Somewhere around the second episode of HBO’s newest drama, The Newsroom, from creator Aaron Sorkin, viewers may ask why this show is on HBO. There’s no nudity, there’s some swearing but nothing that couldn’t be toned down for broadcast television or replaced by words that wouldn’t change the tone or intent of the script.
Well, outside of the obvious – that HBO wants to be in business with creators like Sorkin, whose resume is well known --- The Newsroom is ultimately one of those shows that can’t be screened in the big tent of broadcast television because it's political at its core and this country is so partisan that a political series wouldn’t get enough ratings to sustain itself and might be more trouble than it’s worth to the parent company of said broadcast network.
Interestingly enough, that’s kind of what Sorkin is getting at in the heart of The Newsroom, where he’s trying to talk about journalism, truth, ignorance and politics in much the same way he did with The West Wing, a series that would never see the light of day – or primetime -- on a broadcast network in 2012.
And so The Newsroom comes to HBO, which isn’t worried about advertiser backlash or lack of ratings. What the channel gets is pure Sorkin – you can take that any which way you want, depending on your thoughts about Sorkin. Are the characters exceptionally quick-witted and do they dabble in fast-paced repartee? Yes. Do characters often talk in what could best be described as elaborate, heartfelt and intellectual monologues? They do. Sorkin has historically been prone to what’s called monologueing. But perhaps it should be called soapboxing in his case because there’s always that nagging feeling that you’re listening to a lecture. And finally, is The Newsroom earnest? Yes, because pretty much everything Sorkin does is earnest – and if you didn’t know that before, you’ll know it when you hear the swelling orchestration in the introduction and at the end of some, well, earnest scenes.
If you’re not put off by some of those Sorkin traits – and honestly, they are ever-present – then The Newsroom might be a drama that hooks you with what it’s ultimately trying to say about some complicated issues. It stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, the anchor and managing editor of the “News Night” newscast on the fictional ACN cable news channel, who is both described and derided as “Jay Leno” because he’s afraid to alienate anyone, preferring to live in the ratings-friendly middle ground. The conceit of Newsroom is that Will wasn’t always that vanilla, that back in the day he was more devoted to real news and facts, not worrying about if either of those offended anyone in either political party. That was a few years back when he was dating Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), his smart and respected producer. He’s never really recovered from the break-up.
Will doesn’t snap out of his Leno-ness until he’s trapped at a debate between someone on the far left and another on the far right and he’s forced to answer a question about whether America is the greatest country on earth. Under mounting pressure to not answer like Switzerland, he starts to panic and believes he sees Mackenzie in the crowd urging him to speak his mind.
Which he does, necessitating a three-week vacation and forever changing “News Night.”
That’s because Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the old-school journalist who runs the ACN news division, decides to hire Mackenzie while Will is off. She’s been covering Iraq and Afghanistan with her senior producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), and brings him along with others to form the new staff. Of course Will blows up when he returns to find out what’s happened, but he also has to face the fact that people he works with don’t like him and most have opted to join Will’s former executive producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) and move to the show that will be hosted by Elliot Hirsch (David Harbour) airing right after “News Night.”
The staff that’s left for Will and Mackenzie to kick-start “News Night” is Margaret (Alison Pill), an intern promoted by accident and someone who Will can’t remember; Neal (Dev Patel), the internet-savvy one who writes Will’s blog, even though Will doesn’t know he has a blog, and a collection of others (The Newsroom has an enormous cast, including people like Jane Fonda and Olivia Munn who get introduced slowly in future episodes).
So what Sorkin has on his chessboard with all of these people are precisely the targets he’s most interested in either nailing or beatifying. He can skewer modern journalism as a product more interested in ratings than actual news and, in the same process, dismiss Americans who choose the news they want to hear from “news” outlets that have become increasingly subjective.
And he can do it by making ACN one of the guilty parties, as “News Night” is the only show buying into Mackenzie and Will’s radical new blueprint while the show that follows, run by Don, is covering “human interest” stories.
It allows Sorkin to use Daniels’ character to theoretically skewer both Democrats and Republicans since the reformed anchor is choosing facts and the theory that there aren’t two sides to every story, that there could be one or five sides so he’ll use his brain to decide whether or not something is true or bunk.
“Who are we? We are the media elite,” Will says in his editorial comment announcing the new direction of “News Night.” And by elite, Sorkin is taking a word used to denigrate journalism and turning it into an affirmation of logic, of intelligence.
It’s a given that Sorkin would like to take on the plague of anti-intellectualism that runs amok in political circles (and thus the country at large), but the question for The Newsroom is whether or not that’s actually interesting or dramatic, particularly over the long haul.
“We don’t do good television, we do the news,” Will tells a numbers-cruncher at ACN, who’s concerned about declining ratings. The Newsroom could be good television – maybe even very good television – if it can keep that sense of lecturing (or some might say smugness) at bay in favor of well-earned emotionalism. The cast is fantastic and, in particular, Daniels, Mortimer and Waterston are superb, while Gallagher Jr. and Sadowski are wonderful standouts. (Since the cast is so large, those are the actors getting the most work.)
One area where The Newsroom suffers is portraying the relationships of those on the show. Mortimer is an excellent actress who gives Mackenzie the necessary toughness to go toe-to-toe with Will, but she’s turned into a fumbling, flustered, jealous hen when Will starts dating. Similarly, Margaret may have been an intern promoted to associate producer but the show even-handedly portrays her as green, not dumb. She’s well educated, we’re told, but she’s also apparently green at love as she fumbles and cow-tows in her relationship with Don. Surely Sorkin can do better than this.
But on the plus side, you have to applaud Sorkin’s ability to milk emotion whenever he wants. He can make the politically jaded feel patriotic and the cynical see hope in any situation. Also, love or hate his soapboxing, the man can write. And what might be the most alluring part of The Newsroom is that it’s clear Sorkin wants the show to be enormous, filled with characters of all stripes and able to take on innumerable storylines as it looks at journalism, politics, romance, the workplace and America itself. Whether you go along on that ride with him has everything to do with whether you like his style or not. Because – cue the orchestra and step onto the soapbox – Sorkin is always true to himself and doesn’t try to cover his tendencies or be embarrassed by them.