You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More TV

  • Project Blue Book

    Mipcom Roundup: A+E Sells, Ovation Buys, Fremantle Dating Format Takes Off

    In Variety’s second Mipcom roundup Ovation announces a raft of series and TV movie pickups, Nelson Mandela’s autobiographical recordings will be developed into a docuseries by Zig Zag and Hipster Media, A+E sells “Project Blue Book” to Viasat World and RTL, All The Kids and El Cañonazo are set to team in Spain on new formats; “Property [...]

  • La jauría

    Lucia Puenzo Talks Fabula-Fremantle’s ‘The Pack’ - ‘La Jauria’

    CANNES —   Produced by Chile’s Fabula, headed by Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín, and Fremantle, and showrun by Lucía Puenzo (“The German Doctor”), “La Jauria” (The Pack) cuts excruciatingly to the chase. In its very first scene, a teen girl student sits down, back to the wall, before her male drama teacher who [...]

  • Stan Lee's Kindergarten Superhero

    Alibaba's Youku Boards 'Stan Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten' With Arnold Schwarzenegger

    Youku, the video streaming platform of Alibaba Group, has signed a deal with Genius Brands International to co-produce “Stan Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten,” an animated series starring and executive produced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The pact marks significant step in Alibaba/Youku building its footprint in the U.S. Aimed at preschoolers, the comedy adventure series “Stan Lee’s Superhero [...]

  • Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig'Jigsaw' film premiere,

    AGC Television Secures Spierig Brothers for ‘Ben Walker’ Series Adaptation

    Filmmaking brothers Michael and Peter Spierig have boarded the supernatural thriller series adaptation of the popular literary “Ben Walker” franchise, developed by Stuart Ford’s AGC Television. Rob Carlson at UTA negotiated the deal on behalf of the Spierig Brothers with AGC Television President Lourdes Diaz, AGC’s VP of Legal & Business Affairs Anant Tamirisa, and [...]

  • Trauma French TV Series

    French TV Series to Watch at Mipcom

    Streaming services are boosting French TV production. Pascal Breton, whose Paris-based company Federation Entertainment co-produced “Marseille” and most recently “Marianne,” said the biggest benefit of streaming services, and Netflix in particular, is the way in which it has created a world audience for French shows. “Netflix amplifies the appeal of French shows abroad, and we [...]

  • Wild Bunch TV Boards RubyRock’s Feminist

    Wild Bunch TV Boards RubyRock’s Feminist Horror Anthology Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Wild Bunch TV has joined “Her Horror,” the female-led anthology series from recently-minted drama shingle RubyRock Pictures and Clipper Media Capital. “Her Horror” is billed as a feminist anthology series that will examine the female experience through the prism of horror. Zoë Rocha, former COO of Stephen Fry’s Sprout Pictures and a business affairs exec [...]

  • Bear Grylls Teams With Banijay to

    Bear Grylls, Delbert Shoopman Team With Banijay to Launch The Natural Studios

    Bear Grylls, the face of survival and outdoor adventure television, and his longtime producing partner, Delbert Shoopman, have teamed with leading global production and distribution powerhouse Banijay Group to launch production company The Natural Studios, which will produce both non-scripted and scripted adventure content. The new company’s slate includes Emmy-nominated “Hostile Planet” (Nat Geo), “Eco-Challenge” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content