Reviewing the First Half of The Newsroom

By Charlie Harwood on Jul 25, 2012 to The Newsroom

With five episodes now in the books, HBO’s newest drama The Newsroom has reached the half way mark in its premiere season. So far, Aaron Sorkin has managed to captivate viewers with his accurate depiction of the day-to-day activities inside a corporate newsroom, and the show has received an overwhelming amount of support from fans. However, there’s a very good reason why I’ve waited until now to write my first review. Before the series premiere, a number of very reputable television critics received screeners of the first four episodes; and most of them weren’t at all impressed with Sorkin’s new project. In fact, they made it sound like the show was a complete and utter failure. However, HBOWatch’s own editor-in-chief, Jacob Klein, saw an early premiere of the first episode and loved it. So, being a person who likes to form my own opinions, I wanted to first watch the episodes these negative reviews were based on before making my decision. Now that I’ve seen them, I can say that there are certain aspects that could make this show great and a possible second coming of The West Wing. But, just as I feared, the critics were right in regards to the poor character introductions, its misogynistic nature, and Sorkin’s obvious political agenda.

The series starts out with a monologue, in which Will McAvoy answers the question “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” While the rant was indeed impactful and reminiscent of Peter Finch’s “mad as hell” speech from 1972’s The Network, it did more than just wow audiences with impressive statistics and witty humor towards sorority girls. What the monologue provided was a springboard for which the show could launch from. First off, it showed Will is deeply concerned with the underlying problems with American society and desperately wants the news to be more informative with these issues. Basically, this is what the entire premise for The Newsroom is about – Will leading his team to deliver a nightly news program with integrity. Secondly, the rant proved that Will is strong rooted in his own beliefs and really doesn’t care what people think about him. This idea comes up over and over again throughout the show as he insults various people (mostly women) without any sense of remorse. While this scene was a great introduction to the series, and the rest of the pilot was just as good, the show started to take a downward spiral with episode two.

The first problem I had with the show, and this actually started with the pilot, was that Sorkin used recent events to tell how the news should have been reported. This started with the BP oil spill, and then went on to include the Tea Party Movement, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the “Arab Spring” from 2011. Honestly, this was an unpleasant surprise. It makes me feel like Aaron Sorkin wasn’t creative enough to invent his own stories, which I know isn’t true. So, what’s the purpose? I think most Americans already know how poorly mainstream news is reported these days. There’s always a certain corporate or political influence involved, but these stories have seemingly irked Sorkin to the point where he has to use the show to express his own anger. Taking jabs at conservatives in every episode only adds to the idea that there are some strong political statements he wants to make, and somehow I feel like there’s another show on HBO that criticizes conservatives on a weekly basis. Oh yea, it’s called Real Time with Bill Maher.

The Newsroom’s treatment of women continues to be a big criticism, and I would have to agree with it. The show features some very strong women, but portrays them as dim-witted bimbos or villainous witches. The brilliant producer Mackenzie seems to know everything about delivering an excellent news program, but has trouble sending an e-mail and has to be tutored on basic economic theory. It’s surprising that a woman of her talent level wouldn’t know a thing or two about the Glass-Steagall Act, or how e-mail works. Alison Pill’s character Maggie is equally dumb. She too proves to be a worthy member of the newsroom staff, but her relationship issues and clumsy behavior makes it hard to root for the character. Additionally, Certain women have served as villains on the show, mostly in the form of gossip columnists who Will refers to as “not real journalists”. The idea that these women are vindictive and only out to humiliate celebrities through gossip isn’t reasonable. It only further discriminates against the  female characters and Will always manages to come out on top looking like the good guy.

The last big issue I have with The Newsroom that character introductions have seemed forced throughout the first four episodes. While the focus on creating a great news program drifted off into the background, the show takes a sudden turn and overwhelms us with the interpersonal relationships between the newsroom staff. Without a sufficient level of character introductions, we are immediately thrown into the love life between Don and Maggie without having enough time to really care about either character. This resulted in a diminished interest in the subplot, and made for pretty boring television. While all these issues seem like major holes in the writing, they are actually very minor issues and can be easily fixed. The good news is that the end of episode four showed just how brilliant The Newsroom can be when it sticks to THE NEWS. The real-life depiction of how a corporate newsroom operates is incredibly entertaining and extremely watchable. Fortunately, this helped the show come out of his downward plunge and Episode 5, “Amen”, continued the drive towards bringing the show back to life.

There are still some minor issues with this episode, but overall it rivals the pilot as the best one yet. The show was finally firing on all cylinders and gave us a small taste as to how great it can be. We still get a little relationship garble, but mainly it’s all about the news. The episode covers the protests in Egypt last year and brings all the characters together in a way that makes them likable, interesting, and imaginative. Everyone is contributing in a productive way – even the women – and we finally start to care about what happens to each character. For example, Neil, who bored me to death with his Bigfoot speech last episode, has come out of his shell and proved to be a valuable asset to the staff. But most of all, the greatest achievement in “Amen” was that it displayed how close the staff members are to one another. Even though they fight and bicker, the staff always comes together to support each other when times get tough. The emotions felt for Elliott, who was beaten up by the Egyptian mob, and Khaled, the inside reporter who was captured by Egyptian rebels, were real and very convincing. The fact that Will paid the ransom for Khaled’s release was a touching gesture and the ensuing “Rudy” scene just as heart-warming. When The Newsroom sticks to the problems faced while reporting the news, it shows signs of brilliance and gives a peek as to how great this series can be.

