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Making and breaking the news

Read Carefully

The Newsroom and Veep (Sky Atlantic)

***** / *****

“America is not the greatest country in the world any more”, says Will McIvor, the flawed hero of The Newsroom, in the opening minutes of Aaron Sorkin‘s latest TV drama. It is a classic Sorkin moment of eloquent, logical argument: a room full of disbelieving students hear McIvor, a prime-time news anchor, point out the uncomfortable truth, egged on by a mysterious woman in the back row holding cue cards.

McIvor reels off international comparisons with the frequency and power of a machine gun. Like President Bartlett’s put-down of a fundamentalist talk-show host in The West Wing, the voice of Sorkin is clearly heard through his lead character.

The improbably named Mackenzie McHale has Kate Adie’s CV but Kate Middleton’s complexion

And yet, post-opening titles, The Newsroom loses much of the verve of the opening scene.

McIvor, played by Jeff Daniels, returns from holiday to find that his executive producer (or ‘EP’) has moved to another show. His replacement is the improbably named Mackenzie McHale (played by Emily Mortimer). Even more improbably, McHale has Kate Adie‘s CV (shot at in three countries as a war correspondent, hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep in four years) yet has somehow maintained Kate Middleton’s complexion.

The rest of the show revolves around two storylines. The first is the office-based bickering between McIvor and McHale, whom we soon discover had been an item. The dialogue was fine and very ‘Sorkin’, but it also highlighted the way in which bustling through the White House corridors really helped make such scenes watchable – this felt far too static.

The second storyline was the breaking news of an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico – dismissed as a minor story by the outgoing EP but picked up by McHale’s deputy. McIvor, McHale and team take to the air with the bones of the story, but produce an hour-long show that shines a light on environmental mismanagement and incompetence that makes the story ‘go red’.

It’s a triumph for our heroes, and democracy and truth have been defended. The pair have fulfilled McHale’s exortation to McIvor: “speak truth to stupid” (probably one of the most cringeworthy phrases ever written by Sorkin).

In fairness, first episodes are often clunky as we discover the characters, and if the schmaltz and the smugness are turned down a notch in forthcoming episodes, this could be a great series. But the overall feeling was one of disappointment – it’s unrealistic to expect another West Wing, but this series has some way to go.

Veep, on the other hand, needed no time to warm up. Billed as a US version of The Thick of It, it uses many of the same techniques and the same crew and the same unlikely – yet completely believable – screw-ups.

Vice-President Selina Mayer is stuck in the world’s most powerless powerful position

However, whereas Hugh Abbot and Nicola Murray were constantly fearing the sack, Vice-President Selina Mayer is stuck in the world’s most powerless powerful position. She tries to tackle political reform and clean jobs while knowing that she is completely reliant on the whim of senators and the changing mood of the President (who never calls).

The dialogue is fast-paced, with some fantastic lines, lots of swearing (in this case, it is clever) and great acting. HBO has already commissioned a second series – and I suspect that unlike The Newsroom, Veep will be a series still worth watching in a year’s time.

Image: Steve Johnson on Unsplash