There are countless TV shows that are instantly doomed to fail. They either have a terrible premise, inexperienced writers or a cast that doesn’t gel. Look through the lists of new shows on the Big Four networks and you’ll see several every year.
Then there are the more frustrating shows that seem to have every ingredient needed to be interesting and successful, but manage to screw it up. Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show The Newsroom fits into that second category.
The Newsroom marks Sorkin’s third time creating a show that analyzes how TV itself is made, following 1998’s Sports Night and 2006’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This time around, Sorkin tackles cable news programs and their clear bias in reporting.
The concept of poking holes in the reporting of major cable news has made household names of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, so it isn’t completely new ground. But while The Daily Show and Colbert Report focus strictly on satirical comedy, The Newsroom aims to show how cable news can better serve the public.
That premise is rife with content, and there is an elite level of skill both in front of and behind the camera on The Newsroom. It should be a transcendent show; one that can both entertain and inform. It clearly wants to be that kind of show, but largely fails to live up to the billing.
The Newsroom has one significant flaw, and it brings down everything else around it: The insistence that its characters tackle real-world events that already have occurred.
The show jumps from one major event to the next, leaving large gaps in time between episodes. The show’s timeline has gone from April 2010 to June 2011, meaning it covered more than a year in the span of nine episodes.
Through all that time, there is almost no narrative continuity. The News Night team just wants to do the news well and tries to show up the competition. There are two inherent problems with that storytelling model.
For one, Sorkin now has the benefit of hindsight, so he can have his characters cover every story as they should and how their competitors didn’t. The result is an almost infallible leadership structure that manages to gather key information that nobody would have thought to ask about at the time.
We can now wag our fingers at CNN and MSNBC for not covering the BP oil spill in detail from Day 1, but there was no way anyone at the time could have known what a disaster that would turn out to be.
Because the show so routinely points out the way in which other networks are failing to cover events in as much depth, there is a veiled implication that the people who covered events at the time didn’t do their job well. Almost as if to say, “If you had worked hard enough, you would have discovered what our characters did.”
I’m fine with criticizing networks for being biased in their presentation of the news, but I think it’s unfair to imply that they weren’t trying hard enough to find out the information.
But The Newsroom characters manage to get every morsel of information they need from their impeccable web of well-connected sources. Every character seems to have a friend or relative somehow connected to every major government entity, making information retrieval significantly easier than it would be in real life.
Those characters in general also are The Newsroom’s second inherent problem. Their problems run from week to week as they would on any sitcom, but unlike a random sitcom, The Newsroom can have six months separating two episodes.
The show tries to have its cake and eat it too; it wants you to follow the timeline in the major events it covers, but not follow the timeline when it comes to the characters’ everyday lives.
The result is a cast of cardboard cutout characters who are very difficult to care about. They pop in and out of the main plot as needed, and spend the rest of their time getting into romantic entanglements (a well Aaron Sorkin loves to revisit ad nauseum).
We know almost nothing about what makes any of them tick or why they behave the way they do. We know that they love doing the news, and that’s it. So why should we care when three of the supporting characters become involved in a love triangle? Especially when that love triangle still exists after a year and has seen no progression.
What little character history the show does reveal almost seems exploitative. When all of the main characters are celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, we’re suddenly told that Kaylee – a character who had been in approximately three scenes in the entire season – had a family member who died in the World Trade Center attacks.
Later in the same episode, a random unnamed character puts on an FDNY hat while the news of bin Laden’s death is read. Instead of those moments seeming deep and resonant, as they should have, they seemed more like Aaron Sorkin pointing a finger and saying, “Here are people who have been touched by tragedy. You should feel sorry for them.”
Those kinds of moments show an almost lazy approach to the nuts and bolts of the show. There is almost no depth to any of the characters, and any time something is supposed to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience, we’re basically told what we should be feeling.
Strong TV shows are supposed to depict interesting and fully-formed people who seem real, as if cameras just happen to be following this group of people around. But The Newsroom constantly feels forced and staged.
Aaron Sorkin has a message to send about the state of American news journalism, and it’s a message I agree with. News programs have become ongoing jokes that pander to one side of the political aisle, and they’re steadily growing worse.
Everything revolving around that specific message on The Newsroom is well written and usually interesting. But Sorkin doesn’t seem to have given much thought to everything else going on around the show-within-the-show.
That would be fine if Sorkin were making a documentary about news journalists, but he isn’t. Strong characters are the foundation for any great TV show, and The Newsroom has none.