Why the Newsroom is better than the West Wing

I thought this week was supposed to be ‘superhero week‘?

Like I’ve never wondered off topic before!

But actually I do think there’s a link. Superheroes are essentially a projection by America of its ideas about heroism – one of the most popular is even called Captain America after all. This is also a central theme of Aaron Sorkin’s work – his characters are not just supposed to be good people but “good Americans.”

Ok but isn’t this still a little crazy? Isn’t the West Wing like the best TV ever?

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There was a time when I would have agreed. The West Wing was my introduction to quality TV and I have watched it several times over.

However, as I have seen more telly – much of it seriously good – I’ve come to realise that it’s very flawed. Its view of politics is saccharine and unrealistic. Academic psychology suggests that those in power are disproportionately likely to be sociopaths and even if they are aren’t it reduces their capacity for empathy. By contrast, in the West Wing the central characters are all decent people exalted by their positions of power. The show gives the same reverence to a fictional president with modest achievements as Lincoln does to greatest president in America’s real history. Which is kind of weird.

Plus its characters don’t really develop. While things happen to them that doesn’t cause them to evolve in a meaningful way, and there’s no sense of them being on a journey.

My experience is that West Wing fanatics have a rather selective memory. Great episodes like “two cathedrals” blot out the significant number of weak or indifferent episodes.

So what’s the Newsroom?

It’s the West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin’s latest TV series and chance to redeem himself after the disaster of Studio 60. I recently finished watching the first series. As the name suggests it follows the team behind a nightly TV news program – called Newsnight – as they attempt to turn it from a ratings grabbing vessel into something that serves the public good.

Why do you think it’s better than the West Wing?

Well a number of reasons. The most important of which are:

1. It has a human being at its centre

Martin Sheen’s president Bartlet may be one of the most adored TV characters of all time. But – continuing the superhero theme – he’s a bit like superman: so perfect and wholesome he winds up being rather bland. It’s flaws that make characters seem real and creates dramatic tension. And Bartlet doesn’t have enough of them to really work as a character. Even the single substantial flaw he does have – failing to disclose his MS – seems more like a plot device than a character flaw. Even amongst a host of largely static characters, Bartlet still seems like a granite statue of a pharaoh.

Newsroom’s central character the TV host Will McAvoy played by Jeff Daniels, is an altogether darker figure whose demons animate the story. His public virtue is shown to be intimately connected to his private vices. He is on a crusade not because he’s a good man but because he’s desperate to prove to himself (and his producer/love interest played by Emily Mortimer) that he is good. He’s a man who detests bullies with such a passion that it turns him into one. Oh and he’s a drug taker with mental health problems. In short he’s screwed up enough to feel like a real person.

2. Difficult decisions are actually difficult

In the first series of the West Wing, when the president and his staff decide to ‘let Bartlet be Bartlet’ and unleash a slew of liberal policies this makes him more not less popular.

By contrast, when Newsnight opts not to join the lurid media circus around the trial of Casey Anthony for the murder of her baby daughter, they bleed viewers and have to backtrack.

One of the best scenes of all the series features a producer from another show being brought into show the Newsnight team how to cover the trial:

3. It has a decent villian

The West Wing never really had one of these. The nearest it came was Speaker Haffley who was too blandly reptilian to be genuinely interesting – which does at least make him true to his real life inspiration Newt Gingrich.

Newsroom has Jane Fonda playing a charismatic, devious and ruthless media mogul. She stays a compelling character even while gunning for McAvoy and protecting her James Murdochesque son. Oh and to add delicious irony, for many years she was married to real life mogul Ted Turner.

4. It messes with tropes

A producer is desperate to rescue a source taken hostage in Egypt. He needs an executive at his corporation to release money for a ransom. When he arrives at the executive’s office, the producer is told by a secretary that the executive is out. So the producer charges at the door…and dislocates his shoulder before being told by the secretary that no really the executive really is out!

5. It reminds rolling news of its screwups

Because of its ephemeral nature screwups on live news tend to pass away. Newsroom is set to the backdrop of real news events, providing the opportunity to play back some of these forgotten howlers. Like virtually all stations reporting that Congresswomen Gabrielle Gifford had been died andCNN contributor Geraldo Rivera insisting on the night that Bin Laden was killed that the president was about to announce the capture of Colonel Gaddafi.

Sorkin’s need to be cramped

I suspect that the reason that the Newsroom works better than the West Wing is that it has a shorter run.

In general, it seems the less space Sorkin is given the better he writes. His writing for film’s such as Moneyball, the Social Network and a Few Good Men has all the sharpness of his TV work but largely avoids its sentimentality.

It may just be that with less space he has to be more disciplined. So for example, he has to limit the amount of speechifying his characters do and make stories more focused.

However, I suspect that the main reason is that because characters in an Aaron Sorkin script all sound like characters from an Aaron Sorkin script, over time they bleed into each other. Sorkin seems to find it easier to avoid this happening in shorter works.

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