Monday, 9 July 2012

The Newsroom, Adam Buxton's Bug and Sinbad

This TV preview originally appeared in The Scotsman's Saturday magazine on 7th July 2012.

Tuesday, Sky Atlantic, 10pm

Monday, Sky Atlantic, 9:30pm

Sunday, Sky 1, 7pm

Paul Whitelaw

Another week, another raft of new offerings from Sky, whose steamrollering mission to claim every major US import together with every comedian formerly employed by the BBC continues unabated.

Their latest trumpet-blaring acquisition is THE NEWSROOM, written and created by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing renown. Despite being a television critic, and therefore automatically expected to kneel before the altar of Sorkin, I've never been a fan of his work. His signature writing style – that frenetic, mannered, pseudo-screwball dialogue – has always irked me with its self-consciousness and tacit self-regard, and his penchant for speechifying schmaltz only serves as a reminder that he isn't the modern-day Frank Capra of his dreams. I just find it very hard to enjoy writing that explicitly draws attention to itself.

What really staggers me about The Newsroom, however, is how it manages to confirm every criticism I have of Sorkin's writing to the extent that it borders on self-parody. Set within the confines of a fictional cable news channel, it's a typically sanctimonious and hectoring fable in which Jeff Daniels stars as a long-serving anchorman with a reputation for being bland and non-confrontational.

But his uncontroversial image is dramatically blown apart one day when, exhausted by the bickering partisanship that passes for mainstream political debate, he snaps during a live Q&A and delivers a rousing tirade about how – gasp! - America isn't actually the greatest country in the world. Scored to plangent piano, it's a laughable set-piece, mired in corn, and typical of Sorkin's worst excesses.

On and on he types, piling one unlikely contrivance onto another, as his ciphers clumsily declare their traits and motivations while failing to be even half as witty or clever as he thinks he is. There is absolutely no subtext to his writing, everything is so on-the-nose and mechanical. It's obvious that The Great Writer has no-one around him who's prepared to tell him to redraft his scripts, hence the sloppy, unconvincing, dramatically inert drivel he ends up with.

His only saving grace, in The Newsroom at least, is the vague sense of self-awareness that permits him to have characters dryly undermine some of the impassioned speeches he's so fond of writing, but that's hardly enough to excuse his prolix self-indulgence.

Steeped in cloying nostalgia for a non-existent epoch of American “greatness”, The Newsroom is just another Sorkin fantasy populated by idealised heroes who can barely get through a sentence without trumpeting their integrity.

The only highlight is Daniels, whose flinty charisma transcends the material, although British actress Emily Mortimer is miscast as his idealistic producer and – wouldn't you know it? - former lover. Sorkin's “sassy” dialogue sounds particularly excruciating when delivered by her. What's more, he completely fails to capture the surging excitement of a crack newsroom breaking a major corporate scandal - a rather significant failing given that that's the backbone of his story. Quite simply, it doesn't work on any level.

Whenever Sky Atlantic isn't busy importing disappointing HBO dramas, it likes to concern itself with producing vehicles for talented comedians that very few viewers will actually watch. Their latest is ADAM BUXTON'S BUG, a straightforward adaptation of his popular series of live shows in which he plays innovative music videos, and parodies the comments left beneath them online.

On paper it sounds like the laziest idea in the world – cheap TV writ small – until you factor in Buxton's natural wit and charm. Sarcastic but never cruel, his mockery of the pompous, insensitive and grammatically wayward idiots who congregate on the bottom half of the internet feels entirely justified, especially when tempered with a pleasing assault of childish silliness.

Mostly stationed behind his laptop throughout, Buxton displays a near heroic willingness to
behave as stupidly as possible in the pursuit of laughs. A sunny riot of daft voices, songs, and tortuous puns, he's an underrated clown who deserves to be better known. Sadly, I doubt that this slight yet often very funny show will bring him that attention.

Finally, Sky once again attempts to establish itself as a producer of homegrown drama, this time with a twelve-part adaptation of SINBAD. Billed as a family show, although evidently aimed squarely at children, it's an energetic yet curiously humourless fantasy adventure in which our sea-faring hero battles mediocre villains and unconvincingly rendered CGI monsters. And despite its target audience, it's surprisingly violent and nasty in places. Hardly the stuff of nightmares, perhaps, but the tone is inconsistent.

What's more, with his slippers, culottes and eyeliner, the young actor playing Sinbad looks more like a crestfallen underwear model on a gap year than a hardy adventurer. He isn't bad exactly, just bland.

Filmed on location in Malta, it tries its best to position itself as an epic, but ultimately lacks that all-important sense of wonder. All the key elements are in place -

from soothsayers babbling portentous nonsense to dramatic rooftop chases and acres of skulduggery – but that's the fundamental problem: it all feels very familiar. But it may well capture the attention of some of the younger viewers who actually tune in to watch it. Good luck with that, Sky.

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