It has been nearly 12 years since The West Wing first aired on NBC. The show that made politics sexy (at least for legions of West Wing babies) came to an end six years ago — yet it retains its high position on the barometer of success on an Aaron Sorkin-scale. “I like writing about heroes that don’t wear capes and disguises,” Sorkin recently explained in an interview with NPR about his new show, The Newsroom. “(The Newsroom) is aspirational. ‘Gee, it looks like the real world and feels like the real world, why can’t this be the real world?’” To that, I respond — “It looks like The West Wing and sounds like The West Wing. Why can’t it be The West Wing?”
All the hallmarks of a Sorkin script are present: the beloved walk-and-talk that sets a familiar frenetic pace for each episode; a male protagonist on a lonely mission to civilise his society and to encourage it to push past mediocrity to true excellence at any cost; a workplace romance that will ultimately take an entire season of the show to come to fruition; a female character whose male moniker grants her status as ‘one of the boys’ and the ability to work in a male-dominated space (work or a career is always couched in inherently masculine terms in Sorkin’s universe — a woman either enables the male protagonist to excel at his job, or she is the wife/daughter/girlfriend who inspires Sorkin’s heroes to be a better father/leader/husband/worker, and in this respect, Mac from The Newsroom joins a list of previous such characters, Harry and Jordan from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and C J from The West Wing).
The thematic concerns are just as lofty as in Sorkin’s previous shows – honour, pride in ‘real’ American values (read: liberal, democratic), integrity, friendship – except this time, the show’s characters fail to fully come to life, remaining mediums for a message that overshadows each episode’s narrative arc. Whereas with The West Wing, Sorkin managed to breathe life into the finer points of dry economic policy or the census and straddle entertainment with education, The Newsroom’s characters are one-dimensional, to the point where their idiosyncrasies or tics become predictable; of course the geeky, Indian IT guy (Patel), for instance, believes in Big Foot, haranguing his colleagues about the existence of the primate at every opportunity, until all possible humour has been leeched from the situation.
The Newsroom’s Will MacAvoy (Daniels) is on a path to restore journalism to its former idealised (and trusted) position, scourging gossip and sensationalism from the national conversation. Some critics have disparaged this narrative premise, saying it is “too unlikely” or “unrealistic” — however, Sorkin’s world is an idealised one, not dissimilar to the worlds of Grey’s Anatomy, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, House or any number of television shows.
After the show’s pilot aired, Christiane Amanpour tweeted, “HBO Newsroom: I LOVE it! Go get ’em team! News Alert: Facts, start imitating fiction NOW!” While repeated viewings of The West Wing make me yearn for a president like Jed Bartlet, MacAvoy doesn’t have me entirely convinced that, should facts imitate fiction, his show would be too different from the pedagogical, hectoring form of ‘journalism’ that we’re all too tired of.
Cult: His Girl Friday (1940)
Cary Grant stars in Howard Hawks’ story of an editor who will do anything to keep his ex-wife, a reporter, from remarrying.
Current: Words of Witness (2011)
Part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Mai Iskander’s film follows a 22-year-old Egyptian girl who captured the stories of hundreds of citizens for a daily newspaper during the Egyptian Revolution.
Coming attraction: High Tech, Low Life (2012)
Currently doing the rounds on the documentary festival circuit, Stephen Maing’s story of citizen journalism in China was screened in June at London’s Frontline Club to wide acclaim.