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Review: The Newsroom Is Both Brilliant And Absolutely Infuriating In A Way Only Aaron Sorkin Could Write

(Light spoilers, mostly regarding the show’s time period, to follow)

There’s a scene midway through the third episode of HBO’s new series The Newsroom in which Maggie Jordan, the rookie Associate Producer played by Alison Pill, has a small emergency. Her boyfriend says people should just leave her alone, however, Jim Harper, the man she should be with played by John Gallagher, Jr., rushes out and gallantly comforts her. It’s a scene we’ve seen a billion times before in bad romantic comedies in which the hero is juxtaposed against a ridiculous straw man villain. It’s also a scene that perfectly encapsulates the biggest problem with a show that has moments of brilliance and, more and more as it continues, moments that make you want to slam your head against a wall.

That biggest problem I’m referring to isn’t the unfortunate romantic storyline (that’s the second biggest problem). No, the biggest problem stems from series creator Aaron Sorkin’s decision to set the show in the recent past and revolve it around real life characters and news stories.

But lets rewind a bit. That name “Sorkin” has been all over the promotion of the series and for good reason. In addition to his recent success in the movies (and viewers with sharp ears should pay attention for an appearance by Social Network star Jesse Eisenberg during Sunday’s premiere), Aaron Sorkin was one of the first big names in the recent generation of television auteurs. That’s because the man can really write. And, during the show’s first episode, you can see all those talents in place as we’re brought throttling back into the Sorkinian world of brilliant people being brilliant and talking brilliantly (a lot). In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was one of the most fun times I had watching a series pilot since Sorkin’s last TV show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Unfortunately, it would appear that Sorkin learned some of the wrong lessons from the train wreck that that series eventually became.

One of the major problems with Studio 60 was that it was a show about a supposedly groundbreaking sketch comedy show in which all the sketches were (to our eyes in the real world) absolutely awful. Now, imagine if Studio 60 hadn’t used original sketches and had instead just stolen scripts from old episodes of SNL. Now, imagine if they had decided to steal nothing but the greatest sketches SNL had ever aired in its entire history and asked us to believe that the cast and crew of Studio 60‘s show within a show had aired every single one of them in one season. That’s what the real news elements of The Newsroom sometimes feel like.

These elements don’t appear until midway through the premiere when a huge news story (I won’t reveal which one) breaks and we in the audience first realize this is a period piece. The date that appears on the screen is supposed to be a clever reveal but, instead, feels like Sorkin jabbing us in the side and screaming “Get it? Get it?!” This gets only more uncomfortable when we see all the “good” characters psychically realize how big the story is instantly while the “bad” characters (represented, of course, by Maggie’s boyfriend who’s played by Thomas Sadoski) fumble around like idiots.

The use of straw men only gets more uncomfortable as the show continues and reveals that the Tea Party are major villains. Oh, wait. Tea Partiers aren’t villains. They’re just poor simpletons getting duped by the evil Koch Brothers. Look, I may agree with that sentiment more than I should probably admit in this review (sorry, Tea Party readers but…yeah), however, there’s only so much you can hear of an opinion you agree with shouted out without opposition before you start to feel uncomfortable. And, if you don’t agree with that opinion? Hoo boy, watch out.

What makes this doubly infuriating is how excellent other parts of the show are. In fact, I’d still recommend anyone (except, perhaps, the Koch Brothers) give the series a try. The acting (I haven’t even mentioned Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, or Sam Waterson) are all uniformly excellent. The sets are gorgeous, the direction assured, and the dialogue is (duh) an absolute treat to listen to. But every time someone starts talking about something or someone from our actual recent past, we in the audience get sucked out.

That third episode begins with Will McAvoy, Jeff Daniels’ anchor in which everything revolves, giving an apology for everything his show has done in the past and how it has been a part of the “circus” that is ruining the news and criminally underserving the electorate. He begins his apology by showing a clip of Richard Clark’s actual 9/11 apology from 2004 (if this seems pompous, just watch one of the old special comments from a main inspiration for McAvoy; Keith Olbermann). I’ve spent about a billion years now making a living by watching the absolute cesspool that is our current news landscape. Therefore, McAvoy’s words rang very true to me. However, I couldn’t truly listen to them because I kept thinking about the Clark clip. Was I really watching a fictional character compare his fictional mistakes to the real ones that led to the horrific deaths of real human beings?

Whenever true life elements like the Clark bit entered into the show, the fun stopped. It felt like a lecture from Aaron Sorkin. One that I found boring and some other people would find infuriating.

It’s interesting. In one of the episodes, a character states that you can’t give a lecture on TV because, yes, viewers will either be bored or furious. Sorkin gives this line to one of his straw man villains. It’s one of the only times he lets a straw man say something true. And I don’t even think he realized it.

(The Newsroom premieres this Sunday at 10pm on HBO. And, yes, I really do believe there’s enough good for people to check it out. I just don’t doubt that many of those people won’t make it through the whole season.)

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