This season’s premiere of The Newsroom was a bit like drinking an entire bottle of NyQuil before being forced to read a children’s copy of “The Economist” knowing there’d be a quiz later (drone strike!). It tried to distance itself from the previous season almost entirely without learning from its narrative missteps, so now we’re down one bodyguard, and they’ve used two scenes to dump a love quadrangle that used to monopolize screen time. That last part is probably for the best (and hopefully it sticks), and now we have a different crisis to deal with in the form of what looks like a factual honey trap for Will and the news team.
But beyond the possible fatal flaw of trying to make us relive news that just happened (while so much current news is out there to contend with right now), there are three things holding the show back from being successful. Things that Aaron Sorkin has produced out of a magic hat before on The West Wing. Things that don’t at all include musical theater history.
Dynamic Stories That Filled Episodes
For some reason, The West Wing did more with 44 minutes than The Newsroom does with 56. Yes, things moved so fast that people rarely stood in one room to talk, but it was also the nature of the people that the show covered. POTUS and friends (which would be a great name for a new series) were juggling an easy half dozen major problems and a few more minor ones on top of their personal hangups in any given episode. There was a process, and we got to be embedded deeply in it.
That’s an issue for Newsroom, where a similarly sized ensemble cast doesn’t have nearly as much to do (and they never appear to be doing much news-gathering either). That’s especially problematic for Will (Jeff Daniels) whose primary function seems less to do with journalism and more to do with tending to his own wounded sense of self-worth in between pontificating to three cameras. He’s lovably smarmy, but where his god-figure counterpart on The West Wing was meeting with the Qumari defense minister, doing a photo op with a college basketball team, getting a 2-minute briefing in the Situation Room, arguing with his wife, reading up on soy bean prices and making grandiose speeches before lunchtime, Will simply seems to be making grandiose speeches and being crusty toward the people putting the show together for him.
If Team Bartlet could sail through 5–6 national and international hiccups in a single episode, why can’t Team McAvoy investigate, dissect and debate just as many? Isn’t there, you know, more news happening?
That’s partially why episodes feel so empty, and why it’s so easy to hit the snooze button when a bland storyline dominates several scenes.
Smart, Strong Women
Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg was an amazing anchor for The West Wing, but there was also Donna, Mandy, Amy, Mrs. Landingham, Margaret, Ainsley, Dr. McNally and a host of assistants that were all on point. They were intelligent, commanding, funny, vulnerable, kind, sexy, weird, introspective, sarcastic and more. Sometimes in the span of a single scene. Basically, they were masterfully well-rounded.
This particular point has been covered a lot, but it still bears repeating. Not as a purely intellectual exercise in equality either; but as a genuine narrative problem that arises when strong men don’t have strong women to combat with (or against).
It’s tough to see a wealth of acting talent muted this way. Job-wise, Dana from Sports Night might be a closer counterpart to MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) on The Newsroom, but we got to see the former show off incredible skills and insight (and a truckload of human foibles) whereas the latter doesn’t get to show that side very often (beyond thinking on the fly when a voice over needs to be re-done). It’s pretty much all foibles and putting Will in his place. So far we haven’t seen why Mac is such a celebrated producer. We’ve only been told.
The Sense of Difficult Jobs Done Well (Whether Successfully or Not)
This is really the big one. It stems from the first issue on this list, and there was a hint of it last season working up to their bold new presidential debate format, but the news team seems to do its job solely by phoning a friend (or a roommate) or having a preternatural ability to know when small-seeming stories are going to be much bigger before everyone else.
Looking back at The West Wing as an example, there were moments where the crew was fighting tooth and nail to get enough votes for a crucial bill (or some other monumental task) where we could see the meetings, the arguments, the shifting strategies and new roadblocks to be overcome. If they triumphed, it felt joyous; if they failed, we could hang our heads with them. Either way, you always saw the sweat. With The Newsroom, not so much.
There’s no faulting The Newsroom for being a different animal, for looking at a different world and for having a different structure. However, some of its core problems seem to emanate from a failure to do things that were done well on The West Wing.
Maybe that’s because the worthy experiment of echoing real-world news back to us a year and change after we lived it is fatally flawed. Maybe it’s harder to mine full-throated drama out of events that we’ve already processed, especially when they’re served up in almost exactly the same way that we got them the first time around. Maybe it’s too difficult to make people calling sources and sending emails thrilling.
But if those challenges can be overcome, the series has to step it up when it comes to these three elements to create something more robust. If the challenges can’t be overcome, it needs to do so even more in order to distract us long enough to forget that the center cannot hold. The show gets a lot of the small things right – the banter, the slapstick, the heart-hammering – but without the big stuff, it’s hard to truly care about the characters telling us old news.