[The following review of The Newsroom is for the pilot only. Reviews of future episodes will appear every week in TV Club.]
Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series The Newsroom begins with what many will call a Network moment, when a news anchor, finally unshackled by the chains of bland neutrality, comes out and says what he really thinks. In this case, it’s Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a man so determined not to alienate viewers of any political persuasion that he’s been dubbed “the Jay Leno of news anchors.” When asked during a panel discussion, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?,” Will finally comes to a point when the standard bromides from the left (Diversity!) and the right (Freedom!) are intolerable, and it’s time for everyone to acknowledge that, in fact, we’re a nation in decline. And that we only lead the world in incarcerated citizens. And that the Millennials are the “worst—period—generation—period—ever—period.” And that we once “reached for the stars” and were “informed by great men” and blah blah blah fuckity blah.
But really, this is not a Network moment, but an “Aaron Sorkin moment,” those oft-occurring rants when a hardened cynic is revealed as a bruised idealist. In Network, Peter Finch’s “mad as hell” speech lands him at the center of a three-ring media circus, surrounded by fortune-tellers, gossips, and a rabid studio audience. The Newsroom may pivot on a similar breakdown, but it’s the inverse of Network: Telling the unvarnished truth brings Will to the more dignified and righteous place of being his real self, a modern-day Cronkite or Murrow who can drop the fair-and-balanced pose and “speak truth to stupid” when the occasion warrants it. For Sorkin skeptics, this is very dangerous territory.
In the Sorkinland of The Newsroom, there’s no meaningful distinction between idealism in action and blatant wish-fulfillment fantasy. To a degree, Sorkin seems to acknowledge this in the name of Will’s outlet, Atlantis Cable News (ACN), which presumably broadcasts to the knowledge-hungry denizens of a shining city under the sea. Those of us above ground might need more convincing that ACN’s News Night bears any resemblance to the way an actual network news floor operates, but Sorkin’s naivety is partially deliberate. After his metamorphosis, Will’s aspirations to transcend the debased standards of TV news, however tentative and compromised, don’t necessarily call for authenticity on Sorkin’s part. They call for pie in the sky.
The pilot episode uses Will’s meltdown as a jumping-off point for the series, but it’s hard not to check out after 10 minutes: Once Will’s big speech shifts from effectively puncturing the myth of American exceptionalism to absurd generational resentment, Sorkin’s soapboxing becomes intolerable. Nevertheless, Will puts himself in an intriguing bind. Where does the Jay Leno of news broadcasting go once his biases have been revealed? How does he win back Americans after suggesting the country is not as great as public figures of every political persuasion are required to affirm? He’s forced to reinvent himself, and that’s a solid dramatic premise for a TV series, no matter how groan-inducing the set-up.
Three weeks later, Will returns to the office after hiatus to find that his executive producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) has abandoned him for another anchor’s show, and taken the majority of the staff with him. In the meantime, Will’s boss, Charlie (Sam Waterston), has hired a new EP in MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), an award-winning journalist whose as-yet-undetailed personal history with Will causes immediate friction between the two. Though it’s uncertain whether MacKenzie has a future at News Night—Will immediately renegotiates with the network to have firing power over her every week—she’s brought along her right-hand man Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.) as a producer. Jim and Don are also two points of a love triangle with Maggie (Alison Pill), a flibbertigibbet who’s been promoted from intern to Will’s assistant without her boss even learning her name.
The mix of behind-the-scenes news-gathering and interoffice soap opera will be familiar to fans of Sorkin’s Sports Night, which at times corresponds so closely to The Newsroom that it’s as if Sorkin applied White Out to an old, unused script. Back in 1998, Sports Night was groundbreaking television, an attempt to straddle what was then a hard line between half-hour sitcom and drama; the show had its share of related awkwardness—the piped-in laughter from the studio audience seemed so off that it was expunged for season two—but it also had appealing characters and smart dialogue, and was ultimately ahead of its time. The Newsroom, by contrast, appears to assume that not a day has passed since Sports Night went off the air, and it feels woefully behind the curve, especially on HBO, which has spent the last decade making hashwork of network formula. A few profanities aside, this show would reside more comfortably on one of the majors.
The one major difference between Sports Night and The Newsroom is that the new show features actual news stories from the recent past, presenting the bizarre spectacle of fictional characters scooping real-life reporters. (Take that, New Orleans Times-Picayune!) In the middle of Will’s dust-ups with ACN and MacKenzie, it’s revealed that the date is April 20, 2010, the day the BP offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf Of Mexico, an environmental catastrophe with damning implications for BP, Halliburton, and our faulty regulatory system. The breaking news forces Will and MacKenzie to work on the fly and off the prompter, and their skeleton crew to set aside each member’s own personal mini-dramas and do some shoe-leather reporting.
Setting aside the dubious concept of fake-reporting real stories—the weekly uproar of journalists who originally broke the news should be an entertaining sideline to The Newsroom—the developing Deepwater Horizon scandal is by far the strongest material in the pilot. When his manic energy and excess verbosity is given focus and direction, Sorkin can be an exhilaratingly good writer, and there’s a wonderful musicality to the way Will and MacKenzie play off each other from desk to control room, or the way a seemingly minor story about an explosion in the Gulf can snowball into a well-sourced scandal of shocking proportions. There are echoes of the great sequence in Broadcast News when Holly Hunter (with an assist from Albert Brooks) feeds information to William Hurt right when he needs it, and for once, a dysfunctional group of professionals comes together to do something of real substance. The esprit de corps that grips the ACN news team registers beautifully and, most importantly, we finally get to see Will display the talent behind all that irritating cantankerousness. (His retort to the standard PR nonsense about “thoughts and prayers being with the families”: “Nobody’s thoughts and prayers are with the fire.”)
It remains to be seen whether the personal and professional relationships in The Newsroom are integrated as well as they were in Sports Night, but the stakes of doing (or redoing) actual news as opposed to fake sports news are high enough to cause problems. Petty business like Don dating Maggie—she gets upset because he think it’s too soon to meet her parents—would suit the light tone of Sports Night just fine, but it looks like the proverbial hill of beans here even before the Deepwater Horizon story breaks. The brilliance of Broadcast News is that the love triangle directly related to what was happening at the network: If Hunter lowers her standards for love, she risks lowering her standards for news, too. In the best-case scenario, The Newsroom better integrates the passions of love and work; in the worst, it stands to be a lumpy mix of self-righteous blather and cutesy bullshit. The pilot mostly suggests the latter.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit this episode's Spoiler Space.