The Utopian News Program: "The Hour" and "The Newsroom"




The Utopian News Program: "The Hour" and "The Newsroom" by Aatif Rashid

'The Hour' did the Utopian News Program first, and it did it better.

October 15th, 2013 reset - +

LAST MONTH, when the 65th (if you're counting) Primetime Emmy's concluded, many ardent television viewers were left outraged that The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels defeated Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category. Such a reaction was justifiable, as The Newsroom gave us another lackluster season while Breaking Bad delivered its best yet. But Daniels's victory was in no way an expression of the Emmy's admiration for The Newsroom. The Aaron Sorkin drama had already been put in its place earlier in the night when Abi Morgan won Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries for The Hour, the BBC series that is The Newsroom's counterpart and possibly its inspiration. The Newsroom, meanwhile, was eligible for the Outstanding Writing for Drama Series category, but was never even nominated, a big blow to a show that prides itself on such cleverly written dialogue.

The Hour's first season (or "series" as is said in the United Kingdom) premiered the summer of 2011, a year before The Newsroom, and the two shows are uncannily similar. In each, a group of idealists create a utopian news program in a climate of indifference to do "the news" as it should be done. Even the characters are mirror images of each other, so much so that one wonders how much Sorkin borrowed/paid homage to Morgan. On The Hour, Romola Garai plays the producer-with-a-vision who invariably has romantic tension with the male leads; Dominic West (our favorite alcoholic idealist from The Wire) plays the popularity-craving anchor of the news program; and Ben Whishaw plays the young and fiercely intelligent upstart journalist. On The Newsroom it's Emily Mortimer who is the producer-with-a-vision, Jeff Daniels as the popularity craving anchor, and John Gallagher Jr. as the young upstart.

The Newsroom proved to be more popular with, if not more admired by, both audiences and critics, achieving 1.9 million viewers for its second season's finale, while The Hour garnered only 1.2 million. The Newsroom was also given considerably more press coverage prior to and after its premiere, due in large part to the popularity of screenwriting giant Aaron Sorkin. That's not to say that Abi Morgan was an unknown, as she had penned the script for the critically acclaimed chronicle of sex addiction Shame, which featured a spectacular Michael Fassbender, and the far less critically acclaimed but still well acted biopic The Iron Lady, which garnered Meryl Streep yet another Oscar. But its hard to compete with the attention Sorkin draws, for in addition to the highly successful The West Wing, Sorkin also wrote the screenplays for Charlie Wilson's War, The Social Network, and Moneyball and is currently working on a film about Steve Jobs.

Audience and press attention aside, however, The Hour is a better show than The Newsroom. It's idealism feels genuine instead of sanctimonious, its tone respectful instead of glib, and its content a true reflection of the liberal values of journalism. More than that, it did in only 12 episodes what The Newsroom failed to do in 19 by believably chronicling a group of idealists who attempted to create the utopian news program.

The Hour starts provocatively. "The newsreels are dead," says Freddie Lyon (Whishaw) while preparing for an interview. "We've bored the public for too long. Give me this opportunity and I'll prove it." This isn't just Freddie talking, but Abi Morgan herself, declaring her agenda to the audience. The Newsroom similarly, if less succinctly, introduces its agenda with Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) spontaneously articulating how America isn't the greatest country in the world to a college lecture hall. Both shows then spend their pilot episodes showing idealistic characters coming together to start new news programs, declaring that "putting real journalists in front of the camera is sending out the message that you take the news seriously" (Freddie from The Hour) and that these new programs will be "reclaiming the fourth estate" and "reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession" (Mortimer's MacKenzie McHale from The Newsroom). Yet why is it that The Hour's idealism never comes across as sanctimonious and didactic the way The Newsroom's does?

One major reason is setting. The Hour's first season begins in 1956, while The Newsroom's begins in 2010. The Newsroom, however, takes its inspiration from the setting of The Hour, idolizing journalists of the 1950s and ’60s like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. This displacement is part of the problem. The Newsroom uses the rhetoric of the ’50s and ’60s to tackle the problems of the 21st century. When Freddie and his producer Bel Rowley (Garai) talk of the ideals of journalism and declare that "if we cannot debate that which troubles our society, and more importantly troubles our government, then we cannot in all honesty call ourselves a democracy" their rhetoric, which in some contexts could be read as melodramatic, complements the gravity of the era and the events that serve as the backdrop of the story (the Suez Crisis, the Cold War, censorship). When Will and MacKenzie try to sound idealistic, declaring that "nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate," their rhetoric reads as sententious against the backdrop of our postmodern, cynical, ironic age, especially as Will and Mackenzie aren't facing the very real possibility of government censorship or nuclear war that Freddie and Bel face.

