The longer Aaron Sorkin’s deeply-nostalgic-for-the-golden-age-of-news show “The Newsroom” goes on for, the more improbable the workplace drama (and dramedy), set at a fictional cable-news show, becomes. A complacent and apathetic news anchor known as the MOR Jay Leno of news anchor suddenly explodes with outrage and opinion. An old school news division president orchestrates a brilliant subterfuge in order get back to “real” journalism and an executive news producer genuinely believes that if you build it will they will come -- that the American public is starved for authenticity and will tune in for honest to goodness reporting instead of sensational TV journalism.
Quaint notions? Sure. But such is the stuff of drama and a confluence of events that sets narrative in motion. And as idealistic, even sometimes hopelessly naive the HBO newsroom show is (executive produced by Sorkin, Scott Rudin and director Greg Mottola), the pilot episode is a sharp and engaging hour, even as it is uneven; clearly still trying to find its voice and tonal balance. And as nostalgic as it is for a news media that perhaps never existed (looking back at the Murrows and Cronkites with some seriously rose-tinted glasses), its quixotic nature about the media’s capacity to right itself, in some respects, is part of the appeal, and an unrealistic sentiment the show is wise enough to address.
Sorkin’s rapid-fire walk and talk narratives have always been obsessed with the behind-the-scenes dramas, politics and dynamics of the workplace. "The West Wing" took place in the Oval Office, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" peeled the curtain back on a “Saturday Night Live”-esque live sketch comedy show, and "Sports Night" did a similar exploration in an ESPN-like daily sports program. And with “The Newsroom,” Sorkin takes dead-aim at the shallow talk-show-driven era that is our hollow 24-hour news cycle. Sorkin’s mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore. Therein lies both the strengths and achilles heel of “The Newsroom" -- its rousing passion and lecturing romanticized nature.
Jeff Daniels stars as Will McAvoy, the aforementioned impassive and cynical, 50-something news anchor and managing editor of “News Night” on the fictional cable channel Atlantis Cable News (ACN). Publicly affable and comfortable with cushy, safe ratings, the anchor and managing editor is actually impossible and irascible. Numbed by success and a moderate Republican who’s remained popular for never rocking the boat (and who’s never publicly implied a political allegiance), things go awry for McAvoy during a university lecture when a vapid sophomore sorority student triggers the newscaster's dormant ire with an idiotic question asking him to describe why America is the greatest country in the whole world. McAvoy’s outburst against jingoism and ignorance (and plain stupidity; he rallies off statistics that demonstrate a nation falling far behind compared to the rest of the planet rather than excelling) -- seemingly fueled by the appearance of an old friend -- quickly goes viral and the broadcaster instantly finds his tirade grist for the 24 news mill he’s part of.
Upon his return from a three-week vacation where he’s been unable to be reached, McAvoy finds the tectonic plates of his world in massive flux. His executive news producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) has jumped ship to Will’s protege’s (David Harbour) ratings-focused show and taken much of his staff -- who never liked the gruff and insensitive anchor in the first place -- with him. And Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the old school president of ACN, has gone behind McAvoy’s back and hired Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a highly respected news producer returning after 26 months of reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan who happens to be McAvoy's ex.
Clearly having never fully recovered by their break-up three years ago and incensed by this decision, before McAvoy can do much about it (though he does make a bee-line to his agent's office to see what his options are), breaking news hits in the form of an oil spill off the Mexican Gulf coast. In a difficult transitional stage, as the new news team reacts -- which also includes McHale’s 27-year-old wunderkind senior producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), Margaret Jordan (Alison Pill), an inexperienced intern quickly graduated to associate producer, and Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), the sharp-eyed newshound and blogger McAvoy doesn’t know he has -- they assemble to to make damn fine, old school, on-the-fly broadcast that they can be proud of. Whether this team will make it week to week is the big question as McAvoy lets McKenzie know that while they did good, he lowered his yearly salary in order to procure executive producer firing rights at the end of the week which would put her on the street. But what ultimately surfaces is a new dynamic that the show will clearly rest its fortunes or failures on: McHale is a conduit to awaken the sleeping giant in McAvoy (a notion Skinner knew all along), but will the hostile, complicated, contradictory news anchor let her bring out the best in him and will their past affect their potential?
Aside from the hammer-to-nail writing, which vacillates between sharp tête-à-têtes to endless monologues and harangues (Moritmer’s impassioned plea about championing good journalism is either laughable or rousing depending on your level of cynicism), the likable blue-chip cast carry a lot of the weight. Daniels is perfectly suited for surly and mercurial and Mortimer feels like a good foil. But when good acting rises, unsubtle writing often prevails. While the haughty and dick-ish Don Keefer -- who’s also banging the intern, (btw, c’mon dude, at your senior level? Have some pride) -- butts heads with the junior Jim Harper, the guy who brought the oil rig scoop to “News Night” in the first place, their kiss and make up feels way too forced (either that or just Harper is far too forgiving). And comedy surprisingly peppers a lot of the show. While it seems like a smart move to mitigate some of Sorkin’s righteously furious rants, the jokes always ultimately seem antithetical to show’s earnest tone.
Directed by Greg Mottola (who also directs two other episodes this season), television isn’t much of a visual medium, and the filmmaker wisely keeps things clean and simple without dumbing it down. What the pilot episode of “The Newsroom” does best -- and arguably it’s hard to judge it too harshly as its only one episode of a narrative arc that spans ten -- is capture the electrical energy of a newsroom, and the unique breed of people that not only find themselves in this environment, but strive under its pressures.
And with the nature of the media as it is -- a fast-paced, snap-judgement based, echo-chamber -- at this juncture, it’s difficult to examine Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show “The Newsroom” without addressing the media’s relation and reaction to a show about how media is created, viewed and consumed. Any emotionally invested organization tends to pounce on fiction-based media (generally TV or film) that (dares to) tell fictional stories about the organization they belong to, but none generally show as much critical bite as the media themselves.
Indignation (and some might call it hamfisted exasperation) does drive much of the show with Sorkin essentially using two of the main characters as pulpits for his cynical and optimistic views on the American news media, and the public that consumes it. But his anger, misguided or otherwise, is still much more engaging than most showrunners' best days. And so the censures lobbied at “The Newsroom” are that the show is preachy, self-righteous and sanctimonious and these rebuffs are mostly spot-on, but still fail to address the fact that the drama is just beginning and just starting to find its sea legs (the nature with which some media seem committed to dislike the program and are content to string Sorkin up by his ankles so quickly is disconcerting to say the least).
For better or worse, Sorkin clearly engorged himself on a steady diet of watching “All The President’s Men,” “Network,” “BroadcastNews" and hours of Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly and other varying degrees of obnoxious political commentators, before writing “The Newsroom” (though surely a guy like him is just deeply entrenched in the unfortunate reductive nature of our daily political discourse). And yes, while the imperfect "The Newsroom," depending on your tolerance for proselytizing, may be too damn moralizing, it's also eloquent and compelling enough (far beyond most TV) that you should at least stick around to see if the show is merely tilting at windmills or if there's more as this story develops.