SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST SUNDAY’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 1 YET.
“…in the old days, about ten minutes ago, we did the news well. You know how? We just decided to.”
Any new Aaron Sorkin show is something of a TV event. Sorkin’s one of a growing number of TV writers – including the likes of Joss Whedon, Matthew Weiner and David Chase – whose very name is enough to sell a TV series regardless of its stars, producers or network.
Yet Sorkin’s cachet of success rests pretty much solely on groundbreaking political drama The West Wing, which ran for seven seasons (the last three without him). True, both Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip were also excellent shows, but the former was cancelled after two seasons, the latter after just one. While everyone acknowledges Sorkin’s skill as a writer, it seems that the public desire for his work is greater with subject matter that affects everyone – the US government – than self-reflective theses about the workings of the TV industry. Given that, it seems rather brave that Sorkin’s new project, The Newsroom, is yet another meditation on that industry. Whether it proves to have the wide appeal of The West Wing or the more limited appeal of Studio 60 is a gamble that might not pay off.
Compounding that is the problem of familiarity. Series set in TV newsrooms are hardly new; there’s been Murphy Brown, Drop the Dead Donkey, Frontline and Canada’s own The Newsroom, all acclaimed in their day. Not to mention a plethora of movies on the subject – Network, Broadcast News, The China Syndrome, Good Night and Good Luck to name but a few. If you factor in their obvious ancestors, dramas set in newspaper offices, that number gets even higher.
The net effect of this is that there’s already a media shorthand for the structures of such dramas. To be fair, this might be drawn from actual realism, but that doesn’t water down the fact that it’s a hard genre to approach without embracing, essentially, cliche. Despite Sorkin’s undeniable skill with a script, The Newsroom doesn’t really manage to escape the trap of that formula.
The first ten minutes are electrifying – significantly, this prologue doesn’t include any of the TV newsroom elements. Veteran anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), having been pressed for a political opinion at a university debate, finally loses his cool and unleashes an unprecedented torrent of honesty when asked to respond to the question, “why is America the greatest country in the world?”
His speech/meltdown is pure Sorkin, and delivered brilliantly. A profanity-laced, excoriating examination of precisely why America is not the greatest country in the world – but has been, and could be again if its current problems were addressed without intransigent liberals and conservatives butting heads rather than debating the issues. “The first step towards solving any problem is recognising there is one.”
It’s obviously Sorkin himself speaking, through the mouth of his character. But then, that’s what he’s always done, and if you have a problem with that, you’re probably not going to be watching anyway.
Of course, Will’s speech is filmed, put up on the internet and quickly goes viral, leading fictional news network ACN to put him on a three week suspension to ‘rest’. Then, after the title music (the usual Sorkin staple of swelling strings and inspirational piano, courtesy this time of Thomas Newman), we’re into the show proper, and its almost theatrically limited setting, the newsroom.
Turns out that Will’s staff have all jumped ship in his absence, to work on a new 10 o’clock show with his former co-anchor. This gives Sorkin the advantage of introducing the new staff – ie the cast – to the main character and thereby to the audience without masses of extraneous exposition where people tell each other things they must, rationally, already know. As usual with Sorkin, they’re a well-drawn, likeable bunch. But even Sorkin can’t escape the problem of cliche in a subgenre that’s already been almost done to death. His newsroom is actually staffed entirely by cliches. Let’s meet them:
The Veteran Anchor Who’s Become Complacent, Yet Retains the Heart of a Crusading Journalist Under His Cynical, Embittered Shell:
Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, an anchor who’s become a soaring success thanks to his policy of “not bothering anyone”. An obvious analogue for Sorkin himself, he’s portrayed as a brilliant man with passionate views who’s a total pain in the ass to work with (some nice self-awareness, Mr Sorkin). Signals his lack of caring by not remembering any of his staff’s names. In the course of the first episode, he will regain his fervour for news as information rather than filler or political polemic, and gain a newfound respect for his staff that will be signalled by his suddenly remembering who they are.
The Plucky Executive Producer With a Passion for News Who Will Turn the Morally Bankrupt Newsroom Around:
Emily Mortimer as the oddly named MacKenzie MacHale. In keeping with the tropes of this character, she’s an award-laden war correspondent returning to the studio with the hardwon integrity she found in Afghanistan and Iraq. For added romcom value, she’s also Will’s impish, British ex-girlfriend and there’s still a simmering tension between them. Prone to delivering speeches about Don Quixote that are plainly straight from the mouth of Sorkin.
