This week John Byrne takes in a fictitious newsroom, the latest look back at the 1970s, and family holidays with a difference.
Reviewed: The Newsroom (Wednesdays, Sky Atlantic); It Was Alright in the 1970s (Saturdays, Channel 4); Whose Holiday is it Anyway? (Sundays, RTÉ One)
Like anyone who's been a regular sofa spud for years, there's a special place in my TV heart for Aaron Sorkin, the guy who gave us the wonderful The West Wing.
The screenwriter, producer and playwright has enjoyed quite a career on both the small and big screen as well as the theatre, but for many fans his crowning achievement was that political drama that arrived in the late 1990s and lasted seven seasons.
More recently he's been involved in films such as Charlie Wilson's War and The Social Network, but TV success has pretty much eluded him since The West Wing went south in 2006.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip arrived in its wake and started off really well but its appeal was pretty limited to TV geeks such as myself. When attempts were made to broaden the show with a little romantic tension it marked a spectacular decline in quality and it died a grim death after one season.
Sorkin's return in 2012 with The Newsroom (Wednesdays, Sky Atlantic) came with messianic hype, but after two seasons it seemed to be far too preoccupied with admiring itself. No surprise when it was announced that the show's third season would be its last.
As The Newsroom resumed last Wednesday for that third run, I wondered how it could have come to this. The premise of the show is pretty topical and right up Sorkin's street: a fictional US cable news channel called ACN is trying to remain relevant, newsworthy, principled and in profit in these days of instant everything. News as a commodity at best, and mere entertainment at worst.
The cast is pretty impressive too, led by Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, the news anchor, and includes the likes of Emily Mortimer, Alison Pill, Sam Waterston and Olivia Munn. Add in Sorkin's scatter-gun approach to dialogue and this show should be sensational. Instead, it's annoyingly smug and preachy.
This season three opener centred on the Boston Marathon bomb attack and the rush to get it covered. As McAvoy keeps attesting, ACN wants to be right rather than first with the news. Unfortunately, this leads the network to slip from second to fourth in the ratings, causing McAvoy to ruefully observe: “We did everything right! Chasing our integrity we went from second to fourth place.” Well, you can't have everything.
McAvoy fails to realise that the world he wants is not the world he lives in - Fox News, wall-to-wall Kardashians, instant judgement and a goldfish-like mentality that has so many jumping from one fad, trend, diet or news story to the next. Being earnest is admirable, but also, like, unpopular.
There should be a great show about the way news is disseminated and manipulated, but sadly The Newsroom isn't it. And all it had to do was stop wagging its finger, but Aaron Sorkin can't help himself and that's why this show is in a rut and as good as over. A little less preaching and a little more conversation and this show would've worked a treat.
But as bad as things are these days, at least it's not the 1970s. That seems to be the premise of It Was Alright in the 1970s (Saturday, Channel 4), a new show that looks back on that decade with almost as much smugness as Will McAvoy in The Newsroom.
Here's a trailer for The Lovers, a sitcom featured on It Was Alright in the 1970s:
After the Noughties saw a seemingly endless amount of TV shows reflecting on the closing decades of the 20th Century, Channel 4 have decided to revive the genre with this series, interspersing clips with comment from three distinct groups of people: those who worked on TV during the 1970s, watched TV during the 1970s, or who weren't born in the 1970s. They all look back at what was on the box back four decades ago, with a mixture of shock, horror, repulsion and laughter.
Certainly, some of what passed for entertainment was clearly anything but, yet I couldn't help feeling this was a bit of a stitch-up, with items selected, not for their relevance, but for their ability to shock.
Can you imagine a similar programme in 40 years' time, looking at the likes of Game of Thrones, The X Factor, and the widespread celebrity obsession that's saturating our TV content? I don't think history will be too kind to today's telly viewers - if it wants to put the boot in. The only point of It Was Alright in the 1970s seemed to be to pat ourselves on the back for being much smarter than the folk of 40 years ago, which is a pretty pointless exercise.
As someone who suffers from itchy feet, I'm rarely more than a random root away from some kind of holiday programme, so I thought I'd have a look-see at Whose Holiday is it Anyway? (Sunday, RTÉ One). I was pleasantly surprised.
Here's a trailer for next Sunday's Whose Holiday is it Anyway?
The set-up for this show is pretty straightforward as each week a family go on holiday together, but the twist being that everything's organised by the kids rather than the adults. Is that not what ultimately goes on anyway with family holidays once everyone's off the plane?
Anyway, this second season opened with the Haddock family from Limerick. And they certainly lived up to their surname. The kids were sick and tired of going to France on holidays ('for two people' as one of the kids put it), and wanted to go somewhere with a bit more water. Malta it was, and it was wet.
In fairness to the kids - Cian (16), Katie (14), Tyrone (12) Ava (9) – they came up with an impressive itinerary that included an apartment with an indoor pool, a trip to a water park, and several visits to the sea, adding up to a fair amount of trauma for mother Josie, father Aiden and, for good measure, Katie, who was great at urging her mother to have a go but not so good at doing so herself.
Poor Aiden was badly missing his twin pleasures of France and wine. But he did salvage his taste buds when he convinced the rest of the family to buy rabbit for dinner one evening, even if the process nearly turned the family into vegetarians.
Whose Holiday is it Anyway? Is almost perfect Sunday evening viewing for all the family, which in itself would be good preparation for any household preparing for a summer holiday together. It's a very Irish programme - it's gas the way Irish families interact, even on TV - and, having neglected to watch its first run, I now have this show on series link.
But there's no way I'm watching it with the rest of my lot! They might start getting ideas . . .