“The Newsroom” (Series Premiere): “We Just Decided To”
I’m not going to say it’s a remake of “Network” because I don’t think Aaron Sorkin has actually seen that film. Also, everyone else has already said that.
I am going to be totally open and honest here, because the internet is built on honesty, and admit that I do not have a lot of Sorkin experience. I did have some vaguely positive thoughts for him–I loved The Social Network! The American President was great! Brad Pitt looked kind of creepy in Moneyball so I passed on that, but I was one of four people to actually kind of like Studio 60. The point is, I was feeling pretty mellow about Aaron Sorkin.
I do not feel mellow about Aaron Sorkin now.
The Newsroom opens in the middle of a college panel that pits Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels, who perhaps you will recognize as the cool dad from Fly Away Home) in the middle of a fight between the stereotypical shrill white lady liberal (talking about art, of course! Ladies! Always talking about the importance of arts, next thing you know they’ll be saying ‘vagina’ on the State House floor!) and the other stereotypical white conservative guy who won’t stop yelling about freedom. The highly ineffective moderator keeps needling Will to give his political position, informing the audience that Will’s success as a news anchor stems from his ability to not offend people, like Jay Leno. Intellectually, I understand that this isn’t supposed to be an insult, but in my heart, it sounds like the meanest thing one human being could say to another. It’s a small moment, but Aaron Sorkin’s inability to take a temperature on public opinion regarding Jay Leno is indicative of The Newsroom‘s biggest flaw: Sorkin’s determination that he knows best.
What happens next is depicted in the show’s trailers as a Network-like breakdown and rant about the problems plaguing contemporary news media. What is really is, however, is Sorkin-via-Daniels ranting about the good old days. It’s probably because I’m part of the cynical, uninformed generation that Aaron Sorkin believes is ruining this country, but honestly my response to rich, straight, able-bodied, middle-aged white men longing for the good old days is just: ugh. Will McAvoy (clearly pushed to the limits by the stress of being so much smarter than everyone else in the room) tells us that this country used to be better, that we never used to “scare so easy”. We were “informed”. We “acted like men”.
It’s actually kind of difficult to criticize Aaron Sorkin for this speech–it’s like he is fundamentally unaware that maybe the old days weren’t so good for anyone who wasn’t a straight white dude. Criticism is also difficult, because Sorkin doesn’t give us a convenient time-frame for when the old days were: was this around the same time that people thought putting too much hairspray in a beehive would cause rats to nest in your hair? Or are we dealing with the years when piano ties were cutting-edge fashion?
Aside from the problematic heaps of unacknowledged privilege in Will McAvoy’s little diatribe, another issue lies in the fact that nobody actually watches the news anymore, The Daily Show excepted. The idea of a trustworthy anchor is obsolete (especially a trustworthy cable news anchor who isn’t on Comedy Central–and how sad is that?) and the concept of getting your news directly from one source is laughable. However, a news show is a great way for Aaron Sorkin to tell us exactly what we should be thinking, so let’s just roll with it.
After the opening credits (they’re pretty bad), the show picks up three weeks after McAvoy’s meltdown. Though it takes about half an hour to explain in the show, this is a really expected plot twist so it’ll only take one sentence: the network has decided to save McAvoy’s news-show by hiring someone to reinvent it, and that someone is McAvoy’s ex-girlfriend. Emily Mortimer plays Mackenzie MacHale, who is described as having been “raised on Frank Capra movies,” and was once stabbed in the stomach on assignment in Islamabad. Mackenzie is a fantastic character if you can just ignore everything Sorkin is making her say (this is a technique that will also work for everyone else on this show). Why we can’t just dispense with the typical misanthropic-yet-successful career-man trope and give her the show, I’ll never understand, but I assume the reason is intertwined with Sorkin’s occasional difficulty in writing fully fleshed-out female characters.
Most of the newsroom staff has abandoned McAvoy’s show, which makes for a convenient way to introduce the ensemble that’s stayed behind. Alison Pill plays Maggie Jordan, an “accidentally” promoted intern and wide-eyed klutz, who also happens to be dating Don (Thomas Sadoski), the former executive producer of McAvoy’s show. Don is a creep, so let’s move on to Dev Patel’s Neal Sampat, who spends the first forty minutes with little screen-time until he is urgently needed as a fact database once the show starts rolling. Also, McAvoy assumes his name is “Punjab”. Maybe Aaron Sorkin was trying to play this off as a joke, but, much like Jay Leno, despite the intention it is still highly offensive. Sam Waterston is the best character on the show–he mostly wanders from room to room with a bottle of wine, providing comic relief. I actually have no idea what the character’s name is, so I assume he’s just playing himself. Rounding out the cast is Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) one of the producers MacHale has brought along. Jim develops a crush on Maggie a minute after seeing her, and I developed a crush on him a minute after seeing him. Jim’s weirdly alluring squint aside, all members of the cast are excellent. Don is just the perfect amount of creep, Dev Patel is fantastically (and understandably) annoyed with everyone, Sam Waterston thinks this is a documentary, and though I want Alison Pill to play Kim Pine in every role, she’s wonderful in this one. Even Jeff Daniels is doing the best with what he can–he’s a great actor (I’m serious about Fly Away Home, did you see him with those ducks? The man is a thespian), but perhaps too great–he makes McAvoy so insufferably smug that you’ll have a rage blackout watching him. Though the characters are mostly vaguely sketched out archetypes, the actors are great and could actually bring them to life if Sorkin would just give them time to breathe in between their lines. Sorkin, freed from the threat of network cancellation, is drunk with the power of HBO, and clearly overwriting and extending the episode when he has doesn’t need to. He also made Sam Waterston say “fuck”, which was sort of alarming.
After taking a long time bringing this ensemble together (and after forcing Emily Mortimer to make like, nine idealistic speeches), Sorkin finally, effectively focuses them around a story in the last half of the episode. The moment when he finally situates the show in the event that’s unfolding is brilliantly done, and very cool (cool enough that I won’t actually spoil it). Unlike Studio 60, which did well with the behind-the-scenes drama but faltered in actually depicting its eponymous sketch show, The Newsroom shines when it’s actually covering the news–the snappy dialogue begins to make sense, the tension is real, and even the direction picks up. Of course, it makes no sense how all the correct sources and information about an unfolding disaster are tied together so neatly for broadcast in under an hour, but I’m watching television for a reason here. If The Newsroom continued with a mix of human drama while depicting the cobbling together of news broadcasts around real-life events, it would be a really engaging and fun show. However, I have a feeling that Sorkin’s commitment to bettering the dumb old television-viewers of America will prevent that and, you know, if I wanted to listen to angry rich white dudes yell about how great this country used to be, I would just watch the news.
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