Of course, Aaron Sorkin had no problem making The West Wing a paragon of idealism in a cynical age. Characters like Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborne would spout platitudes as Will and MacKenzie do, and yet it all seemed much more plausible and far less preachy, perhaps because we idealize our leaders and politicians and expect them to pontificate as Josiah Bartlet and Leo McGarry did. Sorkin's next show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, had its characters use similarly elevated rhetoric to discuss the workings of a sketch-comedy show, and ultimately came across as pretentious in its attempts to have its characters take sketches as seriously as the White House staff took running the country. The Newsroom though is about serious issues, and so it should be able, like The West Wing, to successfully navigate the ironic current of our postmodern age.

Part of the problem, ironically enough, is that The Newsroom tries too hard to adopt an ironic and flippant tone, which undermines the gravity of the issues it attempts to discuss. In the pilot, as MacKenzie and Will are discussing the need for a more serious news program, MacKenzie summarizes its goal as "speaking truth to stupid." The attempted humor here not only comes across as a little self-righteous but also undercuts the highly serious mission statement MacKenzie is trying to articulate. By contrast, The Hour, though funny at times, avoids comedy when discussing its own mission statement. While Freddie is interviewing for a position on The Hour's new show, he is shown footage of an athlete crossing the finish line and breaking a record, footage in which the boom mike is visible at the top of the screen. Freddie argues that the footage is valuable and should still air, because seeing the boom "makes it more real" and testifies to "the mechanics of how we bear witness" and the way we "reveal fleeting moments of history," a moment that wouldn’t stand a chance at maintaining its gravitas against the overriding witticism impulse of Sorkin’s Newsroom.

Even near the end of the second season, when the stakes are at their highest for Will and company, when they've aired a false story and the lawyers are circling and the entire team might be forced to resign, and when they also happen to be right in the middle of election coverage, Will can't help but insert glib commentary, like "I was trapped by my own sentence structure," after verbally flailing for a moment while delivering election results for two major states, drawing our attention away from the news to focus on a small comedic moment. The line can also be seen as a microcosm of The Newsroom itself, a show too trapped by its own rhetorical structure, too caught up in delivering dialogue that might reflect well on Aaron Sorkin's ability to write a clever sentence but that ultimately loses sight of the bigger picture. The Hour might not always be as funny as The Newsroom, but it refuses to sacrifice a serious story on the Suez Crisis or the Russian invasion of Hungary simply to deliver a particularly punchy turn of phrase.

The Newsroom, however, suffers from more than just an incongruous tone. Unlike The Hour, it doesn't take the inherently liberal agenda of journalism seriously. Journalism has always been a liberal institution, and while this may give some credence to the conservative argument about a liberal media bias, it makes sense when one considers that the function of a journalist is to reveal information that the existing power structures won't reveal, to in a sense challenge the dominance of the institutions by giving a voice to the voiceless. The Hour takes this liberal agenda seriously. Journalists like Freddie go out of their way to depict immigrants in a climate of xenophobia, gay people in a climate of homophobia, or anti-war protestors in a climate of war mongering. Additionally, The Hour tackled the issue of government censorship directly in its first season, pitting the new team of journalists against government ministers trying to influence the coverage.

The Hour is also not afraid to skirt the extreme liberal edge of politics (namely, communism). Not only are Freddie's liberal views tinged with Communist ideas (he considers quoting Marx in his interview), but the first season also contains a significant plotline about a potential Communist spy in the BBC. When this spy is finally revealed, however, the show doesn't sanctimoniously glorify his downfall but allows him a more subtle and conflicted exit. "I don't know why they don't suspect us more, journalists," the spy says to Freddie. "We're thrust into world events, life changing events. They expect us not to be changed." It's a sentiment worthy of John le Carré and a piercing look at liberal journalism with The Hour's characteristic nuance.

The Newsroom by contrast tries very hard to reassure its viewers that it has no liberal agenda. Will McAvoy insists that he's a Republican, and The Newsroom glorifies the hierarchies that The Hour's journalists try to bring down. Will declares himself the "media elite" and the show tries to legitimize his authority by emphasizing how much money he makes and how expensive his suit is. The show also casually dismisses WikiLeaks in one small scene, choosing to ignore a major though admittedly controversial innovation in journalism rather than even address it. Thus instead of giving airtime to the voiceless, the show insists that the only voice we need to hear is that of Will. This fear of the liberal values of journalism only deepens with the highly flawed "Genoa" story from season 2.

The Hour and The Newsroom had similar storylines in their respective second seasons, storylines that depicted unfolding scandals with potential government involvement. The Newsroom's plot revolved around the possible use of chemical weapons on civilians while The Hour looked at a widening scandal involving prostitution and police corruption. The "Genoa" scandal in The Newsroom, however, turned out to be a red herring and what started as a promising look into drone strikes and government corruption turned into another way for its characters to act self-righteously.

