In my two previous TV reviews, I have tried (albeit rather subtly) to suggest that all TV shows (indeed, all entertainment) should aspire to making the world a better place and to helping us all become better people. Any entertainment (and there are far too many) which actually contributes to making the world a worse place (i.e. a crueler, poorer and more violent place) and/or to making people less human should, IMHO, be condemned, and people should be warned to stay away. In recent months, I have argued that critically-acclaimed films like Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty are among those films which deserve this form of condemnation. I have also suggested that there are popular cable TV shows, like Breaking Bad (and perhaps also Dexter), which are heading in the wrong direction.
My two all-time favourite network TV writers are Aaron Sorkin and David E. Kelley. Not only are these men incredibly prolific and obvious geniuses when it comes to writing for TV, they consistently prioritize their desire to contribute to making the world a better place and helping people become more fully human (I should mention that one of the reasons I have been a Trekkie since 1966 is that Star Trek, and similar shows like Babylon 5, work far more consistently at this than most TV shows). The first four seasons of The West Wing, which were written by Sorkin, are, by far, my all-time favourite TV seasons (since 1967 anyway), outshining anything on cable TV. Sorkin’s other TV series (Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) are also outstanding.
So when I heard that Sorkin was coming to cable TV (HBO), my anticipation was high indeed. But since we don’t have TV reception, I had to wait for The Newsroom to come out on DVD, which it finally did last month. Was it worth the wait? Yes, it was. Was it as good as The West Wing? Sigh. Not even close.
Where The West Wing tackled issues from the viewpoint of American Democrats, The Newsroom does so from a Republican angle. I applaud Sorkin for this brave and worthy effort, which has only increased my respect and admiration for this man, but I do find the regular theme of exposing the ignorance of the members of the Tea Party, and other right-wing Republicans, to be somewhat limiting.
The Newsroom is about a daily TV news show hosted by Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels. McAvoy, who is a Republican, has been going through the motions for years but has his fire for ‘telling it like it is’ relit by his old flame, Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), the new Executive Producer for the show. The owners of the network (including Leona Lansing, played by Jane Fonda) are not impressed and give Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the show’s director and a big fan of the new McAvoy, a hard time. Meanwhile there’s a love triangle on the news team and so on. Like Sorkin’s previous series, The Newsroom is a brilliantly-cast (and acted) ensemble effort.
The Newsroom uses actual events taking place between 2010 and 2011 as the foundation for its episodes. This is a fascinating approach, allowing Sorkin to comment on how those events were reported and what the truth actually looks like. About half of The Newsroom’s first ten episodes (which make up the first season) are first-rate Sorkin, television at its very best, written by a master. The other half fall short, thus the reason for my earlier sigh. I found the episode about the death of Osama bin Laden particularly disappointing. Nevertheless, even second-rate Sorkin is better than 99% of the rest of TV.
TV critics are not huge fans of The Newsroom, accusing it of being “too Sorkin”, as if it is a bad thing to try to actually “say something” on TV (or in recent films like The Company You Keep and The East). I think you know where I stand on complaints like that. The Newsroom gets ****.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, BBC has just released the second season of its own newsroom drama, The Hour. The Hour is set in the 1950’s (the period feel is brilliant) but also features the attempts of a news show (in this case a weekly show) to expose the truth behind events (with the focus being on serious investigative journalism). The outstanding cast includes Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw and Dominic West. The first season was another example of television at its finest, so I was thrilled that BBC decided to do a second season. Unfortunately, season two, while still very well-made and very entertaining, was a step down, so I was not surprised to hear that it has been cancelled. Still, if you are looking for first-rate intelligent and gorgeous TV, with a heart (though much darker than The Newsroom), give The Hour a chance. It also gets ****. My mug is up for both of these top quality news-based TV shows.