Screen Test

When news and politics meet entertainment

In The Newsroom, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, left) and colleague Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, right) are pitted against an owner who is more concerned with ratings. -- PHOTO: HBO
In The Newsroom, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, left) and colleague Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, right) are pitted against an owner who is more concerned with ratings. -- PHOTO: HBO

The Newsroom and House Of Cards may bring on bouts of hate-watching and binge-watching

The Newsroom and House Of Cards are shows closely associated with two new terms added to the Oxford English Dictionary just a few months ago: hate-watching and binge-watching.

The former is defined as watching a TV programme for the thrill of mocking or criticising it, and the latter, the feverish viewing of multiple episodes of the same series back-to-back.

Both neologisms spring from a media landscape in which viewers now have a love-hate-self-loathing relationship with their favourite shows.

To be fair, there is much to like about The Newsroom, the third and final season of which is available till next month on HBO on Demand.

Created by Aaron Sorkin, the Oscar-winning scribe who penned the first four seasons of acclaimed TV show The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons from 1999 to 2006, and films such as The Social  Network (2010), it goes behind the scenes of a nightly news show and uses real events from the recent past (from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the Boston bombings) as a platform for examining a range of modern social, political and journalistic dilemmas.

News anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his colleagues Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) represent old-school newsgathering values to do with careful and responsible reporting, but find themselves pitted against an owner more concerned with ratings and the infotainment-style, social media-friendly stories that drive them.

Many of the things that made The West Wing such a breath of fresh air are replicated here - those impossibly witty, quick-fire exchanges salted with zeitgeisty political and pop-cultural zingers as characters walk-and-talk their way across the set, a Sorkin trademark and one that audiences adore because it makes them feel smart if they get all - or even some - of the references.

But the reason the The Newsroom and other shortlived Sorkin TV enterprises such as Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006-2007) have been identified as prime targets for hate-watching is that their creator is so obviously using his characters as mouthpieces to conduct idealised debates about current affairs (in which his own views invariably triumph).

This often reads as preachy and speechifying, which is how McAvoy's self-righteous "mission to civilise" the American public via his reporting can come off.

Fatally, he was also seen as preaching to the media about how to do their job - and this would be the same lot that wrote many of the scathing reviews of the first season.

The backlash so traumatised Sorkin, he hired consultants to help him improve subsequent seasons and even apologised to the press, before finally declaring that the six-episode Season 3 would be the last TV scripts he ever writes.

Even if you are not a journalist, it is easy to get annoyed if you do not agree with his views - and you do not have to be right-leaning or anti-liberal to do so, for his spin on gender politics alone frequently riles at least 50 per cent of the audience, as the widely criticised fifth episode about campus rape, which comes awfully close to blaming rape victims, did in the US recently.

Still, there are not enough shows on TV that even attempt to engage viewers in these sorts of intellectual  debates and one rather suspects that even the haters will miss it a little when it is gone.

House Of Cards, now in its second season, also tries, ostensibly, to engage its audience on politics. Like Sorkin's, this series has lofty aspirations, framing itself as a chilling, quasi-Shakespearean commentary on the nexus of power, corruption and moral turpitude on Capitol Hill.

This drama is more of a thriller, as told from the perspective of the murderously ambitious congressmen Frank Underwood (played by two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey) and wife Claire (Robin Wright), his equally power-hungry Lady Macbeth, as they manoeuvre their way up the political ladder.

In an interesting juxtaposition, the series - which begins Season 2 with Underwood poised to become the new Vice-President of the United States and his eyes perhaps on an even bigger prize - was tailor-made for a new breed for television viewer (yes, you with the short attention span and no concept of delayed gratification).

In the US, all episodes of each season were made available in one fell swoop on online streaming service Netflix, so subscribers did not have to wait a week between episodes and could binge on all 13 in short order.

Hailed as the future of TV programming, the show has received a lot of media attention in the US, where its first season was also a critical smash, winning David Fincher, the film director behind The Social Network and Gone Girl (2014), a 2013 Emmy for directing the pilot, and Wright a Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Actress this year.

In Singapore, however, the episodes are being parcelled out weekly, which may affect how willingly viewers will swallow this season's increasingly implausible plot twists, especially regarding how easily Underwood gets away with his Machiavellian machinations, which he continues to subtitle with deliciously knowing asides spoken directly to camera.

There is a distinctly potboilerish feel to this new batch of episodes. Whereas Underwood's fling with reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) in Season 1 served an important dramatic purpose, demonstrating the complexities of his marriage to Claire and making a point about media complicity, the sex in this instalment is both kinkier and more gratuitous.

The main narrative thread - Underwood's rise to power - moves forward at a faster clip, but even though more actually happens, it is all somehow less satisfying, largely because he appears to be surrounded by people who seem curiously oblivious and unable to thwart him.

Yet House Of Cards continues to shine in its sub-narratives - the quiet anguish of Claire as she confronts a past sexual assault, for instance, or the heart-wrenching sidebar on the fate of Freddie the barbecue guy, one of the few characters to humanise Underwood.

Again, despite the current plethora of shows about US politics, there is nothing quite like this on television at the moment.

stlife@sph.com.sg