onsdag 27 juni 2018

The Newsroom post-mortem

I’ve finally watched the final (third) season of The Newsroom, which turned out to be a mere six episodes long. I can’t say I was particularly sorry that the series was cancelled, but cancelling it midway through a season – which appears to be what happened – does seem a bit harsh. If anything, this season annoyed me less and was easier to get through than seasons one and two – I actually found myself mildly looking forward to watching an episode of an evening. On the other hand, that might be because subconsciously I knew that there were only six of them.

Given all my complaining over this series, why did I bother watching it at all? The answer is the script. It’s comforting to see that Aaron Sorkin can still deliver on the wisecrack front. Watching The Newsroom made me curious to see if he’ll create a new TV series anytime soon which might fare better, and I’ll certainly be checking out Molly’s Game. However, in pretty much all other aspects, The Newsroom fell short of The West Wing, which has been its problem all along.

It may seem unfair to keep comparing The Newsroom to The West Wing, but it’s hard to forget the latter series when watching, because you recognise elements in The Newsroom which were also present in The West Wing but worked better there – or if they didn’t work, they didn’t weigh down the quality of the series as a whole in the same way. There was already a tendency to preach in The West Wing, but more often than not it was balanced out by counter-arguments, and what’s more, The West Wing took the opponents of the Bartlet administration seriously and neither demonised nor belittled them (except that one Republican candidate who came across as somewhat dim-witted). The Newsroom doesn’t even present the other side of an argument. Most of the main characters have exactly the same views on the media, American politics and moral questions overall. There is no real debate.

I realise that I may have misconstrued what the series was trying to do by showing what a “good news programme” could be like. I grew up with Swedish news programmes whose brief was to strictly record what was going on in the world, without supplying any particular angle on it. They didn’t always succeed with their objectivity goal, but at least they tried, and any bias shown was subconscious rather than part of an effort to sway public opinion. Any political discussions on Swedish TV are still relegated to specific debating programmes. So this, then, to my mind, was what news should be: to the point, objective, and deadly dull. The Newsroom’s take on good news reporting seems rather to be to push a certain angle on the news in a clever and entertaining way. My spluttering over the obvious bias shown in the process may quite simply be down to cultural differences.

Even so. In this season, we had – among other plot lines – an alarmist story about the world coming to an end because the highest percentage of carbon dioxide on record was measured… on top of a volcano. Seriously? The show flirts with a Snowden-like plot about a government whistle-blower, but this was shut down (because of the cancellation, presumably) in over-quick time with the unexplained suicide of the whistle-blower in question. We never get to know what her agenda was, nor is there much discussion on the pros and cons of government leaks. To me, the last preachy straw was when Neal (high-minded idealist), back from being on the run over the whistle-blower story, berates the guys (couch-potato troll types) who have been managing the news station’s web site in his absence. They were just about to post an item about “the 10 most overrated movies of all time”. Why, Neal asks rhetorically, is this considered more interesting than the 10 most under-rated movies? Um… because it’s funnier? Is Sorkin, who habitually places rants doing down phenomena he has an objection to in the mouths of his characters (the luckless couch-potato troll 1 had already had a dressing-down from Sloan on air in the very same episode), really the right person to lecture us about negativity?

The Newsroom is, incidentally, consistently snobbish about “new media”. I can understand it in a way – some stories you hear about, say, social media getting out of hand are genuinely scary – but the constant idealisation of the “old media” (which traditional TV news programmes are a part of, apparently) does start to grate after a while. There have been ruthless hacks operating and character assassination going on in media circles ever since the printing press was invented.

If the characters in The Newsroom had been as likeable as the main cast in The West Wing, these gripes would probably have mattered less. Watching The Newsroom made me realise how hard it must be to create a top-notch series with a largish set of main characters. It becomes important that you care not only for one or two of them, but for most of the ensemble. But how do you do that? It’s not as if the characters in The Newsroom are disagreeable in any way, and they’re well acted. (Olivia Munn as Sloan is so good it took me a while to realise she isn’t given much to work with personality-wise.) They just never manage to be much more than Sorkin mouth-pieces. Bartlet’s crew were nicely indivualised – supremely competent yet human C.J., glamorous Sam, Eeyore-ish Toby, arrogantly boyish but self-deprecating Josh etc. – and the cast was stellar. They managed to engage my sympathy, in spite of there not being a hot villain in sight.

Even in series where there is a hot villain, like in my favourites Downton Abbey and Once Upon A Time, I much prefer it when I can feel sympathy for most, if not all, of the other characters besides my darling one, and at least not actively begrudge those I don’t like a prospective happy ending. Downton and Once mostly deliver on this score, and at times when I have been out of temper with every character except my villain fancy (which does occasionally happen) it has saddened me. A strong ensemble of recurring characters is a big plus, then. But what the magic formula is for creating one for a TV series beats me.