Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why The Newsroom Matters: The Power of Fiction

I first fell in love with Aaron Sorkin on September 22, 1999 when I sat down to watch a new show called The West Wing. It quickly became one of my favorite shows and I never missed an episode. When I heard that Sorkin was writing a new series for HBO, you can imagine my excitement.

The Newsroom began in June and just finished its first season Sunday night. As the name suggests, the show follows a cable news staff who are attempting to change the way the news is done. The show begins in April of 2010 and uses actually news stories in the plot-lines, which adds an extra layer to the stories being told. The viewer is put in an interesting position, because we already know the outcomes, but Sorkin almost makes us forget that we do. In the fourth episode ("I'll Try to Fix You"), we almost believe that Gabby Giffords might not live after being shot in January of 2011. The final minutes of that episode are emotional and I found myself holding my breath.

As a lover of Sorkin and nearly all HBO series, it is no surprise that I fell hard for this show. It's smart, thought-provoking, funny, and some of the sharpest writing currently on TV. The show, however, has created a very love it or hate it situation. Critics have been mixed. Many major news corporations have trashed the show in their reviews and poked fun at it (even NPR).

What I've found interesting in these negative reviews is that people seem upset at how fictional the show is. In some ways, reviewers are holding the show to a standard that the show never set. Sorkin never claimed to be writing a completely fact-based TV series about how to do the news. The show blends reality with fiction. I'll be the first to admit the show uses rather convenient plotting at times (example: Maggie's best friend knowing Casey Anthony) and is not a true look at how the news is done. But does that make it a bad show? Or any less important? Doesn't fiction have the power to do something just as thought-provoking as non-fiction?

The Newsroom is a commentary on the current state of our media and politics. It's pointing out many absurdities and problems. The show is liberal without a doubt, but it is also pointing out how far the republican party has come from its true values. It's an important and interesting look at the country we are currently living in. The show isn't all about reaffirming what liberals already know or preaching to the choir. I found myself on a few occasions conflicted by the stories ("Bullies"). It made me reconsider what I believe. That's not to say there aren't "preaching to the choir" moments (Sorkin loves that).

The show isn't really about how one should do the news just like The West Wing wasn't really about how to govern our country (and critics loved The West Wing). Sorkin is using these platforms to present ideas and thoughts. The fact that he can do this in such an entertaining platform is truly what makes him a remarkable writer. During episode three, my partner, who doesn't know much about Sorkin, turned to me and said, "this show is really funny." Yes, it is. It's smart adult comedy.

Just like Sorkin's other shows, he does throw in some workplace love stories, which are often cliche. The thing is Sorkin is so good at writing the cliche that he overcomes it and you find yourself truly engaged with the characters. If you don't, there's plenty of other great storylines to keep you going.

Of course, The Newsroom owes a lot to the cast. This is Jeff Daniels finest performance. Emily Mortimer is absolutely the heart of the show and holds it together. I've also completely fallen in love with Olivia Munn who plays Sloan. Acting veterans Sam Waterson and Jane Fonda command every scene they are in. This is great television and thankfully HBO agrees. The show will be returning for a second season in 2013.

The show is doing what great fiction should do. It is entertaining us and making us think at the same time. Sorkin has built a world where smart people say smart things and smart people win. It's fantasy, but one that helps us think about where we want to go. The West Wing got me through those first few years of George W. Bush. Sorkin created a president I wanted. Here, he created a news show, I want  to watch.

-Stephen (Watch It)

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