Thursday, 10 October 2013

Rich's Televisual Rambles - The Newsroom

I have sat down at this laptop numerous times and tried to write another article. I think on at least two or three different occasions I have begun articles and you might call me precious but I haven’t been satisfied with any of them. To write something that engages with its audience and sparks their imagination is one of the most difficult things you can attempt to do but also ultimately one of the most rewarding. It goes without saying that it is easy for something to be poorly written and so I think you have to respect people that write professionally. Now, I bet you’re all thinking “what’s the he getting at?” My point is this, usually only a couple of times in a generation are there writers who manage to be not only prolific but who manage to keep their output at a consistently high level.  Since it began last year I have been watching a series called The Newsroom written by Aaron Sorkin and he is one of those rare breed of writers. His body of work is extensive and includes diverse projects in both television and film. Amongst these are The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (Which I’d also highly recommend), Moneyball, A Few Good Men and The Social Network but it is The Newsroom which I have found compelling viewing. It has just finished its second season airing on HBO in the US and from the moment I heard Thomas Newman’s opening theme (whose music has moved me to tears since I first watched The Shawshank Redemption), I knew I was about to watch something special.

The Newsroom tells the story of fictitious cable news channel ACN (Atlantis Cable News) and the follows the personal and professional lives of its staff. Although the show features an ensemble cast, the main focus of the show is that of the Network’s lead anchor and managing editor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels, yes that’s right Harry from Dumb and Dumber). McAvoy has just lost his executive producer, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), to a rival show on his Network only for him to be subsequently replaced by McAvoy’s ex-girlfriend Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). To compound matters he also recently suffered a meltdown at a college political panel, declaring that “American is no longer the greatest country in the world” and launching into well-reasoned but emotional tirade at a college sophomore. It is this moment which begins McAvoy’s “mission to civilize” and to create, as Mackenzie McHale beautifully states, “A nightly newscast that informs debate worthy of a great nation” with the aim of “Reclaiming journalism as an honourable profession”

Joining McAvoy and McHale on their quest are the rest of News Night’s staff,  Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr), a producer who followed McHale from her previous show after it was cancelled; Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), a young and hungry associate producer whose relationship with Don Keefer is on the rocks; Neal Sampat (Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire and Skins), who writes McAvoy’s blog, researches news leads and administrates ACNs social media; Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn); economist and occasional co-anchor on News Night and president of ACN’s news division Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston). 

One element in which this show really shines is the strength of its research and the way in which it weaves recent real life events, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the death of Osama Bin Laden (spoilers?), into the fabric of the show lends a unique sense of realism to the show. Although you know how these stories are going to play out, the characters are experiencing these events for the first time and the viewer, for perhaps the first time in television, knows how these plots are going to play out before the characters do. As Sorkin has put it in interviews, these news events have “become a creative gift, for one thing the audience knows more than the characters” and although he has stated that the show is “not meant to be a documentary” which it most certainly isn’t the reactions have to feel genuine otherwise the show won’t work effectively. Fortunately for Sorkin he has assembled a cast who are more than capable of achieving this.
In the real world media companies are, just like any other corporation, affected by share-holders, profits and ratings. I’ve had many conversations with family and friends about the lack of impartiality in the media; this is counter-productive to the art of reporting news which requires by its very nature impartiality. In reality, no matter how we try to convince ourselves we can be neutral, our reaction and interpretation of situations will be heavily prejudiced by our opinions or feelings. There is something tremendously brave in The Newsroom’s mission statement, it’s something which is refreshing and the idealist in me one day hopes to see this reflected in the Fourth Estate.

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