Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Review: The Newsroom (HBO)

After a sojourn into film with The Social Network and Moneyball, Aaron Sorkin has returned to the small screen with The Newsroom, which aired Sunday on HBO in the US. It is set in the newsroom of News Night, a fictional current affairs hour, presented by jaded anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). Newsroom begins a character based approach to examining what ground the Fourth Estate occupies in the US today.

The show opens with a panel discussion of journalists. With Sorkin's classic rapid dialogue, the rancour and bile of contemporary political debate in the US is pithily encapsulated. McAvoy, who is painted as impartial, appears increasingly despondent. When finally he is pushed for a response to "Why America is the greatest country on Earth?", the dam breaks and he commits a cardinal American sin by asserting that it isn't. His subsequent tirade, which is captured for YouTube, is scathing of America's standing in the world, laments its widening divisions and loss of national purpose, and while he finishes with a message of hope, the damage is done.

It is a strong opening, which leads into a newsroom in disarray as fallout from McAvoy's outburst has led to a mass exodus of his staff and damage to his reputation. Sam Waterson is introduced as the principled, avuncular news director who hires a veteran war-correspondent from McAvoy's past, MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), to come on as executive producer and help restore News Night's journalistic credentials.

MacKenzie and McAvoy have been romantically linked in the past, and the relationship's end has damaged the two leads in different ways. MacKenzie took to the field as a war correspondent and returned physically and emotionally scarred from two years in the Middle East. McAvoy, disenchanted with the news business, gradually succumbed to his ego and to the corporate pressures on his trade. The tension between these characters is raw and a good deal of the episode is given over to developing this. MacKenzie is used to bemoan the state of media in modern age, and offers a plea to make News Night a vehicle for McAvoy's journalistic redemption and to "reclaim the Fourth Estate".

When finally some 'news' starts happening, in this case the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the newsroom comes to life with a largely off-the-cuff broadcast. McAvoy, prompted by MacKenzie's urging, delivers an impressive performance during which he pursues the corporate interests behind the spill.

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It is difficult to watch a show written by Sorkin without making comparison to the first four seasons of West Wing, which he wrote and co-produced. On a thematic level, Newsroom will bear some similarities as a conduit for him to examine current affairs and the news media. However, stylistically, the show may borrow more from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkins short lived, but very good, behind-the-scenes drama about the cast and crew of a Saturday night variety programme. Studio 60, which came after West Wing, focussed more on development of its troubled characters and their interpersonal entanglements than the weightier topics of the West Wing.

While West Wing had a splendid ensemble of interesting characters, the issues often seemed to drive the show with characters growing gradually. Newsroom will be more character-driven according to Sorkin, and at times he wrestles to find a balance between character and issue. This is most apparent with MacKenzie, as she espouses a quixotic return to impartial journalism and to revivify well-informed American democracy. Her speeches have a set-piece, rehearsed quality that feels overwritten and detracts from their authenticity. Having said that, the characters are sharp-witted and likable; and the dialogue is punchy, particularly between the youthful minor characters, though the staccato cadence of previous Sorkin efforts is gone.  

Daniels is believable as man on the cusp of an ego-fuelled implosion, who retains enough of a skerrick of charm that the viewer wants to see him redeemed. Emily Mortimer's character is interesting and her humour and idealism are easy to warm to; though at times, she struggles with the stilted scripting. John Gallagher Jr., playing Jim Harper, MacKenzie's young senior producer, may occupy a Sam Seaborn-esque space and will create some dynamism amongst the minor characters.

The tension of a live-to-air broadcast is well captured in the episode with a suitably exciting though low-key, score and snappy editing. The rolling walk-and-talk´ scenes of the West Wing are gone and happily, director of the first episode Greg Mottola, has largely resisted hand-held camera work that behind-the-scenes shows so often feel the need to employ.

There is a rich vein for Sorkin to mine thematically, and the challenge will remain for him to walk the tightrope between topical and preachy, cerebral and entertaining. He has created characters that will give the show depth, and I suspect that his initial lumpiness with the dialogue may smooth as exposition gives way to a more organic narrative style.

While polarisation of the media and politics may be more apparent in the United States, as Daniel's character laments - the people not only choose the news they want, "they choose the facts they want"; recent and ongoing events in the Australian media landscape make the thrust of Newsroom all the more interesting for an Australian audience today.  With reading the media section, or watching Media Watch becoming an increasingly demoralising task, a little fantasy may be what the Fourth Estate needs. 

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