Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Newsroom finds the future of journalism - on TV!

Aaron Sorkin has seen the future of journalism, and it's Keith Olbermann.


The Newsroom, Sorkin's new HBO show, is about a fictional cable news outlet that discovers how awesome journalism could be if anchors just spoke their minds on TV instead of giving their viewers the same-old partisanship disguised as objectivity.

Watch the full episode on YouTube.

Our hero, Jeff Daniels, is a Tom Brokawesque figure who finds his inner Keith Olbermann at a college forum. He shocks everyone when he says that America is not the best country in the world (for Canadians, this is less shocking - har, har!) and has a pretty great statistics-fueled rant at the ready.

Every freshman in the building knows a good story when he or she hears it, so out come more iPhones than the last time Coldplay sang "Yellow." When our anchor comes back from the resulting three-week "vacation," he's shocked to learn his crew has gone on to other things and the new producer is an ex-girlfriend played by Emily Mortimer.

Computer bad, people good

From there, the Newsroom picks up where the film Network left off: an on-air anchor who's "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore." But Network was a comedy, and it had something to say about the future of journalism.

The Newsroom is not a comedy, though it has some laughs, and it's not very clever about the state of the news biz. The show has a strange anti-Internet thread - strange, because Sorkin wrote the acclaimed the Social Network. There's disdain for YouTube, blogs, email(!), and the computer that shows if news is important when the color turns from yellow to orange and red.

The not-so-compelling message: computers bad, people good.

A more interesting show would have Daniels play a Julian Assange-like character who knows where the future of the news lies, but finds himself fighting for freedom of the press against an establishment that won't acknowledge he is the press. Just a sec: I'll call my agent.

The show's target is a good one, if a little obvious: lazy TV journalism. But the idea that we, the viewers, need someone to snap us out of our Matrix-like cocoons ignores that we already have that person in the brilliant Stephen Colbert.

Like Sorkin's the West Wing, the Newsroom is full of self-important idealistic people that at times plays like a satire of self-important idealistic people. While this tone worked in the confines of the White House, it leaves something to be desired in a TV newsroom. Is there anything worse than a new TV reporter who thinks he or she is doing God's work?

The Newsroom is His Girl Friday by way of the Brady Bunch Movie. The show ostensibly takes place in the real world, but it's unrealistic, and the characters don't know it. It's a conceit that leads to such plot devices as the jaded, cynical anchorman who's also comfortable dismissing something he's seen as a hallucination.

The Golden Age of Journalism: two years ago

The biggest cheat is that, 15 minutes in, we find out the Newsroom is actually a period piece from April 2010, also known as the first day of the BP oil spill. It's a cheat, because it allows our journalists to quickly realize "this story is bigger than people think! They can't cap the well! There's more oil being pumped into the water than they're saying!"

Within two minutes, the gang has the entire story cracked, and before you know it, Daniels is on air live, sans cue cards, weaving together a brilliant news show that's only possible when:

1. You know what the news will be before it happens.
2. You've memorized Aaron Sorkin's lines.

When the show ended, my first impression was, "I like it!" There's snappy dialogue, an expensive set, great HBO production standards, and the always-awesome Jeff Daniels. After some thought and a faceslap, I thought, "But none of it makes any sense!"

So, in a backward kind of way, the Newsroom proves its point: it's a TV show that delivers some thrills, as long as you don't think about them for very long. Given the questionable state of TV journalism and the future of journalism itself, it could've been so much more.

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