E: Do you like Aaron Sorkin’s writing? And how much do you like it? Because that’s largely going to determine your response to his intriguing – but not exactly poppin’ fresh – new drama about cable news, The Newsroom. I have issues with Sorkin (mostly centered around his treatment of romantic situations and his repetitiveness), but I think he’s capable of real genius, and I definitely like the newsroom as the show’s center. I liked it in Sports Night, and I don’t even care about most professional sports. I loved it in the Sorkin-free British drama The Hour, and 80s Oscar nominated dramedy Broadcast News. Of course, I like shows about writers, which essentially covers everything Sorkin’s written. There was never any question of whether I’d watch. But can it keep me watching? Now that’s the trick.
Our irascible hero, cable news anchor Will McAvoy, begins the show with a massive flame out at panel discussion at Northwestern College. Known as the Leno of the news (someone liked by all, someone who never makes waves), McAvoy loses his nice guy image by trashing his Democratic and Republican co-panelists, and the rest of America. Sound familiar? Like, oh, the beginning of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? Ah, but McAvoy gets to go back to his job, unlike Wes Mendell, Judd Hirsh’s Studio 60 character who made way for the allegedly winning team of Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry. As anyone who’s seen the commercials for the show knows, Will rants about America no longer being the best country in the world, about how we’ve soiled our heritage with useless squabbling, with willful ignorance, and the refusal to make tough choices – and how all that can be cured if only we had a real media to inform us properly.
Right. Nothing like top down Democracy; thanks for the instruction book, Prince Charming. (Although, for the record, it’s not that I think such a warning is unwarranted; it’s just the spin and the, you guessed it, smug nature of the delivery that takes away from the message. I have to look up some of those stats, though. Can we really be – what did he say, 179th in the world for infant mortality?)
At first, I thought McAvoy was stage managing this flame out as some sort of ratings ploy – we see Emily Mortimer, who’s been shown as his producer in the commercials, in the audience with some prompting signs. But no; Emily doesn’t seem to be there after all. Was she a hallucination induced by vertigo meds? And when McAvoy returns to work after a little R&R in St. Lucia, we find that his producer is some tool named Don who’s fighting with his girlfriend (Will’s assistant) and belittling her in front of the only occupied desk in the newsroom. Aw, Mr. Sorkin, you’re so romantic! Mr. Patronizing doesn’t want to meet moonfaced Maggie’s parents after a mere 4 months of shagging. Then he proceeds to chide her for making a dumb decision. I’m ready to explode with fury – did he just call her dumb? – until it becomes clear they’re suddenly talking about something other than his parent-related cowardice. “I’m making a dumb decision out of loyalty, you’re making a smart one out of ambition,” she snaps back. Huh?
And in short, the dumb and smart decisions are these; the bulk of the staff, except for assistant Maggie Jordan and Dev Patel’s blogger Neal (whose desk Maggie and Don bickered in front of) has quit to work for the up and comer getting the 10pm time slot. Ah. So that’s our big structural drama for the show, then. The anchor is a protege of Will’s, so Will’s not mad at him for poaching his staff, oh no. Because he’s a colleague, you see. Will has a pissy little hissy fit with Don in front of news division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, yay!). I start to like Don when he stood up for himself and for everyone’s right not to be treated as servants. It’s already bountifully clear Will’s nobody’s ideal boss. But when Will reiterates Maggie’s crack about ambition (Don’s taking flight because Will’s star is waning) you see that Don’s righteous anger isn’t his reason for leaving. It’s just his way of making Will feel bad, of switching the topic, and now I’m back to thinking he’s a tool.
So, awesome. At this point I don’t like any of the characters (something incredibly important to me), except maybe Maggie, and even she feels like a bit of a patsy for staying with Will who can’t remember her name or the fact that she’s his assistant. Not to mention putting up with Don. Charlie’s too much of a cliche to keep me here.
Thankfully, there’s a shot of fresh energy injected into all this misery, the person of old/new executive producer Mackenzie MacHale. Mackenzie quit three years ago to report from the world’s hot spots; Charlie thinks she and Will were the perfect team back in the day. And its turns out that even before you know she has a knife wound in her stomach, she’s smart and reasonable and likable. And despite Will’s acid protests, she knows how to handle him. I immediate got that sick feeling in my stomach, however, that they’re another one of Sorkin’s sorry tropes; the couple who broke up for a hidden reason, the girl the guy can never get over. Sigh. I’m all about that idea for the most part (the girl he never gets over) but really? This is exactly like the start of Studio 60, yet again. Also? Gross. Emily Mortimer looks like she’s 30, although I can see from the dialogue she’s supposed to be older, and Daniels looks like he’s 60.
Mack’s brought staff with her, but the only one we meet is Jim Harper, a worried Andy Samberg-look-a-like/Jimmy Olsen type who followed Mack through war and hellfire. And while Mack’s in Will’s office, trying to convince him to give her (and American Democracy, because it’s that important) a shot, the Deep Water Horizon blows up. Don, of course, wants to treat it as an insignificant search and rescue operation (and makes himself even more unlikable in the process), but Jim and Neal and Maggie know better.
The rest of the episode revolves around Mack taking over the newsroom, shoving the soon groveling Don aside, and the team pulling together to figure out the scope of the disaster while no one else was paying attention. (Apparently the AP gives little color tags to stories so you know how serious they are. How, er, handy2.) Now I feel like I need to go back and check out the coverage of that event, because it’s almost absurdly impressive that the team figures out that BP doesn’t know how to cap the well and that Halliburton’s bad cement lead to the crisis, and that the government’s lack of trained inspection teams and decision not to require contingency plans made the disaster nearly inevitable. The team’s biggest coupe? Maggie finds the newly trained inspector who examined the well just weeks before. I don’t know that the real story there was government oversight rather than corporate greed and malfeasance, but it was nice to – I’m 95% sure – hear Jesse Eisenberg playing the inspector via the phone.
