"Why ‘The Hour’ Is The Show ‘The Newsroom’ Wants to Be"
“One of the lucky things one of the nice, sort of, unintended consequences of working for HBO is that the entire season is written, shot, and locked in the can before the first episode airs,” Aaron Sorkin said at the panel for his show The Newsroom at the Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday. “So even if you are tempted to try to write a little bit differently to please the people or change someone’s mind, you can’t do it. The season is done.” In other words, he’s happy with his show even if critics dislike it, saying that he “a hundred percent disagree[s]” with viewers who have been perturbed by his portrayals of women. If there was one theme to the exchange, it was that there’s a gap between what Sorkin sees in his own show, and what critics are seeing on screen.
And that division was even more striking because of a presentation earlier in the day of a show that is exactly what Sorkin seems to want The Newsroom to be, only it’s not airing on HBO and Sorkin didn’t create it: The Hour, a period piece about British news broadcasting in the fifties, that aired its first season on BBC America last summer.
Where The Newsroom began with vague arguments about will (and Will) and has moved into the nebulous motivations of his cranky corporate overlords, The Hour has clearly-delineated obstacles to the excellent reporting of the news. In the first season of The Hour (as was also the case with the miniseries State of Play), the show’s public broadcasters struggled to get a story out despite significant reporting hurdles thrown up by the government and pressure applied by the agents of state. In the second season, star Romola Garai, who plays producer Bel Rowley, explains that “There’s a new character that comes in at ITV, which is the big rival to the BBC. It’s launched at the beginning of the series. And they have their own show, which is very much a competitor to ‘The Hour.’ And their Head of News is a very dashing and attractive man who Bel hates and then grows to find curiously attractive.” That’s a specific and important story to tell, and one that requires more specific contrasts between styles and ethics of reporting (as well as more new characters), one that Will hints at in his monologue about providing advertising-free space for news broadcasting, that The Hour will spend part of six full episodes on.
And where The Newsroom has Neal as its blogger caricature, Don as the producer who wants to do right but is failing at it, and Maggie as, apparently, the person designated for Sorkin to establish and then “have them slip on as many banana peels as you want,” as he put it on Wednesday, The Hour’s characters are more clearly connected to larger positions and larger pressure points. This season on The Hour, Hector (Dominic West), the aristocratic anchor who found his nerve in the previous season, will find himself disgruntled when he’s forced to share the position with Freddie (Ben Whishaw), the young, radical reporter who backed him up previously. And The Hour’s creator Abi Morgan explained that they’re part of a larger alignment within the galaxy of the show.
“You have that internal triangle going on as well with Bel as the kind of mediator of those two,” she explained. “And then the bigger one is the birth of other channels, in particular ITV, and it’s about the commercial success of a commercial channel like ITV versus a public service broadcaster like the BBC. So we have that, and then, on a wider level, it’s about Britain aligning itself with America, trying to compete with America, but also the friend of America. So it has a bigger issue about the nuclear arms race and their relationship with America and really the kind of duck and cover terror of the late ’50s where life felt very short and very prescient.”
Morgan promised other issues as well: race, in the form of booming immigration to Britain and the far-right response to it, as well as a love triangle between a black secretary, a black doctor, and a second-generation British Jew; the rise of glamor and celebrity culture imported from the U.S., which Morgan said would go to Hector’s head; and the launch of Sputnik. The Newsroom‘s response to these issues has been to treat anti-immigrant bigots like fools rather than powerful forces and to provide an opportunity for Will’s saintliness even as he makes a range of equal-opportunity offensive comments, and to egregiously insult women who work in and consume celebrity culture.
On a character level, there’s a dramatic gap between Bel’s hypercompetence when it’s juxtaposed against Maggie’s perpetual mistakes and the vast gaps in supposedly-genius MacKenzie’s knowledge about basic world facts. Sorkin seems to believe that he’s firmly established MacKenzie as brilliant even though we rarely see her doing substantive work on the show. He insisted that “she’s got the whole meeting with the staff in which she’s extremely deft and a great leader, and then once you nail that down, it’s, for me, permissible to have her hit ‘send all’ instead of just ‘send’,” even as he ignored the wildly hysterical reaction and technical ignorance he wrote for her in the aftermath of that error. Morgan, by contrast, shows Bel doing much more of her job in the first season of The Hour, giving her working life and her affair with Hector balance, and having her excellence in the former be a part of the attraction that leads to the latter. And she outlined plans to expand the relationship between Bel and foreign correspondent Lix, and to contrast them with the women they meet in London’s burgeoning club scene.
Finally, The Newsroom seems plagued by a problem that I don’t think I would have identified before Sorkin and Jeff Daniels’ presentation on Wednesday. Given Sorkin’s history, I think it was reasonable to assume that Will was meant to be a straightforward hero, which is why is deeply unpleasant behavior, particularly towards women comes across as obsessive-repulsive. Now, I think Sorkin believes he’s writing and Daniels believes he’s portraying a nuanced anti-hero, when in reality, Sorkin is struggling to write an anti-hero in a realm where he’s previously written straightforward champions. “We present this Will’s mission to civilize as something, first of all, that people roll their eyes at, and second, that always blows up in his face,” Sorkin said in response to a question from me. “Hubris on this show is always punished.” Except it’s not. When Will’s mission to civilize meets with derision, the women who are offended by him are portrayed as bitches, and in one case, as actually unhinged. When Will reflects with his therapist on his bullying of a Santorum supporter on his show, he feels bad later, but in the broadcast, he ends with the last, tough word, and faces no drop in ratings or professional consequences. Sorkin hasn’t found a transgressive thing for Will to do that makes the audience excited that’s the equivalent of Walt’s cooking meth or Omar robbing drug dealers. Instead, he’s made us feel bad and cranky about his case for values that many of the viewers who dislike the show actually share.
The Hour, on the other hand, has absolutely straightforward flawed heroes, and I think it benefits from that clarity, and its willingness to visit down real consequences. Hector may start the season riding a wave of celebrity at the dramatic expense of his job performance, but from the promo we saw at press tour, he swiftly ends up in the clink for an as-yet-unidentified transgression. That, not a drink in the face, is a true consequences to face for hubris.