It’s Not… But It Can Be: Breaking The Newsroom
Last night, at approximately 10/9 Central Standard Time on the AMC network an episode of the highly acclaimed series Breaking Bad went to air and early reports say that it was one of the season’s weakest, crippled by contrivances and forced, flawed logic. The episode, which sources say was titled Say My Name, simply didn’t live up to the standards that the show had set for itself; when a show is ‘highly acclaimed’ people expect perfection and anything less is seen as a let down. The show then was good, just not good enough.
A second show aired at the same time of the same night that people generally liked less, but were in turn less incensed by: the True Blood finale. Now, no named sources have come out to say that they thought this episode was in any way ‘better’ than Breaking Bad, but it was better than many expected it to be, better than the standard that it had set for itself. Admittedly, the show is schlock, porn with marginally more plot but it hit these posts even if it missed all the meaningful markers by a mile and so it was seen as something of a success by critics and consumers alike.
This brings me to our top story, the third show of the night (Sunday schedules, amiright?) which qualitatively would sit in the middle, equidistant from the high’s of Heisenberg and the lows of Louisiana, if I had the budget for a graph or graphic to show as much and yet this one was the most maligned program of the night and perhaps will be the show that racks up the most criticism of this season and perhaps this year. I talk of course about A Better Fool, the Newsroom finale. It was and has been ‘hated’ throughout its debut season and it seems to me unfairly so. That it was never aloud to set its own standard and instead had one set for it, set far higher than it could ever hope to hit. Newsroom then was destined to failure, and maybe even built for it.
While the opening credits of The Newsroom don’t really do much for me, the over-wrought iron of the instruments perhaps a little much, the two to three seconds of footage that preceded them do: a scratch of static, a whir and then wham ‘HBO’. That logo has been attached so some of the strongest media memories I have and even today, in the networks terrible lull, it means something and it has in its own way contributed to the downfall of the show. We have certain connotations of what an hourlong HBO show will be – dark, dramatic and daring to name a few – and so we all expected that The Newsroom would be those things and not, as it actually is, a broad sweeping network comedy.
Aaron Sorkin is a writer that I love listening to, but his name has garnered a respect that I’m not sure it’s actually due. He too comes with certain expectations – Oscar winner that he is – of class, quality and subtleness that are strange given that the majority of his projects are actually big, blunt and comedic in tone. Billy Wilder is another writer I love that I think is given too much credit for things he was never all that commonly known for; yes he made Double Indemnity but that was an exception in a filmography full of Romantic Comedies. What Sorkin sought to give us with his scripts was witty wordplay, charming conversations and some cheesy moments of mass romance and while these elements are flawed they are still some of the strongest examples on the small screen.
I can’t mention flaws and not go any further. Are all of these romantic scenes broad, basic and sexist? Yes, but then so are nearly all of the films Wilder wrote… screwball is sexist. Does that make it ok? Of course not, but I also don’t see that it stops a funny line from being funny. Are the characters interesting? Hmmm…charismatic yes, complicated no, but then this is the equivalent of a sitcom, not a rival to Mad Men. Do you care about the characters and their conflicts? No, not really. Is this ok? Not at all. Is there a place for this kind of easy, breezy show on HBO? We’ll see when they actually start looking at the ratings during Season Two. Is this the time for such a show? Not at all and yet, because of that answer …maybe.
Just as Vince Gilligan did Scarface Newsroom head-writer Aaron Sorkin has made the influence of Cervante’s Don Quixote on his show quite clear; he even stated that he planned to have each of the main cast members utter the word ‘quixotic’ with or without context during this debut season. Why? Because that term is the best single way to describe what he was creating; for those without English degrees here is a dictionary definition of the word: Exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical: “a vast and quixotic project”. That to me is what The Newsroom has been all season long, a quixotic project; it tries at innocent comedy on a network known for corruption and inspiration in an era known for scoffing at the optimistic.
Will McAvoy, the shows protagonist and perhaps its clearest Quixote, started the season of by speaking about all of yesteryear’s great newsmen; Will looked to them like the Don did Knights of the Dark Ages and with the show in tow he set out to once again start the Renaissance they set in motion. Instead of Jousting though Will wanted to resurrect News, with a capital N: he wanted to bring base facts, intelligent debate, fully researched sources and even the ability to admit mistakes back to the newsroom. Will did so by standing up to blatantly bad guys, showing sassy, screaming women who’s who, screaming over the top of a constant drone of dumb romances and inspiring all around him.
In turn Sorkin sought to inspire us with his show to want these very things ourselves. Many claimed that he was smugly rubbing his superiority in our faces by setting the show in the real world, but to me he was simply doing what all good newsmen do; putting a relatable face on the story. He was recycling these true stories so as to try and show us what the coverage could have been like in an ideal society, just as The West Wing was trying to show us just what a President it could be and not why we should vote for Sorkin come the two-thousand election. This is idealistic yes, but no-one dreams of being a tabloid reporter, setting their sights any lower would simply have inhibited the inspirational quality of the project.
Of course people have even criticized the simplicity of the shows message. Well, being a cynic is easy, Will himself says half of that during Better Fool in one of many moments wherin the show comments on its own ridiculousness and antiquated notions (Sorkin is aware of these pitfalls but see’s them as being besides the point) and being a cynic is especially easy to those of us liberal, elitist leftists who watch HBO and The Daily Show. To us all of the points that the program makes are literally old hat but then we’re the choir and not the target of its preaching; to many these facts are new, they’re news. These people are actually who the show is targeting; as it said in its first episode The Newsroom is trying to sell news to stupid. Would you write off a kids show as unnecessary because you already knew not to judge a book by its cover? (It sort of seems like maybe this message could bear some repeating)
Another thing that Sorkin showed himself to be fully aware of is that the show will likely never have an effect, that he is the Better Fool, for after all Don Quixote he never succeeded in re-birthing chivalry, but they both still had to try. Sure they stumbled on occasion, sure they occasionally looked silly doing it but I still think that trying has to be worth something but even if it isn’t the show still provided me with enough emotions – laughter, shock, sadness and awe – to justify the time spent with it and that’s not something that I can say for the vast majority of shows out there – especially those also set within ‘reality’. You don’t have to leave the show alone, you don’t even have to like it, but please people watch it for what it is and judge it accordingly.