In the wasteland that is American TV which has become, as Bruce Springsteen once said ’57 channels and nothing on’ (or words to that effect), it is difficult to find substantive TV series that involve: 1) issues that matter; 2) good acting; 3) top notch script writing, and 4) characters you care about. Without question, one of the best script and especially dialogue writers for TV is Emmy award winning (for West Wing) Aaron Sorkin. He can really turn a phrase, and quick too. You really have to pay attention to his shows, as they are anything but fluff, and sometimes the zingers and major points come so fast and furiously you have to hit the pause button. Contrast this to the garbage on TV like ‘Two and Half Men’ which serves up one trashy sex line after another which is supposed to be funny, but is really just degrading to both men and women.
News Room Season One is about a mythical network called ACN that yearns to do the real news, not news turned into Entertainment Tonight, not lightly fact checked news, which is more conjecture and innuendo than actual news, not deliberately ideologically biased news, but just news, ‘just the facts’ plus occasional commentary. The opening segment of each show freely admits what news today has become in America– mostly posturing, and pandering to get an audience so we have one tabloid story after another masquerading as what is really important.
The splendid Sam Waterston, who plays the overseer of the Nightly News, freely admits, ‘we used to do the news’, and his anchor man Will McAvoy (the equally splendid Jeff Daniels) strives to bring the real news back on the air, ratings be darned. From time to time we hear from the real head of the corporation which owns ACN, Miss Leona, played by Jane Fonda. But mostly we deal with the ensemble cast in the newsroom itself who have to track down the stories, get two credible confirmations of this fact or that assertion, search out leads, interview possible on air witnesses or experts, and occasionally they actually have a life, sometimes in relationships with each other.
Like West Wing, one of the things that makes this show actually work is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The ensemble cast sometimes shines together, or crashes and burns together. But it is a delightful and volatile mixture of mayhem and sense, urgency and patience, good reporting, and not so much. Along the way we actually learn some things about issues we really care about, or at least ought to.
And yes there is some love won and love lost, some heartache and heartbreak along the way. The plots extend over several episodes, and the various story lines run at once and are interwoven. Most of all we see an important part of freedom and democracy at work– call it free speech, call it freedom of information, call it patriotism and wanting the best out of our country. Call it the Fourth Estate.
At the end of the day, it is wrong to chastise the media for our own besetting sins. After all, the media even when it gets it right, is mostly just holding up a mirror so that we can look at ourselves. But a free country cannot long survive without the oxygen known as a clear understanding of what we are and what we are not, and what the facts are about what is happening, in for, and to our country. A free press is a vital part of a democracy.
It is not the job of the media to censor the facts, or presume we cannot understand them, or present an ideologically pleasing cocktails to reassure us that ‘all things are well, and all manner of things will be well’ or more likely the opposite of that. It is not the job of the media to be either soothsayer or doomsday prognosticator. It is the job of the media to report what has happened, and nowadays if they actually do that it really would be news, in both senses of that word.
In the meanwhile we have shows like The News Room to give us glimpses of what it would look like if we really cared about getting our story straight, and understanding our country’s problems and promise as they actually are. I am looking forward to watching the second season of this show soon. No, its not perfect, and yes I’m not happy about the profanity that shows up too regularly on this show. And yes sometimes it is stretching credulity to have so much crossing of the personal and professional boundaries in the workplace. But this shows merits far outweigh its shortcomings, and anyway, people unfortunately really do talk that way in various contexts these days, sad to say.