Having seen four different television series created by Aaron Sorkin — “Sports Night,” “The West Wing,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” and now “The Newsroom,” a new HBO drama that premieres Sunday night at 10 — I feel I understand some of the man’s core beliefs and guiding creative principles:
He is a man who loves the notion of a workplace as a surrogate family.
He is a man who loves characters who talk fast — preferably while walking fast — and think even faster.
He is a man who loves the process of making television itself, having set one series at a cable sports network, another at a live sketch comedy series, and this new one at a cable news channel.
Most of all, though, Aaron Sorkin is a man who has things to say.
His shows are vehicles for entertainment — at his best, Sorkin is on the short list of the most purely entertaining storytellers this medium has ever known — but they are also vehicles for Sorkin’s ideals about how the world should be, how often it falls short of those ideals, and how noble it is to keep trying to make them into a reality.
There is a very clear Sorkin formula by now — if you’ve been watching his shows since “Sports Night,” it’s almost amusing how many character types and storylines from the three earlier shows have been mashed up into parts of “The Newsroom” — but it’s one where he can’t always properly balance the ingredients.
There were occasional moments on “Sports Night,” for instance, where the matters being debated felt too weighty for a series about a thinly-disguised “SportsCenter,” and that problem only became larger and more consistent in the faux-“SNL” setting of “Studio 60.” “The West Wing” — particularly the first two of the four Sorkin-written seasons — proved to be the perfect synthesis of the Sorkin formula. If staffers at the White House — if the President of the United States himself! — can’t debate who we were, what we’ve become and where we’re going as a nation, who can?
By returning to a behind-the-scenes TV show setting with “The Newsroom,” Sorkin is seemingly stepping away from the “West Wing” pulpit. But in many ways, the stakes of “The Newsroom” are higher than anything he’s done before on television, because he’s no longer operating in a parallel universe filled with fictional athletes, politicians and comedy stars, but the world right outside our window.
Jeff Daniels stars as Will McAvoy, a cable news anchor whose career has been built on never expressing an opinion or otherwise offending his audience. He’s referred to as “the Jay Leno of news anchors” — an approach his corporate bosses love, and his critics mock. But in the series’ opening scene at a journalism school Q&A, Will has his “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” moment, and unloads on a college student with a rant about how America isn’t the greatest country in the world anymore, but could be again if we returned to a mindset where “we reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior.”
Given how polarized we are as a nation, where everyone goes looking for an opinion that confirms their own, the conceit that a news anchor in this day and age would derive his popularity from being middle-of-the-road is tenuous at best — even Sorkin admitted, “
It may be that the biggest leap that we have to make,” when I asked him about the idea. But the Jay Leno persona dies with that rant, and Will’s boss Charlie (Sam Waterston, enjoying the hell out of himself in the same way Robert Guillaume and the late John Spencer did in the analogous roles on “Sports Night” and “West Wing”) shakes up his career even further by hiring Will’s former producer — and ex-girlfriend — Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) to run the show.
Mackenzie, born of British parents but possessed of more patriotism than any of her American co-workers, is on a mission. In a phrase that will be repeated throughout the series, she insists “There’s nothing that’s more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate,” and she tells Will that her goal in revamping his newscast is nothing less than “reclaiming the fourth estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. a nightly newscast that informs a debate worth of a great nation… Speaking truth to stupid.”
Though Will, Mackenzie, Charlie and even their employer, the Atlantis Cable Network, are fictional, the country they’re trying to educate, and the stories they cover, aren’t inventions, or even ripped-from-the-headlines allegories from stories and politicians we know. The series opens in the spring of 2010, and the first story we see Will and his team — including brainiac producer Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), nervous rookie Maggie (Alison Pill) and blogger Neal (Dev Patel) — cover is the BP oil spill off the Louisiana coast. Later episodes deal with Arizona’s controversial immigration law and the wave of Tea Party candidates in the mid-term elections that year.
By commenting on real people, real stories, real tragedies, “The Newsroom” raises the stakes for itself above anything “The West Wing” ever did, but it also raises the degree of difficulty to a level that Sorkin often has trouble clearing.
Like the cable news industry “The Newsroom” relentlessly critiques, Sorkin’s work tends to preach to the converted. His characters speak about issues with such passion and eloquence that you’re meant to feel smarter and better about yourself for agreeing. But he often pushes things so far that even if you happen to agree with him politically — as I suspect I do on most issues — it can be uncomfortable to watch the deck being stacked in your favor.
And as strident as “The West Wing” could be in crafting its cartoonish Republican villains (let me remind you of Republican presidential nominee Robert Ritchie, who once so eloquently said, “Crime. Boy, I don’t know.”), that’s nothing compared to the feeling created as Will McAvoy lectures Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, et al.
It doesn’t matter that, again, I agree with much of what the show is arguing — even more about the toxic state of the TV news business(*) than about our combative political system — because the arguments are placed in the mouth of a smug, preening jerk whom the show (or, at least, Mackenzie) keeps insisting is secretly the best guy in the world, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
(*) “The Daily Show” has been effectively attacking the media, and politicians, for years and years, and managing to do it in a way that rarely seems like Jon Stewart and company are patting themselves on the back as they do it. “The Daily Show” is also comfortable critiquing both sides of the aisle, where in the four episodes of “The Newsroom” I’ve seen, the targets are all conservatives.
Sorkin tries to make a case for know-it-alls on many occasions — when Will introduces his viewers to the show’s new approach, he tries to reclaim the phrase “media elite” as something to be proud of — but there’s a way to be right without coming across as every bit the bully as the people you’re attacking, and “The Newsroom” struggles to find that.
