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Law Review: The Newsroom, Season 2

Submitted by on September 17 – 2013No Comment

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Welcome back, Law Review fans.  In this school year’s first installment, we take a look back at Season Two of The Newsroom, HBO’s dramatic series about the cable news business.

Season Two began with reason for cautious optimism, because the show scrapped its old opening credits sequence.  The first season had kicked off each episode with an homage to Twentieth Century television news, which only highlighted The Newsroom’s blindness to the lesson that Kent Brockman and Ron Burgundy taught us years ago: an anchorman’s job was always kind of silly.  Its only essential skill is reading aloud.  As Will Ferrell’s 2003 film also implied, the age of the influential anchorman is gone.  And good riddance to him, because listening to one man (and they remain mostly men) talk for forty minutes is an awful way to learn about the world around you.  This applies especially to the anchormen who proudly involve themselves in the editorial process.  As surely as power corrupts, a nightly international pulpit leads to demagoguery.

The anchorman’s dim light recedes as more people read the news, aloud or quietly, to themselves.  But rather than celebrate this, The Newsroom portrays the fall of the anchorman as an epic challenge for the “media elite” of Atlantis Cable News.  Jeff Daniels’s star anchorman Will McAvoy repeatedly compares himself to Don Quixote in his quest to “civilize” the news business.  To the extent that McAvoy gives voice to writer/creator Aaron Sorkin’s worldview, he must be particularly galling to Republicans.  Sorkin had the chutzpah to create a television program starring an imaginary Republican who agrees with him.  In Season One, when McAvoy sat upon his soapbox and renounced his party, he became Sorkin’s un-ironic version of Stephen Colbert’s black friend.

The opening of Season Two, however, signaled a few significant changes.  Banal images of New York City and media workers replaced the old opening montage.  The show also departed somewhat from the first season’s consistent political tack.  Viewers of Sorkin’s previous success, The West Wing, might have seen this coming.  After The West Wing spent much of its first season scoring lay-ups for Democrats, Sorkin introduced a few sympathetic Republican cheerleaders.  Sadly, The Newsroom has not yet met its Ainsley Hayes.  Instead, McAvoy heaped disdain on Occupy Wall Street.

Season Two’s treatment of the 2011 encampment phenomenon may annoy Democrats as much as Season One riled Republicans, although Democrats’ problems with The Newsroom go back further.  Journalists have chafed not only at Sorkin’s sanctimony, but also the inaccuracy of his pseudo-historical portrayal of their profession.  A rotating panel of journalists have joined Slate Magazine’s David Weigel in a weekly column of outrage after every episode, even rising repeatedly to defend the Romney campaign after The Newsroom depicted fictional Romney staffers taking unrealistic cheap shots at reporters.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about The Newsroom’s lack of intelligent debate is the fact that you don’t need to be an Occupier (Occupant?) or Tea Partier to articulate a sensible defense of their roles in the political discourse.  Despite its lack of focus, Occupy Wall Street should remind people that a large and diverse group of Americans had their lives permanently dislocated in the last years of the 2000s, and imposing themselves on public spaces is a pretty good way to ensure that we keep them in mind when making decisions that affect their welfare.  Despite its excess of focus, the Tea Party should remind you that the people who founded America overthrew their government rather than submit to lower taxes than those currently in effect.  That wasn’t so hard.  So what’s Sorkin’s problem?

Sorkin doesn’t have a problem.  His viewers do.  Their problem is remembering what Aaron Sorkin is, and what he is not.  He is an artist with a knack for the “sound of intelligence.”  He can express the feelings of his characters with skill (although several reviewers convincingly argue that he has a problem depicting women), but he falls on his face most often while trying to approximate their thoughts.  As Sorkin once admitted to NPR, “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other.  I’m not one of them.  The characters I create would have no use for me.”  Cynics might charge him with false modesty there, but the self-critique is spot-on.  It is also self-fulfilling.  A Sorkin character would know that “phonetically create the sound of” is redundant.

The West Wing succeeded, as all great television programs do, when it introduced the audience to a world about which they knew little.  When its characters debated the real topics of the day, their dialogue became awkward, even embarrassing.  Likewise, The Social Network is an excellent film, but its strong dramatic irony arose in no small part because Sorkin made up the relationship failure of his fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg. 

This is why the The Newsroom‘s most unique feature, its depiction of real-world recent history, is one of its greatest weaknesses.  It’s characters debate the news too much and cover it too little, although Season Two devoted slightly more screen time to the latter than Season One.  The sad paradox is that the staff of ACN would know what is wrong with The Newsroom.  They would be among the swelling ranks of journalists condemning the show.  In the beginning of Season One, Emily Mortimer’s executive producer character laid out the guiding questions for good journalism.  One of these asks, “Is this the best possible version of the argument?”  That version is what The Newsroom consistently fails to deliver.  This might be because Sorkin can’t help setting up partisan arguments against straw men, but there is a good chance that he really doesn’t know any better.  An unintentionally ironic Season Two moment illustrates this.  McAvoy turns down an OWS activist who wants to air her economic views on his program, telling her, “You’re not qualified to talk about those things on our show.”  When The Newsroom fails, it is because Aaron Sorkin is not qualified to comment on the great issues of the day.

But why should that matter?  Smart viewers ought to know that a nightly newscast is a terrible source of information, and a fictional drama about such a newscast is doubly so.  If you can learn to stop worrying and love the schmaltz, you might enjoy The Newsroom‘s charming aspects.  Dev Patel and Olivia Munn give outstanding performances.  Fortunately, both saw their screen time increase in Season Two.  Even more fortunate, this happened at the expense of Allison Pill and John Gallagher, Jr.’s hopeless romantics.  Sam Waterston is brilliant, as always.  Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer struggle to deliver their usual high-quality performances while expressing Sorkin’s id.  Thankfully, they still get a chance to shine whenever they play reporters instead of pundits.

Season Two should have piqued the interest of readers of this column, where lawyers in popular culture get more than a quick look, if not strict scrutiny.  The season consisted mostly of interviews incident to a lawsuit, and the first episode began with a sophomoric attempt at a legal pun.  Quoting Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II without relevance or (gasp!) citation, Episode One introduced itself with the title card, “First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers.”  Not to be outdone, Episode Ten sent the ACN staff hurtling toward a third season that might very well include a knock-down, drag-out federal lawsuit.

Perhaps that is good news, and not just because your humble columnist appreciates courtroom drama.  If we know one thing about Aaron Sorkin, it’s that the man knows a thing or two about depicting a cross-examination.

The Newsroom also stars Thomas Sadoski.  Season Two consisted of ten hour-long episodes.  It will appeal to fans of Good Night, and Good Luck and Countdown with Keith Olbermann.  It will probably disappoint fans of Network and The West Wing.

–Austin Murnane, Entertainment Columnist


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