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

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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