TV

The Greater Fool: 9 Reasons Why Everyone Should Love HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’

It’s not a popular sentiment among many — especially the cynics in the critical community — but I love Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, faults and all. You put your heart on your sleeve like Aaron Sorkin does every week, and it sure as hell is going to be knocked off every once in a while by swarming critics looking for flesh. Not that all the complaints are invalid. Yes, it can be sanctimonious from time to time. Yes, Aaron Sorkin frequently has a heavy hand. Yes, he occasionally recycles his own dialogue. And yes, Sorkin himself is kind of a jerk who is very bad at speaking to other people when he’s being recorded. He’s a dick, but so are a lot of really smart people in the television and movie business (see e.g., Dan Harmon). That does not take away, however, from my affection toward his shows.

Look: I love and appreciate television’s current obsession with anti-heroes (although, the tipping point is approaching), but there’s also something to be said for television with a message, even if that message is heavy handed and comes off sounding like a lecture. It feels good to experience something each week as affirming and rousing as The Newsroom. I love Breaking Bad. I love Mad Men and Game of Thrones and Justified, but I also love to feel inspired, and The Newsroom is one of the few shows on television that can do that.

I know what the greater fool is, and I want to be one. Here’s nine reasons why you should be one, too.

Jeff Daniels — Daniels, in real-life, is one of those humble midwestern types (his Dad ran a lumber company in Michigan), and has always kind of been that hard-working blue collar actor who is great in comedies (Dumb and Dumber), B-movies (Arachnophobia) or indies (The Squid in the Whale), but besides Dumb and Dumber, in which Jim Carrey got most of the credit, Daniels has never really had the career-defining role that has allowed audiences to separate him from the quadrifecta: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Jeff Bridges, and Jeff Daniels.

Newsroom has finally given him that role, and you need look no further than his past roles to recognize how different, and how brilliant his portrayal of Will McAvoy is. He brings to that character a heady blend of smugness, self-righteousness, curmudgeonly old-schoolness, and a sweet romanticism that is not only well suited to the show, but makes him a more likable cypher for Aaron Sorkin. Plus, he’s on a mission to civilize, damnit.

“I think people who willfully, purposefully, and gleefully lie to the American people in order to damage someone’s reputation should, like a registered sex offender, be required by law to come with that warning label for the rest of their lives.”

A Much Needed Smug Social Liberal Perspective from a “Republican” — People often complain that there’s no great counterpoint to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and while Keith Olberman held that spot for a time, he became downright intolerable. Now MSNBC is just as bad as Fox News, but without the ratings.

Will McAvoy gets to be the kind of an idealized version of Keith Olbermann, but since the character is also “Republican,” he’s also capable of providing the perspective from the political center. He’s also a very welcome reminder of the Republican party of old: Fiscally responsible, advocates for a smaller government, and less intrusive into the private lives of citizens. In today’s world, McAvoy would be a terrible Republican — he’s obsessed in the show with deriding the Tea Party — but Republicans like him did exist not so long ago. And yes, The Daily Show does a better job at promoting the liberal perspective, but they do so by satirizing of what cable news should not be, while Newsroom does so by example, demonstrating what cable news could be like.

Skewers the Corporate Culture Behind Cable News — Politics aside, Newsroom also deftly demonstrates the difficulties of running a news program on a cable news network owned by a cable conglomerate, and how those conflicts of interest can challenge objectivity and tarnish integrity. When so few companies control so much of the media, different arms of the same company can run afoul of one another very easily, and it’s the reporter’s job to resist the demands of the corporate executives. McAvoy, and his boss, Charlie Skinner, illustrate that tension. The show also presents the challenges entailed in the desires to present hard, investigative, and important news and the need to also turn a profit, two interests that too often collide with one another.

Drunk Waterston — Critics and fans of Newsroom can both at least agree on one thing: Sam Waterston’s Charlie Skinner is OUTSTANDING. He’s drunk. He’s belligerent. And he curses like a motherf*****, and he chews scenery like the goddamn class act he is. Show some respect, son.

