably “The West Wing” – soar and sing.

Although preachy in places (it’s Sorkin, after all), that “Studio 60” pilot really has it all. Exceptionally smart rat-a-tat banter, pointed insights about television, well-developed characters and meticulous casting down to even the smallish roles.

Built around a fictional sketch comedy a la “Saturday Night Live,” the program began stumbling in the later episodes, when it seemed more preoccupied with intramural romance than the meatier issues the pilot addressed. In “West Wing,” the flirty exchanges seldom deviated too far from a higher mission and greater love – namely, of public service. By the time Bradley Whitford’s producer/director in “Studio 60” started swapping meaningful stares with network exec Amanda Peet, the show had pretty much written itself into a corner that made its cancellation a lot easier to swallow.

Sorkin brings some of the same high-minded ideals to his latest offering about a fictional cable-news program, “The Newsroom” – that television, and specifically TV news, can and should do better – but almost from the get-go got mired in moony love affairs and dysfunctional relationships that turn ostensibly intelligent people into blithering dolts.

It’s an amusing conceit in the context of a romantic comedy or musical (a genre for which the producer has stated his abiding fondness), but it can be deadly in a series if it’s not calibrated and cast just right.

That’s a real shame, since the best parts of the “Newsroom” invariably leave you hungry for more, if only because there’s so little on TV that explores this terrain in any significant way. In the next two episodes (which HBO has made available), that includes a pretty devastating look at the inanity of morning news and a deeper plunge into the question of how a news organization can lose its way in the headlong rush to land a major scoop.

As always, Sorkin has a lot to get off his chest, and he’s not above veering outside his lane, as it were, in order to vent about that which annoys him. Yet while that should be the garnish to his work, in “The Newsroom” it’s become the whole enchilada – or at least, the highlight of a show where virtually every workplace relationship is complicated by raging, high-school-level hormones. (The prosecutorial bent of the attorney played by Marcia Gay Harden is actually problematic in this regard, in an extremely meta way, since she frequently takes the ACN staff to task for the very things driving many of its viewers crazy.)

Seemingly, those who have stuck with “The Newsroom” fall into two camps — having either chosen to look past its flaws, or embracing them as a source of derision (hence the term “hate watch”), a la the Slate feature aptly titled “Trying to Tolerate The Newsroom.”

The first group is too generous, and the latter has become mean spirited in a way that reinforces Sorkin’s complaint — through Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy character — about a media culture where “Snark is the idiot’s version of wit, and we’re being polluted by it.”

Personally, it’s been tough to get past the central flashback device, which continues to foster a nagging sense of we-told-you-so smugness. The benefit of hindsight is also useful in building up such obvious straw men to knock over they might as well be singing ”If I only had a brain.”

Still, the occasional line that seems so unerringly true only makes it that much more aggravating when the next moment rings hollow, feeding a view of the series that dovetails with Sorkin’s own critique of TV news — namely, that we not only want “The Newsroom” to be better, but in a way need it to be.

So sure, the series has unleashed plenty of snark on the order of what Sorkin is railing against. But one doesn’t have to be snarky to watch and lament what “The Newsroom” is, or isn’t.

Nope. Just disappointed.

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  1. Mr. Atheist says:

    Mr. Lowry, thank you for your article. I enjoyed Studio 60. To a point. I enjoyed the Mamet-style rata-tat-tat that Whitford and Perry thrilled us with weekly. There were some potential stories there but then sidetracking (or should I say straight-up-T-Boning) took place derailing the show entirely.

    Romance or the hint of it and the elusiveness involved between “adults” and the “real” neurosis involved would keep up watching. I would point to Moonlighting as a point of reference to show that it CAN work. It just needs to be done right.

    We watch Newsroom. She watches it because she likes Sorkin. I watch it because Sloan is hot— er…. It can’t be worse that season 3 of Lost. Where was I?

  2. I like “The Newsroom” — but I loved “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

  3. Eric Forsythe says:

    I agree with the critique. The office romance just is not interesting. The broadcast is just the background for a character to come into the control room to share a bit of gossip. I don’t like the soap opera love triangles with spineless neurotics.

  4. Ethan says:

    Wow. I’ve been thinking exactly this since the friggin’ pilot of this show.

  5. Dave says:

    Brian, I can’t help but think you completely missed this one. Newsroom is funny, engaging and intelligent. For many of us, we are reminded that there once was a entity called the Fourth Branch of government and that integrity should still mean something. This show is both a delight, because we are reminded that everybody has forgotten the good old days, and a bummer because nobody, NOBODY on TV practices careful journalism anymore.

    • I agree Dave…this show makes me think of the Walter Cronkite days of journalism where integrity ruled and the “scoops” were delivered with very little bias.
      BTW…Jane Fonda was INCREDIBLE this week. She still has it and is the hottest great grandmother in history. I have been in love with her for nearly 50 years. I guess I was about 10 when I saw her in Barbarella!

      Dave from Sacto

  6. Alex says:

    I don’t know… I stopped watching Studio 60, because it became a show diluted with overly preachy and extremely prolonged monologues. Granted, there is a good amount of that in the Newsroom, but I never get that feeling from it. Maybe it’s just the presentation this time that works.

  7. Jessica says:

    Sometimes, the On-Camera Stage is
    Like, remember, trannies get the blues, too!
    Thanks Harvey, you really hit one this time.
    Send the residuals, and the profit from…
    Jessi :)

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