I’ve been watching a lot of old Sports Night episodes recently.
No, not the David Coleman one, fantastic theme tune though it may have had. I mean the Aaron Sorkin show from the late 90s.
If you’ve never seen it before - and in the UK that’d be very easy, as it’s only ever had a limited run on the not-that-lamented old ABC1 channel from the early days of Freeview - then imagine if the Newsroom was actually funny, shorter, had characters you cared about and nobody was so preachy you’d like to bang their face off the desk repeatedly.
That’s Sports Night.
It’s a suspiciously similar set up - producer in love with the host, assistant producer in love with one of the staff, cantankerous but loveable old boss and as much Sorkinesque dialogue as you could shake a hand-carved Mongolian shaking stick at.
There’s clever wordplay, slapstick, references to musical theatre and a sense of this all being a bit more clever than the audience it’s aimed at. A sense not hindered by the fact the sitcom laughtrack accompanying it appears to be about 10 minutes behind the jokes.
Both shows share a similar antecedent, of course, in Keith Olbermann - the former ESPN anchorman turned MSNBC autoranter who inspired both Will McAvoy and Dan Rydell. Indeed, back when The Newsroom was announced I used to think it’d be a fun, and interesting, approach had it been done as the Lou Grant to Sports Night’s Mary Tyler Moore Show, with Josh Charles returning as Rydell - older and angrier.
Thankfully Sorkin went down a better path. Better for Josh Charles’ sake, anyway, and for fans of Sports Night. Not sure about everyone else.
Funny or Die’s nailed-on pisstake of the opening scene from The Newsroom is perfect, not just in spoofing McAvoy’s rant but also in underlining why so many people are disappointed with the show.
After the misfire that was Studio 60, a show which desperately wanted to be about news rather than comedy, the idea of Sorkin returning to the field after the success of Charlie Wilson’s War and The Social Network was exciting.
A reinvigorated Sorkin, going after the targets he was itching to attack in 2006, with the freedom afforded by HBO. And as the man says in the video, who doesn’t love HBO?
Instead what we’ve got is Sorkin by numbers. Almost literally, in fact. You can count the beats as they come up. It’s predictable and tired, and a touch lazy. A show filled with so many great actors fails to provide them with even close to the material they need. The Newsroom feels like Sports Night, stripped of the good jokes and stretched out to three times the length. But when you stretch something out that much, it largely becomes thin and breakable.
As The Newsroom limps to a disappointing conclusion of a disappointing second series, it’s recommissioning seems to have been largely ignored. It’s understandable why - unlike Sports Night and The West Wing, and even to an extent S60, there’s little there to recommend it. I’m not sure I can be bothered with a third series. I suspect I won’t be alone.
My pal Alan, judging by his Facebook updates, is discovering the joys of the early episodes of The West Wing for the first time. He’s one of the lucky ones.
As for me? I’m just watching Sports Night on CSC, so stick around…