The West Wing was brilliant. It took until the beginning of the fifth series for the quality to dip somewhere below close to perfection. In the last 3 series it didn’t quite hit the same heights, but got pretty close. There one or two narrative mis-steps, but it remains one of those shows which makes those addicted to it jealous of those about to watch it for the first time. It could take a debate about the American tax system or a foreign policy issue and make it accessible, funny and gripping – all without demeaning the subject matter. That, and all the while you cared about the characters.
The show’s writer – Aaron Sorkin – hasn’t had the same luck with television since. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was cancelled before the first series had finished. He had more success with films – The Social Network and Moneyball were critical and commercial hits. The Newsroom is his latest television effort; a show commissioned and broadcast on HBO, an American channel well known for giving writers creative freedom, and one not afraid of causing offence. The offence could be as a result of politics, language, explicit sex or violence … or anything, really. It’s a network that’s known for not backing down.
So this series is, on one level, typically Sorkin. From the snappy dialogue to the moments of broad comedy to the big themes of the day – it’s all there. It has differences too – more expletives than his other show and central male character who’s a Republican voter. Like Studio 60 or The West Wing it’s about an attempt to rouse back to life a great American institution – in this case, the nightly news show. It asks you to imagine a world, like those other shows, where the leaders of such institutions are driven by high ideals and big vision, not small time concerns.
Where it differs, crucially, is this show exists in the real world. Real news stories break – from a year or two ago – and we watch the decisions made off air which determine how they are reported and understood. Episode one has the BP oil catastrophe off the Louisiana coast; another episode (as already blogged here) the death of Bin Laden; the end of the series has the News International phone hacking scandal. The show had a decidedly mixed reception in the USA; some took against the recent past being made into drama, some didn’t like the way journalists were portrayed, some just didn’t like it. Given that most of those criticising the show were journalists, it’s hard to shake the feeling that their real issue was that the show was turning too stark a light on their profession.
It’s always problematic to mix the small-scale and the large; it’s been a problem confronting writers since drama began. Whether it’s Oedipus or Shakespeare or many others you care to name, there’s a history of playing out personal dramas on the canvass of nations. So for The Newsroom to give us relationship dramas as an environmental crisis looms, or an under-the-influence of drugs presenter as news breaks of Bin Laden’s death, or people running into doors whilst a politician is shot; for Sorkin to give us these, he’s not being trivial, he’s just in a long line of writers doing what writers do. History is made and now broadcast by people with clay feet and fracturing lives; it’s just, of course, that usually we don’t see the cracks.
The show’s problem is that it’s hard to make you care about the dramas of the characters when the real world dramas are so much more all-consuming and vivid for us. So there’s a few too many comedic touches; the tone toys with inconsistency and the balance only really struck true for me as the series ended amidst the phone hacking scandal. There, in the best dramatic traditions, the personal threatened to become the public, and the drama was compelling.
So where are we? Is this show perfect? No. It has a distance to go. Is it better than most other things on TV? Yes. It’s written by a genius, and it’s always worth paying attention to a genius. Here he’s drawing attention to our habit of making easy judgements on those in the public eye whilst turning a blind eye to the same failings in ourselves. Whether that’s Sorkin’s intention or not is, in a sense, a moot point. Sorkin and his characters are never short of an opinion or a judgement; but what as the personal and public collide here, we’re allowed the space to challenge the easy judgements we have of others and the way we are all too often tolerant of similar failings in ourselves.
Really, then, it’s a show about being slow to judge and quick to have mercy. I’d say we need a second series of that. As it’s on HBO, that’s already been decided.