As someone in England watching The Newsroom for the first time, it’s hard not to be reminded of Drop The Dead Donkey, the British sitcom about a newsroom, which used real-life stories as the topics for its coverage. But there’s a few big differences between Aaron Sorkin‘s latest TV show and that one, even on the basis of just one episode’s viewing.
Drop The Dead Donkey was filmed in a very unusual way for a scripted TV show, because it was done in the week leading up to broadcast, allowing time for very topical jokes and references to be added in, making it almost as up-to-date as the real news, whereas Sorkin has allowed himself a couple of years lead-in time for his references, with the first episode Because We Decided To covering the BP oil spill from 2010. Why? Well, it’s been suggested that it’s because he wants to know how things turned out before deciding what side his heroes should fall on.
That was never a problem for the characters in DDTD because they weren’t meant to represent anything wholesome or worthy, because they were in a British TV sitcom; we didn’t need to actually like them, they just had to make us laugh. But right from the off, The Newsroom is obsessed with the potential virtue of a Great America, with Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy getting himself in trouble by uttering the blasphemy that, gasp, America isn’t the greatest country in the world. Imagine Jeremy Paxman saying something like that about Great Britain, no-one would bat an eyelid.
But McAvoy and his new team, headed up by his ex-girlfriend Emily Mortimer, want to improve America by improving the quality of its news programmes. For too long, he’s been timidly toeing the line and not upsetting anyone, but MacKenzie McHale (Mortimer, and the candidate for ‘worst-named TV character ever) is sick of it. It’s a familiar theme from Sorkin’s The West Wing, where there were often phrases like ‘let’s raise the standard of conversation in America’ bandied about, referencing his own dismay at a world that doesn’t take serious things seriously enough.
If West Wing was his liberal antidote to the Bush years, then The Newsroom is doing the same thing for television, though it’s not been well-received by critics so far. It doesn’t help that so much of it is very familiar, particularly to anyone who’s seen one of those Sorkinisms videos on YouTube. Plus, the plot device of a character having to work with an ex-girlfriend has been done in The West Wing (Josh and Mandy) and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (Matt and Harriet), so it’s a little disheartening to see him do it again, while quirky-but-with-hidden-depths Maggie could be any number of similar female characters from his shows. At the end, when Will finally gets her name right, it’s Bartlet and Charlie’s first day all over again.
But, while The Newsroom may be an overly-familiar, overly-patriotic, overly-slick slice of Sorkinese television, it’s also got a lot going for it, and it’s interesting to see what he will do with the freedom of an HBO show, beyond throwing in the odd swearword here and there. There’s enough quality on and off-screen to make it good, and Aaron Sorkin is still the man who wrote some of the best television ever made during his years on The West Wing. So I’m giving it a chance, even if I’ll be yearning occasionally for some wonderful British cynicism. Maybe Mortimer or Dev Patel can oblige…