Looking back at season 1 of The Newsroom

Mark looks back over the first outing of Aaron Sorkin's latest TV drama, The Newsroom, due to return for its second series next year...

This feature contains spoilers.

The first season of HBO’s The Newsroom has finished its run on Sky Atlantic, but if you’ve been avidly following the triumphs and misadventures of the ACN team over the last ten weeks, then have no fear; the second season has already been greenlit, and will air in June next year. Showrunner Aaron Sorkin plans to take an even greater hand in writing the scripts, and has hinted that the show will probably cover this November’s US Presidential election race.

In the meantime, it feels like a good point at which to take stock of the first season, which endured vitriolic responses from some critics, and high praise from other quarters. It’s been a little divisive, and in this recap, we’ll be looking back at why that might be, as well as looking ahead to where we’d like to see the characters go in future seasons.

The Newsroom takes place around the production of News Night, a nightly news show on a fictional American cable news network called ACN. While moderating a political debate at a university, the programme’s anchorman, Will McAvoy, (Jeff Daniels) makes an impassioned speech about what has gone wrong with America. 

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In the ensuing controversy, Will’s boss, Charlie Skinner, (Sam Waterston) takes steps to reverse News Night’s downward decline by recruiting a new executive producer, Mackenzie “Mac” McHale (Emily Mortimer). Will and Mac are old flames, and though their working relationship is uneasy at best, the rest of the season follows them in the construction of News Night 2.0, a programme that refuses to chase ratings and tells the news by presenting the information that they feel is essential to the electorate.

Part of Sorkin’s mode of storytelling is to structure the events and the development of the characters and their show around real news stories from the recent past. Let’s hope you only got your news from this first season though, because it took place between April 2010 and August 2011. This use of recent history in the news, with the benefit of hindsight, is often a double-edged sword, but it’s also a realistic window into the newsroom and the people who work there.

Characters vs. slapstick

The Newsroom‘s characters have come in for a lot of flak from the critics, and even to the most ardent fan of the series, it’s not difficult to see why. Crucially, you can chart Sorkin’s awareness of the characters over the course of the season, and this is never more apparent than in the development of the show’s distinctively Sorkin-esque hero, Will McAvoy.  

For the soapbox stance on cable news reporting to work, Sorkin needs a figurehead who is intelligent, but tormented; isolated, but brilliant; and even, at times, very, very American. Sure enough, Will is intelligent and tormented and isolated and brilliant and American, but for the first few episodes of the series, he’s also two other things- a) an arsehole, and b) almost infallible in the hearts and minds of those around him.

Mac constantly insists that he’s a good guy, making little apology for his bullying behaviour and self-righteousness, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. That doesn’t make Will a bad character- it makes him a flawed character, and therefore a compelling character. Had Will been some 21st century actualisation of Ron Burgundy’s reputation all the way through, it would have been so much the worse for the series. But just when Will’s behaviour starts to grate, you get the sixth episode of the season, Bullies. Sorkin explicitly acknowledges and atones for Will’s intellectually domineering ways, and the episode is one of the highlights of the season.

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However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of Sorkin’s characters are immune to poor characterisation, or apparently oblivious corruption for the sake of a laugh. The other great big criticism levelled at this first season is its depiction of female characters, amongst whom are three principals- as well as Mac, there’s Alison Pill’s Maggie and Olivia Munn’s Sloan, and they’re all far more fallible to the show’s more egregious foibles than the men.

In particular, we’re asked to believe that Mac is an executive producer with years of experience and a huge amount of respect in the industry, who has somehow gotten this far without learning how to send an e-mail to one person instead of an entire company, as per her far-fetched fuck-up in episode two.

For all of her inspiration in News Night 2.0, it’s sometimes made to feel like her only contribution is to be really enthusiastic, and Mortimer deserved better for the performance she gives. We’re not meant to presume that Sorkin has room for improvement, but the first point of order in season two should be making sure that Mac never, even for a second, feels like the show’s mascot, as she did more than once during the first run. 

The character of Sloan is better handled, but it’s almost like it would be alien to have a woman who is both intelligent and well-adjusted, even though her social awkwardness is largely well done and very well performed by Munn. Maggie, as far as I can tell, seems like the show’s answer to Jane Craig from James L. Brooks’ classic workplace rom-com, Broadcast News, but with a default to the love triangle aspect as her main characteristic.

When paired with Mac’s producer, Jim, (John Gallagher Jr.) the romantic thread became more like that of Tim/Jim and Dawn/Pam (delete as appropriate) in The Office, with Maggie’s boyfriend Don (Jonathan Sadowski) in much more of a supporting role, a la Pam/Dawn’s fiance. Aside from that, Maggie was often making such silly errors as mistaking Georgia, the US state, for Georgia, the country.

