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Article: The Newsroom: Cable News Media Played for Laughs and Cries

If everybody hates it, that usually means I like it. The Newsroom on HBO is one of the best things to come along in a while. Not just because it is Aaron Sorkin, not just because Jeff Daniels is not Tom Hanks and certainly not just because I hate the Tea Party too. All over the place and almost like the real thing, it is television worth watching.

Well, finally on a hiatus from watching the gleeful adventures of Bristol, Tripp and the Von Palin family on Bristol Palin: Life's a Tripp, I am able to turn my attention to writing something about a new show that I have been watching called The Newsroom, written by television and film writing legend Aaron Sorkin. Of course, there was a slew, yea a literal slew, of wide-ranging reviews when the first episode aired. A whole bunch media pundits wrote reviews of a show sending up media pundits. It did seem that most had watched the trailer and took a chance to troll-dis Sorkin in search of hits to their sad web column/blogs. Others were thoughtful in tearing apart every aspect of The Newsroom as a television production and Aaron Sorkin as an artist/human being. Apparently, Sorkin hasn't written anything worthwhile since Jack Nicholson snarled, "You can't handle the truth!" in A Few Good Men.

Personally I am a watcher of many things that Sorkin has created. Sports Night, The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (before it went wrong in Afghanistan). So I am way more willing to give the guy some slack. Plus I am not the target of this series like most of the whorish media so quick to condemn it in print or online. Sure, those negative references to blogger hurt a little but I can handle it. Can MSNBC, CNN and Fox News?

The pilot episode, "We Just Decided To," was the target of most of the pundit/reviewer ire and in some ways it deserved it. It didn't help that the show started the same way that the previous backstage cultural political series Studio 60 did with a long monologue troll rant. Does anyone remember the pilot episode of The West Wing? Check it out because that damn thing is great and I alway love the part where the President shows up and kicks the religous freak ass with a quote from the Bible. But anyway, there is always a way that pilots have too much in them as if it is going to be the only episode ever aired and there is so much to squeeze in. There was too much exposition, too many monologues, too many mono-dialogues (those Sorkin scenes in which two characters exchange monologues) and too many strained jokes. We were introduced to most of the characters including the new Executive Producer MacKenzie McHale and jaded old hard-drinking former newsman turned cable news executive Charlie Skinner, who are the prime movers in the idea of changing the tone and content of the newscast. To replace the ratings-whoring with ideological purity to actually attempt to inform the public while entertaining them rather than just giving them shiny objects to sell them bathroom products. It took a long time to get this laid out including scintillating nuggets of personal information, but there is no doubt that the show picked up excitement when the breaking news came across the wire and the team moved to cover it. It turns out that News Night basically broke the BP oil spill. OK. But, I tell you what - that last twenty minutes was exciting journalism fiction right up there with The China Syndrome, The Insider and All the President's Men. There is nothing more exciting than watching people get to the truth. It is the essence of why people write and this make this series worth watching.

The second episode was called "News Night 2.0" and the story portrayed the retooling of the show News Night into the parameters outlined my MacKenzie and Charlie in the first episode. The plot had some interest when the action finally got going. There was great tension as we moved toward the screwup by the staff, although many reviewer/recappers took exception to the sexist nature of some of Sorkin's writing. Personally, I believe that Sorkin does not set out to demean women by making their foibles the source of drama and tension in the show, it just turns out that way when he creates the women characters he does. It wasn't great but it was good in providing a transitional movement away from the over-the-top frenetic quality of the first show and into the more settled in feeling that we are going to be able to develop and grow something here. Did not really enjoy the set up straw men of the Arizona law discussion that included a doofy beauty queen, a jack-a-napes and his rifle and a weird professor.

The third episode is called "The 112th Congress" and benefitted from the transition in the previous show as the lens finally moved outside the newsroom itself and focused on one of the more intriguing players on the current political landscape. Will is portrayed as a Republican with some level of conservatism, yet he his not a big fan of the Tea Party and decides to take them on. The episode starts off with a long apology monologue by Will as he apologizes for the type of newscast they had been doing and promising to do better. Then he takes on the radical right wing of the Republican and name checks many of their stars such as the Koch brothers, Michelle Bachman, Sharon Angle, among others.

Of course, the Tea Crowd is an easy target, like shooting stupid fish in a barrel. For example the reference to the sign held by a Tea Partier that exhorted the government to keep its "hands off his Social Security". The weird thing about Tea Partiers is that they wrap themselves up in Jesus and the Constitution, although they never seem to know very much about either. On one hand Jesus was an ascetic who believed in paying your taxes ("render unto Caesar what is Caesar's"), was against violence ("turn the other cheek") and supported taking care of the less fortunate ("Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Not a very Tea Party attitude. Then on the other hand, Article V of the United States Constitution describes the process whereby the Constitution may be altered. See that Tea Party dummies? In the original Constitution it provides for changing the Constitution through amendment and these changes have the same force of law as the original. To try to speculate on the intentions of the founders is ridiculous. It is in the Constitution, get that? So in the same way that these weirdos dream up an imaginary Jesus that doesn't reflect the Bible, they dream up an imaginary Constitution that doesn't reflect the document that their elected representatives are sworn to defend! Rand Paul, who has to rank as one of the most moronic of the Tea Party-ish right wing nutjobs elected in the last mid-term, has sworn to defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. But he feels he has the right to determine what form of Constitution that is apparently. After the Affordable Care Act was ruled constitutional, he stated that, "Just because a couple of people on the Supreme Court declare something to be 'constitutional' does not make it so." But Article III, Section 2 says, "The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution."