The Asshole Who Wouldn’t Know a Good Story If It Jumped Up and Bit Him:
Thomas Sadoski as Don Keefer. Will’s former Executive Producer, and still nominally in charge when MacKenzie turns up. Ignores the good advice of the improbably professional staff all around him, and is so generally objectionable it’s hard to believe the script’s claims that he’s good at his job.
The Crusty Veteran Newsman in Charge Who Wants a Return to the Good Old Days of Actual Journalism:
Sam Waterston as Charlie Skinner. A folksy Mark Twain lookalike who dresses as the Eleventh Doctor, Charlie’s been around long enough to remember Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Vietnam. He knows Things Should Be Better, and manipulates his staff accordingly. See also Lou Grant, Perry White etc.
The Bright Up and Comer Whose Unrecognised Nose for News Will Lead to Success for Everyone:
John Gallagher Jr as Jim Harper, a producer whose unswerving devotion to the alliteratively named MacKenzie MacHale has brought him to New York, where it becomes plain that he’s one of the only people on the newsroom staff who can actually spot an important story. See also Peter Parker, Jimmy Olson (which Don actually calls him at one point).
The Klutzy, Hopeless Intern whose Hidden Talents Will Lead Her to Greater Confidence and Career Success:
Alison Pill as Maggie Jordan. Maggie’s been promoted from intern to assistant primarily because Will didn’t remember who she was. Spends the first half of the episode comically tripping over things, which unfathomably leads MacKenzie to spot ‘something’ in her and promote her to associate producer for no clear reason. She is of course right, and by the end of the ep, Maggie will be vital to sniffing out news details on the exclusive that will remake the newsroom’s reputation. For added romcom value, also in a faltering relationship with Don into which MacKenzie is trying to insert Jim as a better option.
The Quiet Guy Who’s Always Glued To His Computer, But Will Come Up Trumps With an Exclusive Nobody Else Has Spotted Yet
Dev Patel as Neal Sampat, another Brit whose function is to write Will’s blog (the existence of which Will is entirely unaware of). Employing his usual tactic of likeability, Dev plays Neal almost exactly as he used to play Anwar in Skins, but it will be he who comes up with the breaking story that will Set the Newsroom Back on Track.
To be fair, I’m not knocking Sorkin because these are cliches. It’s actually quite a clever tactic for the scriptwriter to use such instantly identifiable roles to cement the characters in the viewer’s mind, and it’s notable that I felt I knew a lot about these characters already by the episode’s halfway mark. In common with the characters of The West Wing, they’re all improbably great at their jobs (even the asshole realises he was wrong at the end, and apologises) and have a degree of erudition that few people have in the normal workplace. They seem, in short, just a little too perfect.
But that’s Sorkin’s style, and perhaps I’m being a little influenced by having recently watched thirteen weeks of Mad Men, in which all the characters are made of flaws. This is only episode one, and I expect that, as in The West Wing, the flaws in the characters will show up as the season progresses.
And it’s a little novel to set the show in the very recent past, so that the all-important exclusive turns out to be the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s at that point that the grams onscreen give a date – April 20, 2010. At first it seemed a little weird to show this halfway through the story, as I’d naturally assumed until then that it was set in the present. But it was actually quite a clever move. If they’d shown that date at the outset, a keen news viewer might well have sensed what story the script would focus on.
And that advantage of hindsight means that the show can cleverly plunder a plethora of recent big news stories, while allowing the ace staff at ACN to appear preternaturally brilliant by knowing every aspect of a story before any of their competition. It also allows Sorkin to insert yet more righteous sermonising in the mouths of his characters; in this case, obviously, he unleashed his wrath on the incompetence of BP, the corruption of Halliburton and the inadequacy of the US Mineral Survey inspectors.
As I say, it’s only episode one, and it’s perhaps unfair to judge the show as a whole on the basis of that. It’s certainly exciting, and I can understand embrace of cliched characters and situations as a media shorthand to quickly establish the scenario. There’s obviously room to explore them with more depth as the show’s ten episode run progresses.
It has all the hallmarks of a Sorkin show – a mix of brilliance and contrived schmaltz; some electrifying dialogue and performances, but also many idealised, too-perfect characters whose erudition strains credulity. With Sorkin, I often find the positives outweigh the negatives – after all, even the hallowed West Wing was often far from perfect on these lines. But if you’ve enjoyed those in Sorkin’s shows before, you’ll definitely enjoy this – and hope that the flaws will be ironed out later.