By the end of the episode, we’ve learned a few things (other than an inaccurately compressed history of the BP oil spill). Mack wants Maggie to dump Don, and wants Jim to fall for Maggie. Why not? They’re both age appropriate nice, highly suggestible people. Of course the course of true love can’t run smoothly, so Maggie does not in fact dump Don (who does change his obstructionist ways eventually, flattering Mack once the Deep Water Horizon story turns out to be important – and unbends enough to meet the Jordans, even if he still lies about needing to work through dinner) but Jim does begin to fall for her. I could get behind that pairing, as long as the rather appealing Jim doesn’t turn into a typical Sorkin stand in once he gets the girl. And we find out that (ew!) Will and Mack were in fact an item, and that Mack broke poor wittle Will’s heart, and that Will remembers everything about meeting her parents (especially her Dad, former British ambassador to the US) , and that she makes him want to be a better man. We find out that Mack’s dad, at least, thought the famously apolitical Will was a Republican. And we find out that Will wasn’t hallucinating; Mack was at Northwestern with the incriminating placards.
So. Not a lot of fresh structural ideas, even though that last twist was a nice one; Will might not be stage-managing a new era in his career, but Charlie and Mack are. But so much else we’ve seen before. Sports Night started with the boss’s heart attack, yes? And The West Wing started with Bartlet two years into an unsuccessful term, struggling to find his voice? Studio 60, as previously mentioned, began with a new creative team reinventing a classic show. Yes, yes – all situations fraught with drama. Restructuring, renewal and rebirth are inherently interesting. But The Social Network held our interest by describing the creation of something utterly new. Plenty of drama there too, right? So we know it’s possible for this writer. (Granted, Sorkin being Sorkin, he had to insert the through-line of longing for the Girl Who Got Away, because no man ever does anything for any other reason. But still.)
That said, I can forget about the structural sameness (after all, I did really like 2 of Sorkin’s previous 3 shows) as long as he can sell me on the characters. My initial estimate of Daniel being twice Mortimer’s age was slightly off the mark, although with 17 years between them he’s still technically old enough to be her father. No, he just looks like he’s twice her age. As with Whitford and Peet, I just have a lot of trouble rooting for that. I don’t care that he remembers going out to dinner with her parents (in contrast to irredeemable idiot Don); belittling someone and making their life hell (as with Mackenzie’s demeaning contract) can’t be compensated for by the occasional heart-string tug. The delusional belief that it can warps all of Sorkin’s shows. So we’ll have to see how sad sack Will manages to man up, and if he can overcome his bitterness and his broken heart without taking them out on Mack.
What surprises me the most is that I’m not sold on what’s normally the primary characteristic of Sorkin heroes; intelligence. No matter what Mack claims about Will living live broadcasts, I’m not buying his skill at his job. Perhaps it’s the fact that the show undercut him by calling him a Leno, and he has absolutely no notion of his own flaws. And I don’t know that I see enough of that duality described in him; classy with those he interviews, a nightmare with those who work for him. Er, and his boss. I know we saw it with the 10pm anchor, but we see no deference for his boss, and while we’ve heard he’s not always tough enough on interview subjects, we mostly don’t see that. I’m actually curious whether Daniels was the right man for this job; I can’t help wondering if Broadcast News‘s William Hurt might not have been better. I hate that he calls Dev Patel’s Neal “Punjab” and that he reprimands subordinates for using foul language in front of women (seriously?) and that we’re supposed to cheer when he finally remembers Maggie’s name. (I DID cheer when President Bartlett remembered Josh’s name in that two part episode about the first campaign; this repetition cheapens that utterly brilliant piece of work.) And I’m SO not sold on him as a love interest for Mack. But right now, I’m sold on Jim, and I’m sold on Neal, and I’m sold on Mackenzie. And that might be enough for me.
Also, I love that Sorkin set the show in the recent past. This way, we’re in the modern news era, and the team gets to break apart stories we know pretty well (though perhaps not so well as to be too picky about). The show doesn’t have to make up crises; it can use real ones. Maybe that’s just me being a news junkie, but I consider it a plus. Of course, it’ll get tiresome if they’re always the only ones reporting the real story (getting the nuances perfectly right with hindsight), but if Sorkin’s smart about writing it, they won’t be. I’ll be particularly happy if he lets them struggle to find their footing for a while, as the team did on The Hour (set in the so called perfect days of Edward R. Murrow, back when there were real journalists who, as Sorkin reminds us, changed the world). Of course his hubris is what we have to worry about; just look at the episode title, “We Just Decided To.” We just decided, Charlie tells Will, to change the system, to do “real” news. Because we’re cool and we’re smart and we get it and no one else does. That was the struggle in The Hour, actually – but too much of that smugness will have me changing the channel, even if I agree with you.
No doubt I’m making it sound like I didn’t like the show, and I did. It’s simply not an unmixed blessing. I’m very curious as to how it’s going to come together, and I’m going to keep watching to find out; all grumbling aside, all the walking and talking, and smart speechifying still gets me. And hey, it’s summer. I’m hardly overburdened with griping shows. But if you can’t stand the wait for next week’s episode, here’s some excellent Sorkinisms to hold you over. Enjoy!