Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Newsroom - HBO TV - Review

The news room is both brilliant and baffling. Brilliant in the way Aaron Sorkin television usually is, informed, layered and with something important to say on not just one, but many issues. It's done in a context that comments on the reasons real news events were treated the way they were and raises incredibly important questions that are grander than those stories themselves. 

But it's also baffling television in that it leans so far to the left while screaming that its roots are on the right of any political debate. Maybe that's the point the show is trying to make. It places itself close to the middle of most issues, a position that was considered a conservative stance until the middle shifted. The Newsroom argues very strongly that the Tea Party movement is to blame for that shift and the shift is harming America.

Will McEvoy is a right wing news anchor and he's on the crest of the populist wave when we meet him. Not yet committed to the full ride on the tsunami sized swell of a dumbed down ideas the media sweeps along in its path, he knows what news should be. He possesses a brilliant intellect, easily capable of narrating and adjudicating debates towards informing and serving, rather than pandering to the masses. He's the voice of the news we all hoped would follow in the footsteps of great men and women gone before. But Will has settled for ratings over content, or at least allowed his network and producers to position him to accept it and he, until this very moment, has gone along for that ride.

At minute one of this superb television drama, we find Will seated between furious left and right wing rivals who lean across him to trade frequently voiced arguments on divisive issues. Will sits passive, letting the familiar rhetoric wash across him until they are all asked by a homespun American type college girl, to answer, in a few words, why America is the greatest country in the world? Will displays his, 'don't offend anyone' stance as he answers in various shades of beige without ever really answering. But when he's forced to declare his hand he finally snaps and declares America is not the greatest country in the world any longer.

It's a stunning opening, backed up with ample facts on how we judge a nation's achievements. Clearly, according to statistics held in Will's head, America is nowhere near where it once was. That's a bold way to start a new series. It's the equivalent of meeting your partner's parents for the first time and telling them their house was probably a nice place to live - once upon a time. But it is Will McEvoy, as a right wing lead, camouflaging a very left wing debate that is likely to create the biggest obstacle to this show reaching the masses it deserves. The liberal bias is hard to miss despite Will and his team continually reminding us they are against increased taxes, government intervention and other populist right mantras. The focus of this show is towards the moderate and in this day and age, sadly, the moderates are now seen as left wing. 

This doesn't take away from the drama in any way, but the balancing act between delivering the message that I believe Sorkin is trying to deliver and being labeled a 'liberal biased' show will be difficult to achieve. If the tag sticks the show will likely be dismissed as leftist propaganda and the incredibly important and timely message underlying this drama will be lost. That message - think. Don't listen and agree, think. Find facts. Source facts. Question sources and data until you know you are dealing with facts that have not been tampered with or spun in any way and then think again about what you've heard. Only then should you make up your own mind about what is at stake and what you should do about it.

I often wonder why watching John Stewart's Daily show is often the most probing investigative journalism into political news and views on any given day. It's easy to say the reasons for this are the interests of the few oligarchs running the media who ensure certain questions don't get asked in the main stream media, but it's more complex than that. It's this complexity Sorkin is trying to take on and investigate as a backdrop to the drama of The Newsroom. Not for the first time we have the creative community shinning a spotlight on issues the mainstream media have purposely left unlit.

Will McEvoy and his team vow to treat viewers as intelligent and give them facts as they happen. Not half truths or conjecture in a bid to be first, but hard facts that are confirmed. They have decided to trust that people will eventually see through the 'entertainment' of news delivered by others and gravitate to their show where all they'll get are the facts surrounding an issue and not the hard sell on how they should feel or think about that issue.

This is fantasy of course. It's television drama. The truth of television is that when ratings drop a show gets chopped and as the movie 'Network' grimly predicted, news is no longer news, but entertainment. Sorkin does a good job to bed the notion in that his team can deliver more and be the envy of others in the field, but it's a sad reality that this is only likely to happen in a fiction.

By the end of the fourth episode the true protagonist in this piece has been given a face - and what a face. Cast perfectly against her historical real world left wing roles, she's the most evil of money grubbing, right wing conservatives - Jane Fonda.

When Will McEvoy stops dancing to the organ grinder's tune, it is Jane Fonda's, Leona Lansing, who outlines the modern MO for assassinating public figures; trap them in a damning moral situation, shame and humiliate them, then remove them and be praised for placing morals over profits. It's a chilling reminder of how often even the facts of a story are not actually the facts. But this is Sorkin's skill as a storyteller. To give us multiple layers of intrigue and complication and to twist them and torment the characters involved. He manages to do this moments after making us love them. 

Played against the big stories as they unfolded across 2010 and 2011, this historical merging of drama and reality will no doubt infuriate the more anal retentive viewers, as dates are mashed together and stretched in order to deliver the wanted news story to the correctly themed episode. (Gun control features as Gabrielle Giffords shooting unfolds, shortly after the BP oil spill begins - factually out by as much as six months.) For those who can suspend their disbelief and enjoy the drama for what it is, the whole thing is a masterful re-working of history, done to examine the media and not the events being reported on.

The casting is terrific with Jeff Daniels leading the ensemble cast and Emily Mortimer as his EP and ex lover. Sam Waterston is understated but all powerful as the head of news.

The rest of the cast combine well and are set to do  what successful ensembles should do, grow slowly over time so the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. As each of the Newsroom's characters gain depth, so will all those around them until the audience can't help but love each and every one. 

Dev Patel from 'Slumdogs' fame is suitably meek and mild as the office tech head. Olivia Munn gets to play with one of the best character on TV in years, a double PHD wielding financial analyst with killer looks. But it is Sorkin's mastery of the frisson of unrequited love that promises to make this show such a joy. I already long for Jim and Maggie to be together, although I know they won't go there easily. I know Will and his EP should be together but their shared baggage prevents them and all around are other couples waiting to declare themselves.

The Newsroom should end up being a huge critical hit. Will it be a rating hit as well? Who knows. It deserves to be, but it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea.

Overall the Newsroom has gone to the top of my weekly 'MUST SEE' list and it gets a solid 4+ stars. I'm hoping the final star will come in future seasons as I'm drawn to love each and every member of this great ensemble drama even more that I do after four episodes.                    

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