Wednesday, May 16, 2012

TV Review: The Newsroom (1996-1997, 2003-2005)

By ScottDS
While HBO is getting ready to premiere Aaron Sorkin’s new TV series, titled The Newsroom, I thought now might be a good time to take a look back at another TV series with the same name. This series is a Canadian production that aired on the CBC. Originally intended as a one-season show, the network eventually brought it back as a TV movie and later produced two more seasons. While it would be considered a dark comedy, many of the episodes take a turn for the surreal.

Series creator/writer/director Ken Finkleman plays George Findlay, the news director at an unnamed TV news station. Finkleman had toiled in Hollywood on such unremarkable films as Grease II and Head Office before returning to his native Canada where he found success producing multiple TV shows featuring Findlay as a linking character. Findlay is egotistical, vain, petty, and his sole concern seems to be his place within the network bureaucracy. He’s afraid of his mother, might be constipated (early episodes feature bran muffins as a running gag), and compares the employees at his BMW dealer to Nazis. He refuses to hire a black anchor (for arbitrary economic reasons), he asks a Middle Eastern intern if he’s a terrorist (after going through his web browser history), and is constantly trying to hit on female guests and other network employees. Findlay/Finkleman has been compared to Larry David on more than one occasion.

The two constant supporting characters are news anchor Jim Walcott (Peter Keleghan) and segment producer Karen Mitchell (Karen Hines). Walcott is an idiot and has been accused of sexual harassment multiple times. He refuses to read or watch the news and admits he might’ve been the last person to know about 9/11. In one episode, he’s reporting in the Middle East, gets kidnapped, and annoys his captors so much that they lower the ransom demand from two million US$ to 1700 C$. Karen is a hard-working intellectual who refuses to dumb herself down for her co-workers. She appears to be the only one to take the news seriously and Findlay believes she’s a lesbian.

I know this is common today but one element of the show I don’t like is the lack of formal character introductions. People show up for a few episodes, then leave. Rarely is this ever pointed out. I don’t even know all of the characters’ last names. Findlay has a couple of interns throughout the show – the most interesting being Audrey, played by Tanya Allen – as well as a handful of yes-men segment producers. Some of them get good moments while others are complete non-entities. Early episodes feature an insecure weatherman (Bruce, played by David Hubband) while we also meet a few of Findlay’s superiors at the network – all strong, intimidating women. The show also features many guest appearances by public figures, though I only recognized David Cronenberg.

I mentioned above that the show takes a turn for the surreal. While many episodes feature your standard workplace sitcom tropes (budget problems, romantic mix-ups, etc.), other episodes do the complete opposite, specifically the three season finales. Personally, I find these episodes rather pretentious, the same way I find Woody Allen’s melodramas somewhat pretentious, though I can’t fault a guy for trying to branch out and do something different. The season 1 finale is a three-part episode about a potential nuclear disaster. Findlay doesn’t think it’s a big enough story and instead goes about casting actresses who look like Jane Fonda so he can present it just like The China Syndrome. (A highlight is Findlay coming up with an animated intro for the story.) Several characters tell Findlay that he’s afraid of confronting his own mortality and the third episode finds him dressed in black just like Marcello Mastroianni in 8 ½ as he encounters all the women from his past who tell him what they really think of him.

The season 2 finale features segment producer Alex, played by Jody Racicot, feeling suicidal after being dumped by a woman (George’s reply: “You sure this can't wait until tomorrow?”). He fabricates a news story and George tries to make a book deal about the entire incident. Meanwhile, a crowd has gathered at a Taco Bell where they believe they see the image of the Virgin Mary on a wall. At one point, George is smoking pot and an angel (or the Virgin Mary?) appears to tell him his liberal politics are all wrong. At the episode’s end, Findlay is convinced his politics are correct but that network news might be the most destructive thing of all. The season 3 finale is even weirder: an animated tale narrated by Findlay about a movie director who encounters a mysterious woman who can fly. I still don’t completely understand this one, though it is pretty to look at.

The second season features a death in almost every episode. One thing I like about the show is that they don’t worry about the execution of certain gags. For example, in the span of one scene, we’ll cut from “So here’s what’s happening tonight...” to “So, about last night…” with nothing in between. We hear ridiculous events described only in dialogue and our imaginations fill in the rest. There’s also a bizarre sense of self-awareness on display. The best example would be the episode “One Dumb Idea” where they do a news story on the obscene amounts of money made by TV producers so Findlay and his yes-men decide to create a TV show – all they need is one dumb idea. One producer suggests a TV series about a group of newsmen who try coming up with an idea for a TV show, only to see it fail as everyone tries to claim credit. By episode’s end, this is exactly what happens. Another episode leaves a subplot hanging and we see backstage as Finkleman and his producers wonder what to do next.

