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HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’ closes its first season with plans for a second

By David Hiltbrand, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

PHILADELPHIA — No one presumably is more happy to see the first season of “The Newsroom” drawing to a close than its creator, Aaron Sorkin.

The drama about brilliant, Quixotic cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his staff took a sustained critical drubbing.

Initially, most of the outrage was focused on the hyper-articulateness of Sorkin’s characters.

Reviewing the series in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum wrote, “In ‘The Newsroom,’ clever people take turns admiring one another. They sing arias of facts. They aim to remake television news: ‘This is a new show, and there are new rules,’ a maverick executive producer announces, several times, in several ways. Their outrage is so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema — only it makes the viewer itch.”

The righteous reaction to Sorkin’s third stab at a show-about-a-show (following “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) taught us an important lesson: TV critics are all in favor of quippy, but eloquence in a TV script is apparently a stoning offense.

There was an affronted air to the early reviews — as if Sorkin through his “Newsroom” proxies was trying to prove he was smarter than the people who got the last words.

That left the Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer in the curious position of appeasing his detractors by pleading stupid. “I think that the critics and the audience who are reacting as hostilely to the show as they are, part of the reason is because they think that I’m showing off an intellect and an erudition that I don’t have,” Sorkin told Terry Gross during an interview on “Fresh Air.” “I’m not pretending to have it. I know that I don’t have it. I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other. I’m not one of them.”

It was hard not to think Sorkin was being held to a higher standard when “Political Animals,” a show that explored many of the same themes, but in far more turgid and soapy style, debuted weeks later on USA to largely enthusiastic reviews.

Certainly, there were flaws in “The Newsroom” beyond Sorkin’s proclivity for sermonizing. Events were set two years in the past — everyone was scrambling to cover the BP oil disaster in the pilot, for instance — giving the show’s TV journos a suspicious prescience.

All too often, big stories were cracked by virtue of dubious personal connections that staffers or their relatives had had years before.

“Hey, Bob our tape editor was bunk mates with the Sultan of Brunei at summer camp. Maybe he could give him a call.”

And as has been the case to some degree in all Sorkin’s TV series, including “The West Wing,” the workplace romances in “The Newsroom” were decidedly soggy.

Yet, given how often the show has been attacked for its implausibility, it’s curious how many veteran TV anchors, like Dan Rather, have praised “The Newsroom’s” authenticity.

Says CNN’s Wolf Blitzer via email, “I’ve enjoyed ‘The Newsroom.’ It keeps my interest, and I can relate. Occasionally, I even think some of the characters could show up in ‘The Situation Room.’”

The tempest of opinions swirling around the HBO drama hasn’t really affected its ratings. After spiking early, viewership has settled in to an average of two million, which is respectable, but most weeks amounts to a nearly 60 percent drop-off from its lead-in, “True Blood.”

With the first season having drawn to a close (and a second one planned), assessments of “The Newsroom” have grown more measured while remaining mixed at best.

Tim Goodman, the TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter, feels that the show exposed Sorkin’s weaknesses.

“The aspirational element that made ‘West Wing’ work just fell flat when trying to sanctify television journalism,” Goodman says via email. “Sorkin’s inability to write female characters with any depth became increasingly problematic. And as we learned on ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,’ he’s not too adept at comedy, either, so those elements in ‘Newsroom’ stuck out painfully, especially in contrast to the earnestness of the journalism angle. It was just a bad mash-up.”

The principal knock on Sorkin has moved from the preachiness of his protagonists to his portrayal of women. Among “The Newsroom” flaws, “I think the biggest by far has to be the romantic story lines,” Jack Mirkinson, media editor at the Huffington Post, says via email. “They’re sexist, boring, chemistry-free, and take up a mind-boggling amount of screen time.” But at least Mirkinson has seen flashes of potential in the series. Sort of.

“It’s hard to think of much that has gone right. That being said, there have been a few episodes — like one about the Arab Spring and one about the Japanese nuclear disaster — where Sorkin has tried to engage more with the ins and outs and ethical complications that can come into reporting,” Mirkinson continues.” When he’s done this, he’s delivered some very strong material — but he just hasn’t done it nearly enough.”

As you can imagine, when you distill everything that has been written about “The Newsroom” down to a single synopsis, it’s distinctly toxic.

When the series debuted this week in Australia, Aussie columnist Graeme Blundell described its American reception thusly: “Pilloried for its smug, self-satisfied pomposity, disdained as an unfunny version of ‘The Daily Show,’ and lambasted as a dramatically inert, infuriating mess, Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’ has arrived.”

Here, of course, it’s departing. That loud sound you hear coming from Sorkin’s office? Sigh of relief.

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