When The Newsroom newcomer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) expressed his ardent views on the illegality of drone strikes it seemed for a moment that The Newsroom would tackle a controversial yet timely issue. And when the "Genoa" story began, it seemed as though the show might explore the issue of chemical weapons and the implications of their use on civilians. Dantana seemed a perfect character to do this, complete with a set of liberal views on rendition and torture. A year before, in its second season, The Hour had not been afraid to tell a story of a slowly widening scandal that eventually grew to include high level police and government corruption. Yet The Newsroom quickly lost its nerve, pulled its punches, declared the "Genoa" story false, and made Dantana into a villain by having him doctor footage to support his own views. The season's final episodes didn't even mention drone strikes or chemical weapons, choosing instead to focus on how the noble heroes of The Newsroom would stand tall against the evil Jerry Dantana and glorifying them for using him as a scapegoat. The actual substance of "Genoa" was forgotten.

The problem, of course, is that if Dantana is meant to be an antagonist or even a villain in The Newsroom, he is a very poorly written one, certainly when compared to the antagonist of The Hour's second season, Commander Laurence Stern. Dantana was never presented as malicious when he was first introduced; in fact, he sincerely believed, as did many of the other characters, that the "Genoa" story was true. The difference was that his idealism led him to make a terrible choice that the other characters were honest enough not to make. Yet the show never explored Dantana's psyche after he doctored the tape, nor the effect of his decision on his ideals, and after "Genoa" was revealed to be false, Dantana abruptly left the show and was never seen again. This of course was convenient, as it allowed the other characters to use him as a punching bag and moralize at him without giving him a chance to respond or explain his motivations.

Commander Stern on The Hour, however, was allowed to evolve and develop dimension as a character. We learn early on about his dark side when it’s revealed that he was responsible for beating nightclub singer Kiki Delane (Hannah Tointon), but we also learn about his past with Hector (Dominic West), about how they served together in the war, and about how he once saved Hector's life. As we learn more about Stern's involvement in the scandal, as well as his past, his dark side grows, but we never lose sight of him as a human being, as a character with motivations and desires. When he does finally meet his end, we are meant to grieve and feel some pity, despite his role as an antagonist. Once again, The Hour demonstrates its characteristic nuance in giving Commander Stern sufficient screen time to elicit the right mix of revulsion and sympathy, neither of which we were able to feel for Jerry Dantana.

The shows' respective approaches to their second season antagonists also reflect their differing approaches to their protagonists. In focusing on a larger than life personality such as Will McAvoy, The Newsroom alienates us as it did Dantana. Will, despite being well portrayed by Jeff Daniels, who many could argue did indeed deserve the Emmy, is not relatable to the average viewer and thus is a poor protagonist. The Hour recognizes the necessity of a relatable protagonist, and that's why its not Hector, the mirror image of Will, but rather Freddie who is the protagonist, the underdog journalist who is easy to root for. Will meanwhile, is really a part of the establishment that he purports to overthrow. When idealistic statements come from Freddie's mouth, we applaud his youthful romanticism, but when the older and more powerful Will says them, they sound pedantic.

Even the repeated emphasis on Freddie's romantic interest in Bel, who rejects him at first for the more successful Hector, helps cement his role as the underdog. When Bel finally admits her feelings for Freddie in the season two finale, it’s a victory for Freddie and one that we as the audience can share with him. When Will proposes to MacKenzie at the end of The Newsroom's second season, it feels unexpected rather than glorious, largely because it’s hard for the audience to identify with Will and thus hard to share in what should have been his romantic triumph.

Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing also recognized the need for a relatable protagonist, and thus it was not Martin Sheen, for all his screen time, but rather Josh Lyman who was the protagonist of the show. Like Freddie, Josh's scrappy idealism made him easy to identify with and root for. The one possible underdog in The Newsroom, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) is by contrast given woefully limited screen time despite the actor's stellar performance. The show teases that he might be a major character in its pilot, by hinting at a possible romantic interest in MacKenzie, and by emphasizing his go-getter attitude with regard to the BP story. And yet very soon into the show, Jim is relegated to the sidelines, given a less than satisfying romance with Maggie, and never allowed to shine the way Freddie was on The Hour.

Sadly though, The Newsroom was renewed for a third season, while The Hour was cancelled. Fans of The Hour, though, can rest assured, that the show has left a tremendous legacy, depicting a utopian news program with more polish and sophistication than its more highly budgeted and more popular American counterpart. And unlike The Newsroom¸ which ended its second season pandering to its audience with a cheesy happy ending that ignored the major issues of drones and chemical weapons the season failed to engage, The Hour allowed the season's events to take their realistic and most fulfilling course. It left us with dark truths about prostitution and corruption in British society, and with Freddie, our underdog protagonist, lying on his back, on the verge of death, having made an actual heroic sacrifice for the sake of journalism.

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Aatif Rashid is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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