While I believe the show is ahead of its time (it predates both Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office), it’s not for everyone. The politics might be a little off-putting (they are in Canada, after all) but they usually take a backseat to the neuroses and insecurities that are simply part and parcel of the newsroom. Some characters are more likeable than others and even Findlay is interesting in his own way. I have no interest in watching Sorkin’s show but I get the feeling he’ll portray network news as a noble enterprise (“We’re the truth tellers,” etc.) whereas Finkleman’s show is more like Network in that regard, portraying the news as a corrupt operation populated with egotistical fools who are only looking out for themselves. As for Finkleman, I guess I’m a fan though I wonder about the thought process that led to him inserting himself into his TV shows, as the same character no less. Is this an artist who’s interested in exploring the human condition in a seriocomic way, or a hack using the medium of TV as his own therapy session?

As of 2012, George Findlay has returned, this time as the news director at a conservative network. The title is, appropriately, Good God.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for an excellent review. I haven't seen this one, but it sounds interesting. I can't say the same about Sorkin's show. The preview for that makes it look like a massive liberal sucker punch and I will not watch it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I don't even remember how I first heard of this show. I think I read a review of the DVD and it sounded interesting, so I Netflixed it, then I eventually bought it.

And from what I understand, Finkleman brought back George Findlay for a show titled Good Dog which is like the Canadian Curb Your Enthusiasm. The second season changed the title to Good God but I don't know if the shows are related, other than that and the presence of Findlay.

As for Sorkin's show, a friend of mine asked if I was going to be watching it and I said no. "The news media is miserable enough in the real world - why would I want to watch a dramatization of it?!"

On the other hand, I did enjoy Sorkin's last show, Studio 60. It was a bit melodramatic at times but overall, it was pretty good and I don't think it deserved to get cancelled after only one year. To think, people thought 30 Rock would be cancelled and Studio 60 would last for years and win awards. How wrong they were!

Doc Whoa said...

I haven't seen this. In fact, I've never heard of it. Sorry, I don't have much else to add.

Anonymous said...

Doc -

That's okay. I imagine many people haven't heard of this show. I just thought it was worth writing about. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, My issue with the Sorkin show is political. The trailer shows the guy pretending he's a Republican who has a moment of conscience and then unloads all the liberal crap like it's true and like he's being lying the whole time in pretending it wasn't. Well F-you Sorkin.

Ed said...

Scott, You've found an obscure one indeed.

BevfromNYC said...

I may be wrong, but didn't Sorkin write "Sports Night"? One of my favorite TV shows ever.

T-Rav said...

Yeah, I haven't heard of this one either, though it's probably infinitely preferable to anything Sorkin will come up with.

It does sound a lot like The Office in its early seasons. I could roll with it.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, Here's the trailer you need to see if you want to know what Sorkin is doing:


This is the one HBO has been showing and isn't the cleaned up one which makes the show look apolitical and funny.

It gets ugly around 30 seconds in.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

I know your issue with Sorkin's show and you know I'm not as sensitive to that sort of thing. :-)

It's just not something I'm interested in and the news media is probably the last world I want to spend my spare time exploring, unless it's done in a comedic way, of course.

Anonymous said...

Ed -

Yeah, it's obscure, at least on this side of the US/Canadian border. :-) The show was very popular up there which only proves my theory: we need a CBC America channel in this country!

Unknown said...

Sorkin is slime, and the fact that he occasionally does something interesting doesn't change that fact.

I'm probably the only one here who remembers a Canadian TV production from the late 80s to early 90s called ENG (Electronic News Gathering). It was pretty realistic and had no major discernible political agenda. For now, I think I'll just pass on newsrooms. Where's Lou Grant when we need him? Oops, never mind, he's out promoting far left wing causes.

Anonymous said...

Bev -

Yeah, Sorkin wrote Sports Night which has been in my Netflix queue since I first started subscribing to it (so, that would be almost a decade!). I'll get to it one day.

Anonymous said...

T-Rav -

It is definitely like The Office but darker and we don't delve too much into the personal lives of the characters, except for Findlay. This show even beat the British version of The Office to TV by almost five years but it's not well known so it doesn't get any credit.

Anonymous said...