Dealing with familiar stories from real life also allows Sorkin to use 20/20 hindsight to make his heroes look even smarter, and their opponents dumber. In the pilot, for instance, Will’s former producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) spends a good chunk of time trying to shut down Jim’s attempt to report the BP spill as anything but a search-and-rescue mission, ensuring that we will view him as an obnoxious moron and Jim as a noble genius. In the Tea Party episode, Will and financial reporter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn, amusingly dry on the few occasions she gets anything to do) somehow are able to intuit on election night that a crisis with the debt ceiling is on the way, but none of the winning candidates understand what they’re talking about.
Will is presented as a moderate Republican – very much in the vein of Arnold Vinick, the Alan Alda character who highlighted the post-Sorkin “West Wing” years — dismayed at what his party has become, and on occasion, Sorkin will introduce us to like-minded characters, including a (fictional) Republican congressman who lost his primary to a Tea Party candidate after refusing to label President Obama a socialist in a debate. But even though Will and Mackenzie insist over and over that their goal is to make a high-minded news show that doesn’t resort to the mud-slinging, name-calling and other shenanigans of modern TV news, and that they want guests of substance, rather than the most outrageous voices they can find, “The Newsroom” and the fake newscast it depicts will from time to time stoop to those same tactics.
In the second episode, a plan to get Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on the show to discuss the controversial immigration policy falls apart at the last minute, and the only guests they can find at the last minute to defend Brewer’s side are a collection of the worst right-wing caricatures you can find, including a vacuous beauty pageant contestant and a militia leader who insists on having his rifle (named “Jenny”) appear on camera with him. Will makes an attempt to present the rational side of Brewer’s argument when his guests utterly fail to, but it’s half-hearted by both him and the show. Will declares in the second episode that Sarah Palin is no longer politically relevant, and that news shows only discuss her because she’s good for ratings, yet “The Newsroom” keeps working sound bytes from Palin into the show-within-the-show.
Sorkin would and does argue throughout “The Newsroom” that there often aren’t two sides to every story — Mackenzie insists, for instance, that the news media isn’t biased towards right or left, but towards fairness — and that sometimes you have to call out a ridiculous argument as exactly that, but the series is rarely graceful in how anyone does it. The second episode features a series of wonky arguments among the staff about what the newscast will look like, until Don — who, again, we’re not meant to trust on anything at this point, even when he’s making sense about both the real and the fictional show — insists, “Nobody’s going to watch a classroom. They’ll either be bored or infuriated, but they’ll bleed viewers.” And a classroom is exactly what the second and third episodes feel like; they’re a string of political, moral and ethical statements presented without any dramatic weight.
For all the clumsy and/or self-righteous moments that pepper the first four episodes of “The Newsroom,” Sorkin is a talented enough craftsman that the show is often compulsively watchable even when it’s being aggravating. TV news is a much better setting for Sorkin’s skill set, and this debate, than a sketch comedy show was. When we see extended glimpses of Will’s show, it’s believable in a way that the “Studio 60” show-within-a-show never was. And it’s fun to watch actors as gifted as Daniels, Mortimer and Waterston banter in that familiar, rat-a-tat Sorkin fashion.The extra-long pilot episode, which climaxes in a long segment depicting Will’s first newscast about the oil spill, has rough edges but is on the whole evocative of Sorkin’s better TV work. (It’s the later episodes where the show really begins to fray.)
On the other hand, the high level of sanctimony isn’t the only familiar Sorkin sin on display here. His sense of gender politics has always been iffy, in that he creates strong female characters who nonetheless often need to be told by men how the world works. Will McAvoy spends much of the early episodes lecturing various woman about how their shallowness symbolizes the downfall of this once-great society. (In the fourth episode, Sorkin at least has the grace to have these women throw drinks in his face, even as he’s presenting Will’s argument as the correct one.)
Among the many familiar bits from earlier Sorkin series, the potential relationship between Jim and Maggie very much echoes Jeremy and Natalie from “Sports Night,” which also involved a man with a database of obscure knowledge in his head always managing to be right in every argument. But where “Sports Night” at least balanced the scales a little by making Natalie a veteran producer and Jeremy a naïve rookie, here it’s Jim who’s worked with Mackenzie for years, and Maggie who’s just starting out, so he gets to be smarter than her about absolutely everything.
Even with actors as talented and charming as Gallagher Jr. and Pill, it’s patronizing in the extreme – which is unfortunately how I feel about much of “The Newsroom.”
I will say this for Sorkin: he doesn’t do things halfway. “The West Wing” is among the best dramas to ever air on network television, while “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is among the most riveting failures I’ve ever seen. His scripts for “The Social Network” and “Moneyball” didn’t feel exactly like everything else he’s written, and I’d hoped the time away from television might have recharged his creative batteries. Instead, “The Newsroom” is a mess — albeit a fascinating, and at times genuinely entertaining, mess.
In one of those debates in the second episode, Will wants to stick to covering the oil spill because the footage makes for good television. Mackenzie tells him, “We don’t do good television. We do the news.”
“The Newsroom” is convincing as a faux newscast. It’s less convincing as good television.
NOTE: A show like this makes it very hard to enforce the No Politics commenting rule for the blog, but it was put in place in part due to the lack of civil discourse that this show is complaining about. (If not always well.) I’ll just remind you that the goal is to discuss shows within a dramatic (or comedic context) and not get sidetracked with debates about ideology. Keep it civil, no matter which side of any issue you’re on — and, again, avoid discussing issues outside the context of these characters and this show — or comments get deleted. My goal is to cover this series weekly, but if the conversation gets ugly, it may be a series of reviews without comments. We’ll see.