Popular opinion is dictated by the voices that shout the loudest, so one could see why Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has been getting bad press lately. Once again, he is the head of a television series explicitly involved with politics, and those who do not agree with his point of view are raging against it. That said, there have also been criticisms not directed at the politicking, but aspects like characters and story. Sorkin fans I know have said it’s fantastic. Myself, I’ve never watched Sports Night or The West Wing; my only Sorkin exposure has been his recent film excursions, which I enjoyed immensely. Ergo, I am in a position to judge The Newsroom without leaning on his fabled television career as a comparison.
In the first scene, we meet apparent series protagonist Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) involved in a debate between two opposing politicians. For a minute we see him in cynical silence, smiling to himself underneath the cacophony of the politicians shouting at one another. When he is asked by a “sorority girl” about why America is the greatest country in the world, he is forced into giving an honest answer – it is not the greatest at all, listening numerous statistics why. Leaving the audience in stunned silence with his negativity, he continues by addressing the fact that it could be the greatest if we just first accept this truth, and work to improve it.
This scene demonstrates the show’s attempt to balance a deconstruction of its elements, and providing a more straightforward narrative where characters believe in one another and conflicts are resolved, and so on. The latter is where the episode falls down somewhat, especially when it comes to undercutting rousing speeches, including the second half of McAvoy’s in the opening scene, with soft dramatic music – more frustrating since it really only distracts the audience from the drama, especially when there are many scenes without any such emotional manipulation that work better. That said, there are certain aspects of a typical series pilot the show wisely incorporates with a sense of self-reflexivity: McAvoy gets peoples’ names wrong, so others are often stating explicitly who certain characters are; it also diverts how forced some shows become to establish a romantic relationship meet cute by having a character deliberate orchestrate one, between Alison Pill’s Maggie and John Gallagher Jr’s Jim (whose name is so similar to Jim from The Office, I can’t help but think it was also deliberate).
Most characters work well, with Thomas Sadoski’s Don being a standout, towing the line of likeability as he grapples with the boy-scout enthusiasm of Jim when the latter discovers a not-quite-big-enough goldmine of a story. Don is stern and disapproving of the newcomer trying to rouse everybody, but it never descends into unreasonable malice; when he realises the potential of the story, he comes around, and the two make amends. McAvoy similarly finds a balance between being grumpy and unreasonable, and actually making sense. When he discovers that most of his newsroom has deserted him for another show, he goes on a rage around the office. This is his biggest moment of disconnection with the audience’s allegiance – it also gives us a dramatic punchline to his forgetfulness for names – but the following moments when he realises his mistake brings him back to rationality. The aforementioned beta-couple-to-surely-be Jim and Maggie are likeable, but weren’t developed very far in this episode, but I’m sure they will be. Other characters stumble; Emily Mortimer’s Mackenzie is a little wacky, especially when up against the dour snark of Daniels’ McAvoy, but at the episode’s Crunch Time moments she falls into place. The same cannot be said for Sam Waterston’s ACN president Skinner, whose attire is very Doctor Who, and I imagine having the actual Doctor appear in the show would be just as weird. He may get a pass on seemingly ridiculous by a line which insinuates he’s drunk, but he has several rowdy moments which are just bizarre rather than affecting.
When the show is exploring and deconstructing its elements, however, it is riveting television. The reveal that the events are taking place two years ago and the big news story is the BP oil spill is clunky (especially when compared to the care given to avoiding other exposition in the episode) but from this point, the episode clicks. Indeed, at this point the episode wisely abandons any political monologuing and focuses on the politics of the newsroom, exploring the mechanisms of reporting behind the scenes of a news broadcast. When Jim is pushing to follow the story his sources are giving him, the narrative is concerned more with the tension between Don and Jim than the actual story. Similarly, during McAvoy’s broadcast there are several moments of politicking, but the broadcast is used to further develop character and office dynamics, rather than to inflict opinion on an audience. Indeed, the characters’ triumph is not within the politics, but the fact they just made a bloody good broadcast.
Ultimately, I must conclude that reviews thus far have been a bit harsh. The moments of monologuing are doubtlessly heavy with Sorkin’s political opinion, and combined with the musical score it can seem fairly laboured. But it did excel when its focus was on the television programme itself and the function of its characters. The subject matter of the oil spill worked only because it was a backdrop to this; if the characters were debating ethics and morals of the situation it would fail, but they argue whether to report the rescue mission or the potential damage of the spill based on its credibility as news. Assuming the series will continue in this vein of featuring prominent news stories woven throughout its narrative, it must maintain this focus if it is to remain a compelling drama and not become a soapbox.
The Newsroom is broadcast in the US on HBO. The second episode airs on Sunday at 10pm (Eastern & Pacific times).