Review – The Newsroom
The Newsroom – HBO – 10:00pm Sunday – USA
Aaron Sorkin is a polarizing writer, you either love him or you love to hate him. His particular writing tics are so very Sorkin-esque that they’re easy to pick on if you don’t happen to fall in the camp that greet each new Sorkin excursion with a loving embrace. While I’m a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin (I’ve re-watched The West Wing at least three times), I’m not exactly a Sorkin apologist (Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip is the giant mess people say it is, and Sports Night has lost its charm over the year). What’s hard about judging a new Aaron Sorkin piece by its pilot is the fact that, as Slate reminded us this week, Sorkin makes great pilots. There’s some great stuff in the first episode of The Newsroom, but there was great stuff in the first episode of Studio 60 as well, so where does that leave us?
The Newsroom goes behind-the-scenes of News Night, a fictitious news program hosted by Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a man once described as “the Jay Leno of news” because of his ability not to offend anybody. McAvoy has a meltdown at a college Q&A session when asked why America is the greatest country in the world. It’s not! He bellows before going on to say that it could be again, that it used to be a country that reached for the stars, but that’s all fallen apart and it is no longer the greatest country in the world. All of this, as you can probably tell if you’ve seen a Sorkin production before, are topics and themes Sorkin has tackled previously. Behind the scenes on a television show? Seen that before. A public blow-up where a man finally tells it like it is? Seen that as well. A speech about how America used to reach for the stars? Is Sam Seaborn back in the house? It’s a credit to Sorkin’s talent that he is able to repeat himself and still make it entertaining.
It helps that most of the big speeches are given to Jeff Daniels who is great as McAvoy. Daniels has such a magnetic presence that the show sometimes drags when he’s not screen. Emily Mortimer is also great as his former flame and new Executive Producer, MacKenzie McHale. Daniels and Mortimer have great chemistry and both seem right at home with this material. The supporting cast, while fine, aren’t as strong. John Gallagher Jr, Alison Pill, and Dev Patel all feel a little interchangeable at this point. Worst of in the pilot is Thomas Sadoski as the former EP Don Keefer, who is a strawman villain of the worst variety; he’s there to represent every poor decision every average journalist has ever made while the others are there to do damn fine work.
It’s been mentioned before, but it’s worth pointing out again, that Sorkin dramas seem to be at their best when the stakes match the intensity of the characters. Pompous gents rushing around discussing the incredibly important comedy show they’re about to put on does not work as well as the President’s aides having breathless discussions about actually important topics. The Newsroom splits the middle – listening to one character give a speech about wanting to “redeem journalism as an honourable profession” may cause more than a few eye rolls, while actually watching the news go to air has its own thrill. Watching characters rush across the screen making frantic phone calls to book guests on a news show feels a little too low stakes, but the news stories themselves actually matter so it’s a little from column A, a little from column B.
The interesting decision that The Newsroom does make is to have their show-within-a-show report on actual news events. The pilot takes place on April 20th 2010, the day the BP oil spill happened. Seeing real news unfold gives an intriguing twist to the show, even if it does feel a little bit like ‘and here’s how they should have covered it’ lecturing. It would be good if at some point the News Night team completely botch a story, so that it’s not all ‘these are the only guys in America who can do this stuff right’. How much that notion bristles you is a good indicator of how you’ll respond to any Sorkin series. If you find the idea of the brash, loveable, always-right gang of misfits who are finally telling it like it is to be somewhat grating then you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m always willing to go with the idea (I was one of the few who watched every episode of Studio 60 even when it went way past stupid) to see where Sorkin takes it. The West Wing was able to keep the characters’ egos in check by deflating them with a few hard losses every now and then, Studio 60 much less so. Time will tell which side of the Sorkin line The Newsroom falls on, but this is a strong pilot and as always with Sorkin I’m cautiously optimistic.
Good, Alright, Bad Or Ugly?