That one might have sailed, if not for the insult that’s added to injury, that a girl her age apparently mistook LOL for “Lots Of Love” when sending a condolence card from work – that one feels unbelievable, and is also a mean-spirited stretch for a way to diminish Maggie’s intelligence. By comparison, a naïve belief in Bigfoot, which forms a running gag for British blogger Neal, (Dev Patel) is far softer, as compared to the far broader inconsistences in the female characters’ respective aptitudes.

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On a sidenote to the slapstick, the best character in the series is the old-school boss, Charlie, who’s basically poised as the news team’s Professor Dumbledore. Whether he’s being a hard-ass, (“I am a Marine and I will beat the shit out of you…!”) or acting as a benevolent guardian of the new News Night mission, or getting confused by Dark Knight-related analogies, his characterisation is consistent, and Waterston is a formidable supporting actor – although awards recognition doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, it would be wonderful to see him get the kudos he deserves for his work here. 

Best of all, he’s immune to the all-pervading slapstick moments. A lot of the incongruous pratfalls went on between and around Jim and Maggie, although it wasn’t exclusive to them, or even to the occasionally underwritten female characters. Given how there are actual references to Broadcast News in the dialogue, it’s not hard to imagine that Sorkin was aiming for that with the comedy, but at its most jarring, it only seemed like a hop and a skip away from Anchorman.

But through all of the glass door face-plants, flip-chart collisions and difficult trousers, The Newsroom is still striving to make a serious point seriously, as Sorkin is so fond of doing in his scripts. His writing shows off that confidence of someone who is aware and conscious of what he’s doing, and he doesn’t give a hoot about what you think of that. The characters even make a potentially patronising mission statement…

Speak truth to stupid 

Few could argue that the first season was untimely in its more satirically exasperated moments. In episode two, Sorkin gives Will one of this writer’s favourite pieces of dialogue from the entire season, in response to the fundamental issue with the supposedly “fair and balanced” mentality of American news media:-

“Bias toward fairness means that if the entire Republican Congressional caucus were to walk into the House and introduce a resolution that said the Earth was flat, The Times would lead with “Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on shape of Earth.” 

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By casting Will as a registered Republican (these words, or a combination of them, are spoken twice an episode, on average) who believes his party has been hijacked by the rhetoric and bile spewed by the Tea Party, Sorkin avoids easy criticism about being a lefty Hollywood writer, and vocalises the frustration of Republicans who are not necessarily more moderate, and rather less hysterically stupid.

To this end, the scripts can always find time to bash Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, amongst others, for derailing any kind of rational opposition to Barack Obama. The problem, as Will and Mac see it, is that the idiocy of the candidates is causing cable news media to lower its standards too.

Towards the end of the season, in the two-part story The Blackout, News Night hopes to acquire coverage of the Republican candidate primary debates, in order to re-establish a standard. Their much-mooted new debate format is actually about asking candidates straight questions, and picking them up on it when they refuse to answer. When this format is piloted, it seems most unorthodox to Tate Brady, a Tea Party stooge who lambastes the News Night team for their hubris.

He’s not the only one who reacts negatively to Will, who also starts receiving death threats on his blog’s comment section. After his Oscar-winning script for The Social Network, it still seems like Sorkin views the Internet as a tool for anonymous character assassinations, divorced from consequences, and he makes it literal in a minor sub-plot that actually opens up in the finale, rather than resolving. Still, it’s good that Terry Crews got an unexpected recurring role as Will’s bodyguard out of this sub-plot. 

However, all of this is intended to encapsulate the apparent futility of News Night 2.0’s mission, while also emphasising why it’s just as important as the characters keep shouting about. When you can see a lot in common between the problems in the series and the problems in real-life contemporary American politics and media, it’s easier to root for the characters. And if it ever feels like you’re being battered with Tea Party criticism, then the impeccably argued “American Taliban” smackdown in the season finale makes a worthy punchline.

The side effect of this commitment to truth, justice and the American way is that Sorkin imbues his news team with an almost preternatural ability to find the right response to any news story, at the time that it’s actually breaking to them. The BP oil spill is their top story, while every other station is covering a new iPhone prototype. They won’t waste time on frivolities like Anthony Weiner’s tweeted penis. And they also refuse to declare US Representative Gabrielle Giffords dead, which paradoxically turns out to be a season low.

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Telling and re-telling the story

As mentioned, Sorkin’s use of events in recent history are used to tell the story of these characters on their mission to civilise cable news, but it also gives The Newsroom a responsibility to re-tell those stories, and how they might have unfolded for any cable news team when they initially broke. It is arguably with varying degrees of success that Sorkin and his writers have re-told that process dramatically and emotionally.