The main argument of the Tea Party seems to be that they want to keep their government benefits without paying any taxes and denying any benefits to others and forcing them to pay more in taxes. I guess that doesn't fit on a sign. They seem to be completely unaware that their "grass roots" movement is mostly supported by millionaires and scam artists fleecing them out of their $1 and $5 donations. It would be funny if somehow they had not managed to tap into a hatred of President Barack Obama to provide room to the right of long-serving more moderate Republicans. With shocking ignorance, amazing intolerance and scary political indecency they managed to put enough of a dent in the Republican party to muck up the normal American system of compromise and prevent the President and Congress from addressing the actual problems of the country and taking endless meaningless votes. On top of this is the nearly treasonous determination of the bought-and-paid-for Republican establishment to make Obama a one-term President at all costs, even the stability and reputation of the United States.

In a nice turn for the network, Tea Party Senator Bob Lee of Utah has complained to HBO about this portrayal as desiring the repeal of the 14th Amendment when he claims to only have supported clarifying the "interpretation" of it. This amendment to the Constitution allow for citizenship regardless of race and reinforces due process and equal protection under the law. No response yet from Will McAvoy.

The movie about Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin: The Undefeated, pretty much gives her credit for giving birth to the Tea Party, although it is difficult to prove that she was pregnant with it. Certainly she is a perfect exemplar as can be of the know-nothing, unqualified, say-something-stupid figure that has been propelled from the bowels of the movement. After a period of time which featured serving as Governor of Alaska that ended abruptly with her resignation short of finishing her term, she became an bad author, a laughable reality television character and an awful commentator on Fox News, which is really the main satirical target of The Newsroom.

Part of this targeting of Fox News is in relation to its position as a main promoter of the Tea Party and their anti-Obama agenda. Without the free advertising that Fox News provides in their "coverage" of the Tea Party, one could argue that it would be difficult for them to make any sort of impact. In addition, the paid "analysts" like Palin and Karl Rove who are clearly in conflict of interest as they head right wing political organizations and also serve as "commentators" on the very politics they influence. Fox News doesn't make people dumber, they go into it dumb. It reinforces the idea that it is okay to be uninformed and intolerant. That's what makes America exceptional is the inability to understand when they are being flat out lied to.

Of course, the opening credits with its shots of Cronkite and Murrow, as well as the frequent allusions to this golden age of journalism might be a total fabrication of something that never existed. Not unlike the Tea Party and their fabrication of a better American that NEVER REALLY EXISTED. Recent reporting shows Gallup's annual survey on confidence in U.S. institutions has Americans' confidence in TV news at a surprising new low, with only 21 percent of adults expressing "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in it. Last year, a paltry 27 percent reported confidence in TV news but that seems like a lot now. Interestingly in 1993, the first such survey by Gallup and when the Internet was young, 46 percent expressed confidence in TV news. Perhaps by the loss of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings? Or not.

Recently a series of articles on The Daily Beast have poked some holes in the legend of All the President's Men and raising the specter of a bit of fabulation on the parts of Woodstein. Perhaps they were not ahead of the story but rather being led on a merry chase by forces beyond their awareness. Journalism today is at one of its lowest ebbs of quality in the history of the republic and that is saying something because the quality of journalism in the earliest days of America would make Fox News blush! Those days saw newspapers serve as partisan delivery organs with polemics, broadsides and scurrilous accusations the order of the day. On second thought, maybe we not really come to far from that with Fox News.

On the acting side, Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy is more acceptable than I expected. I was hoping I would not experience Bakulization or Hanksaphobia, that is, the inability to watch any show starring or featuring Scott Bakula or any movie starring Tom Hanks. Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale has a very peculiar English accent that is occasionally unlistenable and I usually like English accents. I was amused when I read one of the recap/reviews that said that John Gallagher Jr. as Jim Harper seems to end every scene like he is gasping for air like a fish. Maggie Jordan, played by Allison Pill, is the least appealing character and it is hard to say whether she is acting badly, written badly or just drawn badly. Her boyfriend Don, Thomas Sadoski is just as unappealing, making them an extremely unappealing couple. Olivia Munn has not done much as Sloan Sabbith and Dev Patel's Neal Sampat has possibilities.

Episode three ends with the election and a quite hilarious take on cable news election coverage with the panel of talking heads and analysts. This was also finally the introduction of the big honcho of AWN, often seen in promos for the series, Leona Lansing portrayed by film legend Jane Fonda. Her introduction doesn't go smoothly, she is silent through much of the episode untile telling a weird Jesus-Moses joke. This really must send the right wing into apoplexy to see her in a platform like this with even a potential of taking pot shots at their ideologies. She plays a liberal here, albeit a big business liberal who "has business before this Congress." More to come as this story develops...

These days most television shows are so packaged and formulaic that the level of creativity is right about zero as each new show seems to be a remake of some previous remake of some other show. That sort of thing should be leave to the creative wasteland called Hollywood movies. I like that The Newsroom is over-reaching, is messy, is not canned, is not designed to provide a one-liner heading into commercial. I am glad that it is pissing some people off and I am glad that I have it to watch each week for a while... or at least between Bristol's episodes.

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Posted by: Joseph Burke - July 23, 2012, 7:17 pm - Article
Keywords: television




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