As evidenced by last night's harried, scattered mess of an episode, The Newsroom is not a terribly good show. This has been noted many times since the show began. It's fairly common knowledge that, with a few exceptions, critics and bloggers and other such folks don't much care for the show. Which is a problem, because this is supposed to be a big classy jewel in the crown for HBO, not a muddled critical flop. But have no fear! The marketing team has swooped in and taken care of that pesky bad review problem by turning lemons into misleading lemonade.
As detailed exhaustively by Forbes, Newsroom ads currently feature many carefully chosen and elided quotes from otherwise negative reviews. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley may have mentioned the show's "wit, sophistication and manic energy," a quote printed on ads, but her review is mostly negative, saying the series "chokes on its own sanctimony" and that "the piety is so thick it casts a pall on the humor." Similarly, the blurb from Time's James Poniewozik saying that the show is "captivating, riveting, rousing" is accurate, but he clearly did not like the show, like really didn't like the show. We can't blame HBO for feeling desperate about the The Newsroom's tepid reception, but this sad scramble is only going to carry them so far. Long term, what is HBO going to do about The Newsroom?
Well, creator/chief bloviator Aaron Sorkin has fired most of the writing staff in preparation for season two, so that's a start. Sure Sorkin is the main problem so axing the people around him seemingly avoids the chief issue, but we have a pet theory that the mass firing was less Sorkin's idea and more HBO's. As in, maybe they're bringing in their own people who they think can turn the show into something worthwhile, despite what master Sorkin says. That's probably not very likely, but we'd like to think that HBO is doing something active to manage the obvious problem. Ratings for the show aren't exactly bad, but we get the distinct impression that the curiosity factor is wearing off quickly, with a string of two truly bad episodes (last night's and the epically terrible Gabby Giffords installment last week) perhaps speeding up the process. If HBO wants to spare this show from being relegated the dust bin of TV history, it needs to make a move.
The West Wing, which floundeed but eventually improved when Sorkin left after the fourth season, proved that his babies can survive without him. Sure he brings a certain high-profile pedigree to a project, but as the raft of negative Newsroom reviews shows, his respectability might be waning. It seems like everyone's really into the idea of a series set in the behind-the-scenes of a cable news network, they just don't want this behind-the-scenes cabe news show. Sorkin has certainly earned himself at least a little more time to tinker without too much network involvement or threat of removal, but if HBO asked us for advice, we'd tell them to start shopping for a showrunner to keep waiting in the wings.
In the meantime, the network will just have to keep tinkering with the reviews, we guess. Emily Nussbaum's sage insight in The New Yorker that if the show's "storytelling were more confident, it could take a breath and deliver drama, not just talking points," could become a nice pullquote like "Confident... drama... points." How's that for a sell? Or maybe they could take something from The San Francisco Chronicle's David Wiegand, who wrote, "Watching 'The Newsroom' is like sitting through a very long lecture by an otherwise spellbinding professor who doesn't seem to know that class ended an hour before and everyone's overdue for a bathroom break." That could easily be "spellbinding... class[y]... overdue." Praise like that could keep the show going for a few weeks at least!
But yeah, long term? Something bigger, and, y'know, real, has gotta give.