Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe winning writer Aaron Sorkin has been away from the small screen for nearly 5 years and his absence has somewhat been felt. He truly cemented his talent as a terrific TV writer after spending 4 years as show runner/chief writer on The West Wing, which won numerous awards and critical acclaim.
After that he came a cropper with the underrated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (which only lasted one season) and then he turned his eyes towards film, finding massive success with The Social Network, which did a lot to re-establish him as an important voice in the world of visual media. Now, after winning every writing award possible for the aforementioned film, he’s back in the world of TV with The Newsroom.
The Newsroom is, like all Sorkin products, a behind the scenes glance at the machinations of a popular industry. In the case of The West Wing it was a drama about the people who supported the President of the United States. With The Newsroom, Sorkin begins to take us behind the cameras and into the control rooms of a fictional news network called ACN and the nightly programme NewsNight, hosted by the central figure Will McAvoy, played by the excellent Jeff Daniels.
In the pilot’s brilliant opening sequence we are treated a mind blowing 8 minute assault of dialogue that trumps the bar sequence that opened The Social Network, McAvoy and 2 other news anchors are talking to an audience filled with idealistic young students. The final question is asked by a young sophomore who dares to ask the evasive McAvoy: “why is America the greatest country in the world?” After deflecting it with comical answers he is forced to arrive at this conclusion: “It’s not the greatest country in the world.”
A line coming from a Sorkin character that is deeply unpatriotic is highly unusual and it kind of sets the tone. McAvoy lists reasons why America has depleted in its power and how the country has backslid to a point of disappointment. He then goes on to bemoan the good old days of yore which puts him in a very unpopular position.
We then get another new Sorkin character trait. As we go inside the offices of ACN and as we are introduced to McAvoy’s staff, we learn that he isn’t an entirely likeable person. In fact, it seems that the only person he gets along with is one of the network executives: Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), and apparently that’s only because Skinner spends most of his time drunk. But McAvoy’s unpopularity between the staff members has cost him.
His former EP, Don (Thomas Sadoski), has moved onto another more popular show due to his inability to get along with McAvoy and has taken most of his staff with him. Skinner is going to shake things up and introduces McAvoy to his new executive producer and former girlfriend: Mackenzie MacHale, who brings along her senior producer: Jim Parker (John Gallagher Jr) and promotes Will’s assistant Maggie (Alison Pill) from intern to associate producer, following one hackneyed conversation they have about Maggie dating Will’s former EP.
With this new team assembled, together Mackenzie and Will aim to promote “proper” journalism, to be honest and to be authentic and tell things how they really are.
Following the show’s dizzying first 30 minutes, the idealism of Sorkin’s writing comes out in full force and the quality starts to plateau when the fractured group of new employees have to report an oil rig explosion in the Mexican Gulf. The introduction of a real life situation that mirrors the BP oil spill does add a sense of relevance to it all.
Sorkin will be the first to admit that he writes romantically and openly but it does sometimes get in the way of the work becoming a wholesome drama. The hamfisted politicised speech on the state of broadcasting and the power of Nielsen ratings doesn’t ring true and it sounds more like the thump of Sorkin’s steps as he clamours to the top of his soapbox as opposed to sounding like realistic dialogue. This definitely won’t be a show that cavorts with subtlety and that may be to its detriment, but if you’re used to this kind of writing then you’ll be in heaven.
The dialogue does crackle, but again, sometimes characters talk just for the sake of talking despite how good and entertaining some of those scenes are. The first conversation between Alison Pill and Emily Mortimer is positively irritating, but competently acted. I’m sure Mackenzie is supposed to be kind of irritating to begin with and we will grow to love her over time, as is one of the joys of serial drama, but having a character this detestable so early on is a bold move. To say he’s spiky and difficult, I far prefer Will’s character mainly because Jeff Daniels is so effortless in the role.
Daniels is a terrific actor and it is about time that he is given a full leading role that he can truly sink his teeth into. Helped along by the quality of the writing, he is the only actor who feels wholly comfortable in saying the stuff Sorkin puts down. It is an insanely wordy script and moves at a rapid pace but Daniels gets into the stride with sublime ease and makes the character his own. Emmy consideration a year from now should be a given for this role.
Mortimer I think struggles more but that’s because her character at this point in the show is far too moralistic and idealistic for me to take wholly seriously. Personally, I’d love to see the ideals of these people crumble and have them realise that what they’re trying to do is fight a lost battle. That would make for some truly inspired and dramatic television, but because it’s Sorkin, I just can’t see it happening.
Lastly, the show does feel a tad derivative but that’s mainly because we’ve seen this all done before. We’ve seen the definitive behind the news desk drama with Network and we’ve seen the definitive behind the news desk comedy with Broadcast News. The Newsroom feels like a combination of the two, only without the direct, barbed satire of either. I also find the choice to place this on HBO fascinating, without all the f-bombs this would have comfortably rested at NBC or elsewhere. It is a very mainstream product and doesn’t seem to be as glossy or as expensive as something like Boardwalk Empire or True Blood.
The episode is directed by Greg Mottola, who steps up to the plate to really set this world up convincingly and he does direct Sorkin’s screenplay very, very well indeed. Like of all of Sorkin’s work you do feel like you’ve literally been dropped into a well oiled organization and you are being invited into the middle of something. There is a sense of order to this show that makes it feel realistic, like these characters have been doing their job for a long time. That says a lot for the authenticity of the performances as well as the magnificent production design.
All in all, while it’s not wholly stunning and not a revolutionary piece of drama, The Newsroom promises to be excellent entertainment with quality writing and very fine performances. Jeff Daniels is really the standout though and deserves all the praise that will rightly be coming his way.