For yours truly, the ending of episode four was the low-point of this otherwise sound idea. The News Night team report the 2011 Tucson shooting, in which Rep. Giffords was shot in the head, and are faced with a quandary when other networks start reporting that she has died from her wounds. Without confirmation from her doctors, the team are pressured by everyone, especially James Murdoch-surrogate Reese Lansing (played by Chris Messina) to call it along with the rest. 

Their refusal to follow the other networks is vindicated when she’s declared to be in stable condition, and it suddenly becomes their triumph. It’s almost as if Will McAvoy himself rescued her from the gates of Hell, simply by doing the job everyone else should have, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that this moment is contrasted against the fact that six people did actually die, and eleven others were injured, as well as Rep. Giffords – while News Night is celebrating its unity as a group. 

But even if you don’t have a problem with all of that, just remember that it’s soundtracked by Coldplay’s Fix You, a song for which the whole episode is named. It’s little more than cloying, and it’s not because the song is bad, or even because you can’t use soundtracks to evoke feeling – the season finale has a brilliant sequence set to Baba O’Riley, but crucially, it doesn’t involve a real-life tragedy.

On the whole, this emphasis is only to illuminate a momentary lapse in tact, because the use of real news stories also led to the first season’s finest hour, covering the death of Bin Laden in the seventh episode. Titled 5/1, the episode portrays the characters as a part of the anticipation of and reaction to the success of Operation Neptune Spear on May 1st 2011.

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It’s an episode where everything comes together- the News Night team are having a party when Charlie gets an anonymous early tip about President Obama’s address to the nation. Will is particularly unprepared, as he’s high on marijuana at the party, which, despite an all-too-obvious confusion of “Obama” and “Osama”, leads to some of the most well-judged comedy in the whole season.

Elsewhere, while everyone has guessed at the truth with their news-reporting superpowers, drawn from the red sun of Sorkin’s hindsight, the episode takes as much time with their attempts to confirm the news as it does with their reactions to the death of the man behind 9/11. The latter is believable, and doesn’t revel in any sense of vengeance, while the former is as engaging and dramatic as the team’s news-gathering process has ever been. 

The conflicting representations of the death of Bin Laden and the Tucson shooting exhibit how Sorkin’s use of real news events from the past 18 months have been a double-edged sword for the series. What tips it towards success is the use of the phone hacking controversy as a season arc – a current issue that is inextricably related to the kind of mission that Sorkin wants his characters to undertake.

From early in the season, ACN boss Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) orders Charlie to get Will off the backs of Tea Party members, many of whom have business ties to the network. Seeing as how she’s never going to be won over, Charlie’s anonymous tipster in 5/1 becomes an agent who can provide leverage over the Lansings, by proving that they’re “in the same business as The News Of The World.”

The season finale, The Greater Fool, resolves that thread on slightly shaky terms – while Leona has grounds to fire Will, for being high on the night that the Bin Laden story broke, her knowledge of that can only serve as proof that ACN has been hacking Mac’s voicemail. It doesn’t feel like a stalemate as much as a temporary reprieve for News Night 2.0, but then, along with the death threats against Will, there has to be something left open for season two. 

And finally…

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While The Newsroom is still better produced and acted than many shows on TV right now, the heady mix of shouted political cogitation with frequent “last minute dash to the airport” moments sometimes made the first season seem less like Broadcast News, and more like Network, if it were written by Richard Curtis. 

I like Network, and I like Richard Curtis, but the combination of those two parallels veers wildly between intoxicating involvement and nauseating preachiness. Still, there’s definitely enough here to carry you through the first ten episodes, and to get you excited about the future. Speaking of which, there are certain expectations for the second season that can be drawn from the first run. 

Aside from the conflict with Leona and the ongoing death threats against Will, we’d hope for some more development of Neal and Mac, and some characterisation of Maggie, Jim and Don outside of their love lives. But in terms of news stories, while coverage of the 2012 presidential election is inevitable, we can only pray that the show has developed enough that we don’t get an episode about Aurora that errs too closely to the treatment of Tucson. 

On the whole, Aaron Sorkin hopes for a tormented, intelligent, isolated, brilliant American like Will McAvoy to be the greater fool – a person who makes a questionable investment in order to go onto greater things. Looking at this mixed first season, although it’s easier to align a character with that theory, or even Sorkin himself, The Newsroom may get past some of its teething troubles in future seasons and create something as consistently good as the best moments of the original run.

The Newsroom begins filming its second series this November, due to air in June 2013.

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