Did you watch The Newsroom last night, TV fans? And did you love it, or did you agree with most critics, who were put off by Aaron Sorkin’s condescending sermonizing, too-similar characters, and questionable representation of how the TV journalism world works? For our part, we were even more disappointed than we expected to be. Not only were the reviewers right, but the show was a bit too “rich, middle-aged white guy saves the world” for our taste — and, in accordance with that, the “kids these days” hand-wringing that was also Sorkin’s fixation in The Social Network (which, for the record, we enjoyed) felt like a bit much.
Although we had originally intended to give The Newsroom at least three episodes to win us over, we found last night’s premiere — which critics seem to agree is the best episode they’ve seen — so off-putting that we might have to give up now. Thankfully, for those of us who were particularly looking forward to a TV show about the making of a TV show, there are plenty of great series out there to take its place. From The Mary Tyler Moore Show to 30 Rock, we’ve rounded up the ten best TV shows about TV shows below.
The Newsroom isn’t Aaron Sorkin’s first foray into TV about TV — it’s his third. In 2006, he took on Saturday Night Live-style sketch shows with the short-lived NBC drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But his most successful effort was Sports Night, which ran on ABC for two seasons beginning in 1998 and was Sorkin’s first small-screen project. Canceled far too soon, the unconventional comedy-drama followed the production of the titular sports news show; featured a great cast including Felicity Huffman, Robert Guillaume, and Peter Krause; and boasted some of the sharpest dialogue in TV history.
Meanwhile, it’s impossible not to compare The Newsroom with The Hour, a BBC series that aired its first season last year. While the latter is set during the Suez Crisis of the 1950s, the central story line is similar: a team of journalists and producers with strong personalities come together to make an entirely new — and inevitably controversial — kind of news program. But it’s the characters that make The Hour such a great show. There’s fearless, self-righteous, charismatic Freddie, an investigative journalist bent on revealing dangerous truths; Bel, his longtime best friend and one of only a few women in a position of power in the mid-century newsroom; and Hector, the stiff, handsome anchor who’s more complicated that he seems at first glance. By midway through the season, the plot gets twisty enough to carry the show. Until then, and for as long as the series airs, the fraught interactions between these three are, in themselves, enough to get you addicted.
In its fall 2006 TV season, NBC famously launched two series about sketch comedy shows: Studio 60 and Tina Fey’s 3o Rock. At the time, Sorkin was still flying high on the success of The West Wing, and everyone expected Fey’s show to sink and his to swim. Well, we all know how that ended, with 30 Rock charming critics and sticking around for what will be, next year, seven seasons, despite ratings troubles. As with The Hour, it’s the characters that give this show the edge, from Fey’s singularly awkward Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin’s alpha executive/mentor Jack Donaghy to Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski as TGS’s dim and narcissistic stars. Unlike many other series about the making of TV, the joke here is that the show is terrible, and instead of boring us with endless segments from TGS, 30 Rock realizes that it is, more than anything, a workplace sitcom about one of the world’s most surreal workplaces.
Back to shows about fictional news programs, one of our all-time favorites is Murphy Brown. A ten-season smash that debuted in the brightly-colored-power-suit late-’80s, it starred the wonderful Candice Bergen as one of TV’s greatest characters, the titular tough, stubborn, brilliant investigative reporter who hosts the newsmagazine FYI while in recovery from alcoholism. Backed by a newsroom full of foils — stiff Jim Dial, type-A producer Miles, flighty Corky, and her good friend Frank — Bergen made prickly Murphy lovable, winning us over with her unlikely embrace of single motherhood and earning extra points for royally pissing off Dan Quayle in the process.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Although curmudgeonly Murphy and sunny Mary don’t have much in common, it was The Mary Tyler Moore Show that paved the way for compelling representations of newswomen on TV. When it premiered in 1970, Mary Richards was the first single career woman on the small screen. As a producer on Minneapolis network WJM’s Six O’Clock News, she competently and charmingly made her way in a man’s world, in the company of memorable co-workers like silly Ted Baxter and such wonderful friends as spin-off-worthy Rhoda Morgenstern.
If The Newsroom isn’t doing it for you, consider catching up on the first season of the BBC/Showtime collaboration Episodes, whose second season premieres in the US on Sunday. In a premise entirely befitting of an international co-production, the show follows a British husband-and-wife writing team who come to Hollywood to make an American version of their BAFTA-winning sitcom, Lyman’s Boys. The catch is that the original lead is replaced by none other than Friends refugee Matt LeBlanc — whose sharp self-awareness in portraying a fictionalized version himself earned him an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe.
Of course, LeBlanc isn’t the only former Friends cast member to redeem his reputation on a premium-cable TV show about a TV show. Lisa Kudrow pioneered that route in HBO’s The Comeback, revealing the extent of her awesomeness as Valerie Cherish, a fading sitcom star who attempts to relaunch her career through a new role and a reality series about her attempt to relaunch her career. Presented as raw footage from the reality show — also called The Comeback — this mockumentary-style comedy satirizes the kind of shallow Hollywood narcissism that makes pretty but talentless actresses like Valerie think they deserve to be stars and then consigns them to dowdy supporting roles — or erases them entirely — as soon as they hit 40. Unfortunately, despite an Emmy nomination for Kudrow, The Comeback never found the audience it deserved and was canceled after only one season.
As you can see, fictional depictions of news shows abound. But as far as we know, there’s only ever been one TV show about a movie reviewer. In only 23 episodes that aired on ABC and the Fox in 1994 and 1995 (and then ten additional webisodes that debuted in 2000), The Critic became a cult favorite for animation fans. Jon Lovitz’s voiced protagonist Jay Sherman, the cranky, portly host of “New York’s third most popular early-morning cable-TV” movie review show” and the father of a lookalike 13-year-old son. An avowed film snob who can’t stand Hollywood drivel, Jay dismissed the many films that disgusted him with the catchphrase, “It stinks!” The relationship between Lovitz’s schlubby protagonist and his all-powerful boss, Ted Turner-like network head Duke Phillips — who assumes that Jay is in love with him — makes The Critic an especially worthy addition to your Netflix queue.
The Larry Sanders Show
One of HBO’s first great series, The Larry Sanders Show starred Garry Shandling as the host of late-night talk show. A stylistically innovative comedy, it combined behind-the-scenes segments from the characters’ lives and clips from the fictional talk show, shot in front of a real studio audience and featuring interviews with actual celebrities doing over-the-top impressions of themselves. Over the course of six seasons, the series — which ran from 1992-1998 and is widely considered to be one of the best TV shows of all time — attracted guests ranging from Winona Ryder to Jerry Seinfeld to Beck, which makes it perfect viewing for those of us who are prone to bouts of ’90s nostalgia.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
As Shandling’s fans know, The Larry Sanders Show wasn’t his first role as the lead in an unclassifiable meta-TV show. He was also the co-creator and star of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which ran on Showtime from 1986 through 1990. What was fascinating about the characters on this series was that they weren’t just sitcom actors — they were sitcom characters who knew they were sitcom characters, with Shandling addressing the studio audience in both monologues and asides, and cast members commenting on each other’s performances. The result was a smart, postmodern assault on TV conventions that changed the course of small-screen comedy.