Friday, 13 July 2012

The Newsroom (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

Now here's a thing for a supposedly avid TV watcher to admit: I've never seen an episode of The West Wing. Not even five minutes, in the background, while I'm waiting for the kettle to boil.

But, of course, I'm fully aware of the status of Aaron Sorkin. I was even lucky enough to see him interviewed at the BFI alongside a screening of The Social Network, which was a bravura piece of screenwriting that deserved the Bafta and Oscar it won.

So, like a lot of people, I was looking forward to The Newsroom, his new series about the crisis facing US TV journalism in recent years. (The opener is set in 2010, as the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, er, came to the surface.)

It stars Jeff Daniels as Will McEvoy, an anodyne news anchor who flips out at a student journalism event when asked why the US is the best country in the world. 

“It isn't” is his shock reply, and he goes on to reel off a litany of poor social indicators and reminisce how the nation was a much healthier place when it had better news coverage. “It isn't. But it could be.”

His outburst makes him persona non grata at his network, and most of his production team follow his executive producer to another gig. His big hope is the new producer parachuted onto his show: veteran war reporter - and, apparently, Will's former lover - Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer).

However, while her dramatic role as Will's potential saviour is pretty clear, a lot about Mackenzie's character just doesn't add up. Everything about her, from her name to her stirring patriotism, is American, but for some reason she's played by a plummy British actress.

And while Jeff's boss (Sam Waterson) also says that she's burnt out after spending too much time in warzones and just wants a quiet life, she seems pretty fresh and breezy by the time she arrives in the newsroom.

While the first episode was full of Sorkin's trademark ping-pong dialogue, it felt very static and linear; there was little in the way of visual storytelling or the structural mastery that made The Social Network so compelling. It could have played just as well on the radio without losing much.

That characteristic tiki-taka chatter itself was problematic. While it's undoubtedly pleasing to encounter characters who are smarter than us (Steven Moffat has made a fortune from it), it gets a bit tiring when every statement is instantly met with what sounds like the zingiest thing the respondent could possibly say.

A lot of it was also totally on-the-nose (characters saying exactly what they mean) and often felt shoehorned in to make a point – such as the moment when Mackenzie turns back from the office door and launches into an unprompted oration to remind Will why it's important that the US has a politically literate electorate.

There's clearly an interesting discussion to be had about the fact that people can now immerse themselves in news coverage that just reinforces their own beliefs without cross-examining them at all.

Will claims in the episode that the US is the most polarised it's ever been, and it's probably the same over here, epitomised by the identical, unquestioning, blank-eyed certainty of the Guardian and the Daily Mail – like the two factions of Lilliputians arguing in Gulliver's Travels about which end to open their eggs.

However, Sorkin's apparent yearning back to a pre-multichannel, pre-Internet age when a broadcaster like Walter Cronkite could convincingly claim to speak to and for a nation seems a little redundant.

There was enough craft in the opener to make me want to tune in again, but I hope the series finds a bit more drama and imagination once it shakes off its pilot and – hopefully – hits its stride.

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