LawHawk -

I'm indifferent to Sorkin, though any creative person worth his salt would find both sides of the political spectrum worth mocking. But I look forward to seeing how he adapts the Steve Jobs book for the big screen. (That Sorkin's doing it is irrelevant to me - I'm interested in Jobs.)

I assume you're referring to E.N.G.. I've never heard of it but I'll take your word for it. :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - I guessed I missed that one, but kinda sorta remember the name. I also got rid of my HBO & SHO so will miss the new Sorkin. He has some talent, but is an ass so I shan't lose sleep that I'll miss it. Decided to put my money where my mouth is dumped them both. Too bad cuz every once in a while, they put on great stuff like the Soprano's and Band of Brothers. But they are so overtly and annoyingly liberal, I just got tired of making the network people richer.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

I trust you'll at least Netflix the next HBO/SHO program that looks interesting...? No use in dumping the whole baby out with the bath water. :-)

Having said that, if I were running HBO, I'd give Dennis Miller the post-Maher slot. "Dennis, as long as you can keep costs below $X, you can do whatever you want." That would equalize things a little bit.

BevfromNYC said...

Scott - Sports Night was fairly apolitical, and really well written and acted. It didn't last too long because it was very fast paced and brainy.

I really liked West Wing for a few seasons but it went off the rails near the end when he chose to go with the election story line at the same time and well after everyone was election weary from the real 2004 election cycle.

And the kiss of death for Sorkin is when he started delving into the lives of the personal live and loves of his characters. Like in other show of its ilk (Law & Order franchise), West Wing is not character driven, it's plot driven.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts about character vs. plot. I would say The Newsroom is definitely a plot-driven show.

It's gotten to the point now where I can watch a show that does both and say to myself, "Okay, this is the part of the plot that is meaningful to the character." Fringe does that a lot where the case they're solving that week has a direct bearing on one of the characters, who learns a lesson from it. (It's a great show - but I've watched so much TV that this all starts to seep in.)

BevfromNYC said...

Scott - In a show like West Wing or L&O, NCIS etc. you need to add enough character-driven plot points to make your characters interesting and human, but no so much that they clog up the plot. Do you think anyone really needed to know the in-depth private life of Lenny Brisco on L&O to make the plot interesting?

T-Rav said...

Who's Lenny Brisco?

Anonymous said...

T-Rav -

I had to look it up to be sure since I never watched Law & Order but Lenny Briscoe was the detective played by Jerry Orbach.

Bev -

You are, of course, correct. It can be a subtle distinction and I think it might even make an interesting future article (not by me, though). :-)

Backthrow said...

Quote, "Yeah, it's obscure, at least on this side of the US/Canadian border. :-) The show was very popular up there which only proves my theory: we need a CBC America channel in this country!", unquote.


Actually, we *did* have one of those, once... it was called TRIO, and for about six years (in the 1990s), it played Canadian shows like SCTV, STREET LEGAL, THE LITTLEST HOBO, NORTH OF 60, THE RACCOONS, etc, plus some U.K. imports. Then NBC/Universal bought it, tossed out the Canadian content, and ran it as a competitor to BRAVO. This incarnation actually ran some interesting stuff, like the 'Brilliant But Cancelled' rerun showcase for acclaimed TV series that never quite caught on with the public (THE ERNIE KOVACKS SHOW, JOHNNY STACCATO, EAST SIDE/WEST SIDE, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, ACTION, BAKERSFIELD P.D., etc), and turning over a week of primetime programming to people like Quentin Tarantino and TV critic Joel Steinto play what they liked. Tarantino played some cool, obscure old movies, drive-in trailers and episodes of the 1950s ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS; Stein delighted in running old BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS specials, the incredibly ill-conceived variety show, PINK LADY & JEFF, and a modern porn film with all the sex scenes cut out --leaving just the laughable 'dramatic' character scenes.

Alas, it suffered consistently low ratings in either format, and actually was terminated (rather than morphing into another channel, which is a low-performing network's usual fate). The space was used for broadband, and later was taken up by NBC/Universal's could've-been-great-but-wasn't 'Sleuth' channel (which then morphed into 'Cloo', as 'Sci-Fi' became 'SyFy'... proving that the home of MSNBC first lost the ability to reason, then lost the ability to spell), a sad waste of broadcast real estate.,_network_in_limbo

Anonymous said...

I vaguely remember Trio, but I don't even know if I had it as part of my cable package.

I know for a fact that I would've been too young to appreciate it in the 90s. :-)

500 channels and the same two dozen movies playing on all of them. [sigh]

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