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Irony in HBO’s The Newsroom

August 3, 2012

I’ve been watching the Newsroom since a week after the first episode aired.  For those of you who don’t know and are too lazy to google it, the Newsroom is a semi-historical show written by Aaron Sorkin about a nightly news program.  It focuses on the main anchor, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), his decision to emulate anchors of the past instead of being an entertainment or propaganda host, and his personal drama with members of the news staff.  Also included is the drama of the news staff.  In addition to featuring Sam Waterston in a role where he isn’t Jack McCoy and does threaten to beat the shit out of people, the Newsroom is enjoyable to me because it has a lot of smart characters working to inform the electorate about the stupid/dangerous things that have happened in US politics and the world since 2010.  I enjoy attacks on the Tea Party and other stupid things.  I hate stupid things.  I love wittiness.  Lucky for me the show’s writers have had two years to slow-cook their staircase wit to a boil and are now finally addressing the stupid issues.  It’d be even better if there had been someone around back then to do the work the Newsroom portrays.  Maybe things would’ve turned out differently.

That sentiment, which is one of the main reasons I enjoy watching the show, is also one of the main problems with it.  If there had been someone doing the work Atlantis Cable News (the news program on the Newsroom) pretends to be doing, things would’ve been different.  Maybe not by much, but by some.  But within the show, things can’t be different.  The premise of the Newsroom is to stick to actual, historic events.  Because those events happened without ACN’s influence, ACN can never influence the course of those events as it sets out to do.  Take the episode about last congressional election: given the hard-hitting interviews and truth-serving that ACN delivers, the viewer feels a sense of tension waiting to find out the election results, unsure if ACN successfully did its job in educating the electorate about the problems with the Tea Party or if its warnings fell on deaf ears.  The viewer is disappointed to learn that tragically, the Tea Party won.  BUT THERE WAS NO OTHER OPTION.  There was no tension, dramatic or otherwise.  There was NOTHING that ACN could have done to stop the Tea Party from winning seats in Congress, not because the struggle within the story was futile, but because the Tea Party won the seats outside the framework of the story in real history and the writers have decided that they will not diverge from real history as far as global events are concerned.  This is irony.  Not the funny haha irony where you’re trying to find out who murdered your father for a whole play and it turns out the murderer is you, the irony that boring philosophy majors notice and Alanis Morissette has trouble understanding.  Everything ACN does, all of the tension within the storyline of the setting, is negated by the ironic premise that the story of ACN must follow events that happened without ACN existing.  In essence, when you watch the Newsroom, you’re watching the behind-the-scenes production of the absolutely worst news program ever.

The irony in the Newsroom destroys the setting and a lot of the premise of the show, making the only important part of the Newsroom the drama between the characters.  While I don’t deny that character drama should be the main focus of good TV or a good movie, the framing situation of the show shouldn’t be thrown out entirely like that.  It adds flavor to the drama.  It enhances the story.  It even gives the audience something fun to relate to if the drama is creeping along too slowly.  Like with Star Wars, part of the fun of the story is that it happens a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, so when the audience gets bored of Luke Skywalker being a whiny archetype they can fall back on how awesome lightsabers are or wishing they could use the force.  It doesn’t matter that those parts of the setting aren’t real, the audience has suspended their disbelief and accepted them as part of the experience.  But with the Newsroom, as soon as the audience accepts the premise of the news show, the premise is negated by the inability of ACN to do anything.  Because the setting negates itself out of importance, the character drama could be happening to anyone else anywhere else.  The setting doesn’t matter.  That’s crummy, because the setting of the Newsroom is obviously supposed to be important to the show.  Just read the title.

You may counter argue that while the show is completely filled with inaction within its own framework, it can still influence events by influencing the audience.  It can do some of the good it pretends to do within itself but can’t, just in a round-about, reflective kind of way, where the audience outside the show will be motivated to hold politicians accountable and like responsible journalism etc.  And if you did argue that, you’d be conceding my point that the show is designed poorly, you’d just think that the good it can do outweighs the poorness of its design.  I agree that the show could have a positive influence on culture and history, despite its inherent irony, but I think it’s much more likely that the show will only serve to preach to the choir of those who agree with its political ideas.  I don’t think any members of the audience disagree with the show politically.  In fact, like I mentioned, getting to see your political ideas championed is part of the fun of watching it.  It’s an empty fun, a fun that accomplishes nothing and is beneficial the same way a chocolate sundae is beneficial, but it’s fun nonetheless.  And the constant repartee of the characters is the whipped cream.  So far, the show’s only beneficial political statement that might not have occurred to most of the viewership is that Republicans are people too.  The Newsroom loves mentioning that McAvoy is a Registered Republican.  Did you know that not all Republicans are evil, stupid, money-grubbing thieves?  No way.

This isn’t what they’re like?

So why does that single political statement (and others that everyone watching already agrees with) need to be given in the framework of a news broadcast?  Wouldn’t it work just as well, if not better, to do another political show like The West Wing if Aaron Sorkin wanted to make a statement about politicians and the polity working together instead of being uncompromising assholes?  He could work in other progressive political ideas pretty easily too, and it probably wouldn’t suffer from irony meltdown.  He could even have that political show feature a side-comment blog where he criticizes the media.  But then Sorkin would need to sideline his dramatic love affair with Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, which also seems to be an important part of the Newsroom.  Not that I don’t respect having a love affair with Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, or even think that’s a bad thing to have, it’s just that Sorkin isn’t making a compelling case for why his love affair takes the form it does.  Sidney Lumet did a wonderful critique of television news in “Network,” and George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” was a great historical drama piece (I didn’t know anything about Murrow before watching that), but those movies stuck to one driving idea and worked through it.  Right now the Newsroom is working on lots of concepts that individually seem good: smart newspeople, critique of trends in contemporary media, critique of contemporary politics, responses to real events, behind-the-scenes intrigue, TV-reasonable levels of compelling character drama (it’s not outstanding in my mind, but that’s another conversation).  But the way they’re put together, the parts end up too separated.  Or they conceptually trip over each other.  Or they negate each other.

Even with the irony, I’ll keep watching the Newsroom through the first season.  It’s easier when the episodes are spaced out over a week instead of guzzled down off Hulu, I remember more of what entertained me and less of the complaints I have with it.   There is fun in it, there are touching moments and some hilarious dialogue.  I’ve looked up some of the news stories they covered just to see what happened in the end because they went off my media radar.  And I enjoy Sam Waterston threatening to bludgeon people within an inch of their life.  I hope he does whoop someone in one of the episodes.  I’d watch that as a television show all on its own.  Anyway, I’ll keep watching the Newsroom, I just think it’s important to point out that it has significant flaws, and that it is not the gleaming godsend of absolute beauty and intelligence it’s made out to be by so many of its viewers.

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