There’s a wonderful song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (in Jeff Buckley’s words, the ‘Pakistani Elvis’) called ‘Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai’. The song compares the ‘mild intoxication’ of the early stages of being in love to that of being a couple of glasses of wine deep. It’s a beautiful sentiment and it’s one that struck me while recently re-watching Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. Or well, the first season. The early stages of the show are sort of wonderful, just like the early stages of said relationship. It’s full of great moments, like when Will rings MacKenzie to tell him that he’s “in” when it comes to ‘doing the news’ as opposed to framing events the way most ‘normal’ stations do it or when they get the Gabrielle Giffords story right. It is revisionist, but it’s also exhilarating in a way (at first): ‘they’re doing the NEWS’, you tell yourself, ignoring the problematic nature of what is happening. Mid-way through the first season the issues start to creep in: every episode begins to follow the same pattern, the smugness oozing off the screen. But it’s so charming, surely everything will be okay?
The things that many people criticise Sorkin for: the preachy nature of the storytelling, the contrived dialogue, the faux-intellectualism are all enjoyable at first – either through moderation or just the freshness of it all in the new setting with new people speaking his words. The characters are even somewhat likeable, ridiculous as this sounds in hindsight and the early stages of Jim and Maggie’s incredibly drawn out, flat-out painful love affair are really not so bad. As the first season goes on Sorkin sets about doing what he arguably does best: making the audience absolutely loathe each and every one of his characters. Will becomes increasingly overbearing, almost revelling in his awful attitude to people while he is infuriatingly shown to have a ‘heart of gold’ beneath it all at each and every turn (usually by throwing money at things/people).
Everyone is complicit in letting Sloan off the hook for horrifically attacking a Tokyo Power Company representative on air and bringing up comments he made off the record. By the time the first season comes to a close the ‘mild intoxication’ is starting to become overbearing. It’s more like the feeling after ten cans of cheap beer than a couple of casual glasses of red wine. Egomania is well and truly running wild as they’re just oh-so-much-better than everyone else and Will, incredibly, gets away with being high out of his mind on-air while breaking one of the most important news stories of the decade (Bin Laden’s assassination, which they of course knew about before everyone else except The Rock).
Season Two revises the structure entirely but somehow ends up getting worse. It shifts the focus from ‘the news’ to The Newsroom’s characters and their development, which would be great if their storylines were not awful. Jim and Maggie’s will-they-won’t-they staggers on and within a few episodes it is hard to not wish for them both to just go away forever. Will and MacKenzie’s, meanwhile, also interesting at first (Mac cheated on Will with her ex-boyfriend three years before the start of the show, doing so made her realise she truly loved Will and has been punishing herself ever since) is so glaringly obvious that by the time they do finally get back together at the end of the season it comes across as an anti-climax. After the opening half of the first season, pretty much all of the tension between them is deflated and replaced with empathy. It, at the very least, makes sense but it just isn’t very interesting television.
Meanwhile, the show’s two major arcs go literally nowhere. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Maggie has been traumatised by an event in Africa where she fails to save a young boy from gunmen attacking the hostel. She gets drunk for a while, shaves her head and by the time the third season rolls around everything’s pretty much Kool & the Gang with her again. Elsewhere, the other story that we waste about 10 episodes on – an NSA whistle-blower wanting to leak to the station – ends when Charlie, the station’s boss, decides they cannot run the story and the man doing the leaking decides to bloody kill himself. In a brief, brief moment of clarity Will and Charlie decide to resign but then decide to take it back but then the network was never going to accept it anyway. The relationship is now going entirely off the rails, “I’m done” you tell yourself. The Newsroom is just too selfish and too full of its own shit to stay with any longer.
The show’s truncated third season was prefaced by Sorkin claiming he had only now finally figured out how to write the show, six episodes from its completion. “I can change”, he says, and like a fool after a rousing first episode you believe him. The self-awareness of the early moments of the season as they are too gun shy to report the Boston Bombings properly (in stark contrast to the same mentality was used to show how much better they are then everyone else in the case of the Gifford’s shooting) is perhaps even more hurtful because it’s clear that Sorkin is capable of it but can’t help himself – drunk out of his mind, almost revelling in his own hubris as it all comes crashing down in the final few episodes.
His high-minded views on new media are rammed down your throat and the second last episode about a college rape victim is one of the most offensive things to have ever aired on television. Don (up until this point one of the few characters to have been quite likeable) horrifically informs the woman, Mary, that even though he believes her story, that the guy who did it is a scumbag and it is almost certain she is telling the truth that he will not put her on the air both for her own protection and because without a conviction it is just not right to sully someone’s reputation like this on the off-chance they’re wrong. To add insult to insult to injury Don returns back to the newsroom and tells his superiors that he could not find Mary, taking the decision out of everyone’s hands but his own. There is a sense of relief attached to this as opposed to the disappointment attached usually attached to a television show; one simply cannot wait to see The Newsroom end. It simply wasn’t working.
The show finally limps to a close with the ridiculous death and funeral of Charlie, equally preposterous flashbacks to him masterminding the events of the show’s run ahead of time (we’re now into some sort of back and forward facing revisionism, for those keeping track) and the neat wrapping up of everyone’s relationships (Will & Mac, about to have a child, Jim & Maggie finally together and Don & Sloan living happily ever after). There’s lots more to the story of The Newsroom but like a three year relationship that was pretty much terrible for two and a half of those years it probably isn’t worth going into. All it really brings back up is disappointment, anger and bitterness about something that could have been so much different.