It has been nine years since Aaron Sorkin was ousted from creative duties on his hit TV show ‘The West Wing’, five years since the failure of his short-lived follow-up ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’, and one year since his return to relevance with an Academy Award win for ‘The Social Network’. Now hotshot screenwriter Sorkin is back on television with one of the summer’s most anticipated new series, HBO’s new tele-journalism drama ‘The Newsroom’. Does the show live up to the hype of its pedigree and the quite-fantastic promos that the network has been running for the past few months? Yes and no.
Jeff Daniels stars as Will McAvoy, popular anchor for the program ‘News Night’ on the fictional ACN cable network. (Does ‘News Night’ air after ‘Sports Night’, I wonder?) On camera, McAvoy has cultivated a reputation for his affability, non-confrontational style, and almost complete lack of what you might call “edge.” He’s been described as “the Jay Leno of news anchors,” and he pretends not to be bothered by that. That image breaks down, however, when McAvoy is prodded a little too much during a panel discussion at a university lecture and launches into a Howard Beale-like rant about why America is in fact not the greatest country in the world.
After a two-week forced vacation, McAvoy returns to work to find most of his crew gone. Behind the scenes, he’s known as a nightmare to work for. He shows no appreciation for his co-workers or crew, and can’t even be bothered to remember their names. Now they’re jumping ship at the first sign of distress. In Will’s absence, the slightly-daft head of the news division (Sam Waterston) has hired a new Executive Producer for the show, the idealistic Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), with whom Will already has a contentious history.
Will is not happy about this and spends much of the pilot episode, ‘We Just Decided To’, trying to break Mackenzie’s contract, until their personal strife is interrupted by a breaking news story: The BP Deep Water Horizon oil rig has exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oh, right, did I not mention that this episode takes place in 2010? Neither did the show, until this particular moment.
What follows then is a mad scramble to put together a news hour with a skeleton crew while digging up the just-emerging details of the story and trying to scoop the competition.
Like Sorkin’s previous shows, ‘The Newsroom’ has a great cast and is filled with colorful characters (Waterston is a riot here) and snappy dialogue. It’s also refreshing to see another series about intelligent people who are passionate about their jobs. That’s a rarity on the current TV landscape.
Also like Sorkin’s previous shows, ‘The Newsroom’ can be quite preachy and may be too inside-baseball for general audiences. (This is probably less of a problem on HBO than on a major broadcast network.) Some of his writerly conceits are getting to be annoying, especially the way that all of the characters seem to know everything about everything, and can spout any fact or statistic or historical quote with flawless recall at the drop of a hat, when you know that Sorkin spent hours Googling them to craft the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue.
I’m torn in my feelings about the way that the show incorporates real events. On the one hand, this gives the episode an interesting dramatic kick. On the other hand, it’s kind of weird to watch people arguing about two-year-old news. The storyline also reeks of hindsight revisionism and wish-fulfillment. There’s just no way that these characters could have pulled together the facts of the story so quickly, when in reality it took weeks for most of these details to emerge. It’s way too convenient that the characters happen to have the perfect sources in the perfect positions willing to spill the truth at just the perfect moments, all in time for the first news broadcast that aired mere minutes after the oil spill happened. Sorry, but I call bullshit on that.
This isn’t to say that I disliked the pilot episode. It’s quite entertaining overall, and I think the show has great promise. Personally, however, I wish that Sorkin would tone down some of his stylistic affectations and that the show would stick to fictionalized news stories.
I greatly look forward to future episodes where Jane Fonda will join the cast to play, essentially, a role based on her ex-husband Ted Turner. That may be the single greatest casting coup in the history of television.