Olivia Munn — Likewise, Olivia Munn has been a pleasant surprise on the Newsroom. Here’s a woman many of us dismissed on The Daily Show because he assumed that the show had hired her for her looks rather than her intelligence. I can’t speak to her real-life intelligence, but she’s a great actress, and her character contends with the same issue Munn had to deal with on TDS: Can an incredibly attractive woman be taken seriously as not just a reporter, but a financial reporter. Munn’s Sloan Sabbith does an impeccable job of showing us why her character should be taken seriously: She is a headstrong, intelligent female who takes no sh**. Oh, and don’t call her “girl.”

Romantic Comedy — If a show about the politics of cable news and the ethical dilemmas therein isn’t of interest to you, consider the fact that Aaron Sorkin is on record as saying that Newsroom is really just a romantic comedy set in the offices of a cable news company. I would say that it’s about 30-40 percent of what Newsroom is about, and Sorkin is unafraid of the big, sentimental romantic gesture, which he often approaches with the same heavy hand he approaches the substantive parts of Newsroom with, and while that may not sound like a compliment, to the sappy romantics among us, it is.

Sorkinisms — One of the biggest complaints lobbed against The Newsroom is that Aaron Sorkin recycles many of the situations, plotlines, and even dialogue from his old shows. But consider the fact that David E. Kelley has been recycling the same legal cases for years on his legal dramas. Julian Fellows stole Downton Abbey from his own movie, Gosford Park for God’s sake, and no one complains about that. Steven Spielberg is obsessed with aliens and wistful little boys, and J.J. Abrams is obsessed with stealing from a Spielberg who already steals from himself, and no one devotes nearly as much complaints to that. Sorkin steals from himself, which means he’s stealing from Sports Night and West Wing and The Social Network, so at least Sorkin is borrowing from some of the great all time shows. To see what worked so well in those shows reappear on this show has never been a problem issue for me: It is, in some ways, like an encore to Sorkin’s best lines.

The Wisdom of Hindsight — One of the other major complaints that people have with Newsroom is that, by covering year-old events, Sorkin can smugly approach them with the hindsight necessary to make the right news decisions every single time. That’s true, but it’s also why I love Newsroom: Because Sorkin is offering an example of what the news should at least aspire toward. I don’t think Sorkin is necessarily saying, “This is how I would’ve done it at the time; I think he’s saying, “This is how it should be done.”

Given all the conflicting agendas, it’s impossible to be what The Newsroom represents, but at the very least, it provides a template for the way news should be approached: Being first is not as important as being right. When a human being is shot in the head, it’s a doctor’s job to pronounce her dead, not the jobs of the news, and last year The Newsroom approached the shooting of Gabriel Giffords, for instance, with more humanity and compassion than any of the actual news networks did at the time. Instead of “BREAKING NEWS” alerts, news scrolls, and Wolf Blitzer or some Fox News anchor trying to cynically inject politics into a grim situation where a WOMAN HAS BEEN SHOT IN THE HEAD, The Newsroom gave that story some class, goddamnit, and Giffords was finally afforded the respect she deserved.

Romantic Idealism of Journalism — In that same vein, I love The Newsroom because it presents a romantic ideal of the news. It is, as Sorkin said himself, an optimistic, upward-looking look at a group of people who are often looked at cynically. What is so wrong about earnest optimism, even if it can sometimes be overly sentimental or preachy? I got a degree in journalism, and then went to law school with these big lofty ideals about doing good, about reporting the news, about making a difference. Of course, I quickly learned the reality of the situation and realized that the only people who achieve those big lofty ideals are in movies and on television and switched gears.

Still, for me, The Newsroom is for an aspiring journalist what The Natural is to an aspiring baseball player, or what Almost Famous is for aspiring rock critics or what 50 percent of indie movies are for aspiring screenwriters: A hopeful, optimistic and romantic idea of what was once at least a noble profession. I love The Newsroom, warts and all, because it makes me feel good about the world, about humanity, and about the news, something with which I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned. When someone says, “We reported the news,” I want to get choked up, damnit. The Newsroom epitomizes what I love about what so few good showrunners outside of Aaron Sorkin and Jason Katims do anymore, which is to present good people trying to make good choices, and how often do we see that in good dramas anymore?

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