Overall, episodes 2-4 were very disappointing. However, those who criticized The Newsroom early on should take another look at series because it has now rebounded from those episodes to become a show that is definitely worth watching. From here, it looks like The Newsroom will have a great amount of success during its run at HBO. The ratings have been steady and viewers have been extremely supportive. No one has seen the next four episodes so there’s no telling how the rest of the season will pan out, but it’s almost a certainty that it will keep building upon the success of Episode 5.  The Newsroom still has some kinks to iron out, but it’s only the premiere season. Hopefully Season Two will fix these problems and the series will become another Emmy juggernaut just like The West Wing was.

Here is a Preview for Episode 6, “Bullies”

  • poesie

    Re: the woman question — Yes, the female characters have moments of jaw-dropping stupidity. So do the male characters. So do we all.

    One of the many things I love about Sorkin is the way he let’s dedicated, principled, hyper-intelligent people be real. Humans are ridiculous creatures much of the time. Let us not forget Will falling on his face — in the middle of newsroom itself — because he put both legs into one side of his trousers.

    In my view (and that of my double-PhD-holding, feminist mom), the most heroic character of the whole show is Maggie.

    Ultimately, Sorkin’s shows aren’t about the news, or politics, or late-night comedy; they are about people: the many ways in which we — collectively and individually — screw up and beautiful acrobatics we go through to save ourselves. I think this is why he has chosen to show us actual, recent world events and how they SHOULD have been covered: redemption.

  • Mark

    My girlfriend and I are working professionals who don’t have time for television. The TV, if it is on at all, functions primarily as background noise while we squeeze in a little late Sunday night work e-mail surfing or paperwork. We simply do not have time for the mind-numbing stupidity of popular television.

    However, Newsroom is the only show that we can sit down and actually watch for a sixty minute break from our busy lives. We absolutely love it and make time for every new episode. It’s smart, it’s informative, it’s funny, and it taps in to a moral compass in us that is left starved by all other television.
    I was startled to see that so many critics seem to despise Newsroom and wanted to lend my positive voice to those who enjoy the show.

    As a side note, my girlfriend is a radical feminist and isn’t bothered in the least by the depiction of females in the show.

  • MaryD

    This show has Emmy written all over it .
    At a time when Corporatly owned networks broadcast out of context
    sound bites , spin , gossip and entertainment masquerading as News this show reminds me of how far we drifted away from real reporting .

    • LTheresa

      I totally agree with you, Mary.

    • Danny.G

      I totally agree with MaryD. Nowadays , all the networks spin the news
      including NBC with Romneys’ wife interview. The Newsroom will be a
      great success, no doubt about it, because of Sorkin’s knowhow and the “not your average cast”. Thank you Aaron Sorkin for a great show.
      Keep it up!

  • LTheresa

    Without a doubt, The Newsroom is my favorite show.
    The writing is outstanding and Jeff Daniels is excellent in the lead role.
    As someone that worked in TV for years, I especially enjoy the newsroom operations.
    It’s also refreshing to see a quality program that doesn’t have vampires, over sensationalized violence, or is pseudo reality based.
    Great job Sorkin and HBO!

    • Louise Hoff

      I completely agree with you about the Newsroom. I enjoy every episode and feel that they are addressing the sad state of the news industry and corporate interests. At the same time they are asking questions and reporting the news the way it is supposed to be done.
      I also miss Keith Olberman and think that some of this is about his conflicts with the powers above.

  • I see your point, Jef about not wanting to wait for a show to get better. Honestly I’ve liked every episode so far (though I’m probably the definition of this show’s target audience in a nutshell, watch Bill Maher etc). I can think of a lot of shows who’s first season was just okay and the second + was much better. I don’t regret watching them at all.

    Dont mind the preaching, dont mind the underwhelming women thing (though it would be nice if more were like Olivia Munn’s strong character!) and I’m probably just a sucker for scenes like the congresswoman Gabby Giffords moment.

    My main complaint is when the critics talk about how much they loved West Wing.. THIS SHOW IS THE WEST WING!! Maybe people just don’t remember how the characters were exactly the same, it was preachy as hell and the politics were obvious there too.. but I do!.. and I loved it!

    I think this show will obviously turn off 50% of America and another 20% will find other things they don’t like about it. Which is fine! I’d say 70% of Americans probably have no interest in True Blood, Game of Thrones or even Boardwalk Empire either for whatever reason.

    But if this show can pull in 2-3 million viewers a night, more on finales/premieres and sell some DVDs then HBO isn’t letting it go anywhere. That would make it HBO’s 3rd or 4th most successful show. I’m more worried about Sorkin bailing (as he did on The West Wing) after 2 seasons than I am about HBO stopping the project.

  • Jefd

    I have mixed feelings about THE NEWSROOM. One reason I haven’t written a post about the show myself is because I still, after half the season, don’t know the characters. They are very poorly developed. A show that is blantantly the creator’s political agenda on screen and not a well developed piece is hard to get behind.

    The show also raises the issues for me of time. With all the things I do in my life how long do I waste an hour waiting for a show to get better.? That answer for me, as an HBO fan and HBOWatch contributor, is at least the rest of the season. I will be watching the show, however, on HBOGO on my schedule and not make it Sunday night appointment TV.

    Many a show has been able to improve over time. I hope that THE NEWSROOM is one of those shows.

  • Lisa

    Maybe at some point I will give it another chance but after episodes 2/3 I lost interest and can’t stand how dumb/annoying some of the female characters are. Overall I find this series to be a real disappointment .

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