Not long after the Supreme Court ruling regarding the Affordable Care Act was handed down last Thursday came the jokes tying in Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama, “The Newsroom.” “I can’t wait to get the best Obamacare reportage from Will McAvoy in a year and a half,” a friend tweeted, referring to the lead character and news anchor played by Jeff Daniels. The barb isn’t undeserved. For a show set in the world of news, the biggest complaint against it has been the way it fictionally covers news. Sorkin, who has brought us memorable TV and films from “The West Wing” to The Social Network, has set his latest project and the TV follow-up to his general failure of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” in the past. Spring 2010 is ripe for the picking, from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the passing of Arizona’s strict immigration law, but it just as easily is ripe for revisionism. Here is Sorkin’s biggest flaw in what nonetheless is a solid if in-need-of-work drama: rewriting the past is too easy. Hindsight hampers our ability to examine how best to report a past and already well-reported on story, especially when that analysis is interwoven in a larger narrative concerning just what modern reporting is and should be. The new executive producer of the fictional “News Night,” Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), declares in the pilot that she wants to “speak truth to stupid.” That’s not necessarily a bad sentiment when you consider some of what passes for journalism these days, but it does smack of too much pretension when you realize the dialogue Mortimer is delivering is written with the knowledge that MacHale, if real, wouldn’t have. Granted, there’s room for abuse when using fiction to tell a point — just look at dim Gov. Ritchie of “The West Wing,” an in-no-way-veiled commentary on George W. Bush — but at least trying to tell original stories would have been braver. Still, “The Newsroom” isn’t one giant sermon, and even a less-than-great entry from Sorkin is better than much of what graces the airwaves. That’s underselling the drama, though; it is flawed, but it is still good. Most importantly, it is a show worth dissecting and debating — one that, like its fictional counterpart “News Night,” is still developing. They both deserve a shot at greatness.
Despite the issues regarding the news coverage in “The Newsroom,” the news isn’t the star. It’s the people who work in the news business — the ones crazy enough to stick with it, the ones who feed off the news and the race to deliver it like a drug. Newsrooms are ideal settings for both comedy and drama, and only two episodes into “The Newsroom,” Sorkin has presented viewers with a mix of both. A character will pontificate quite verbosely on a current event one minute and fall down or accidentally send an embarrassing email to thousands of employees the next. It helps to know Sorkin was a musical theater major and that that medium is his ultimate love. He likes to operate in a heightened sense of reality, one in which characters, even though not technically singing, burst into lightning-fast dialogue on a whim. Their back and forth is a form of music. To deliver his Sorkinese, the creator has assembled an impressive ensemble — “There’s something like 13 Tony nominations in this cast,” he said in a recent Vanity Fair piece. Leading the pack is Jeff Daniels, and often overlooked actor who only two episodes in has said more with his facial expressions than most actors say in dialogue in an entire season of TV.
His Will resembles Keith Olbermann to a degree, a hard-charging curmudgeon who is convinced his way is the best way. Will, however, has kept this side away from the public, portraying himself as an even-keeled, polite and ultimately unopinionated everyman — the “Jay Leno of news,” as he is dubbed. When he finally loses his cool at a forum, however, informing the audience and soon countless online viewers that America the Beautiful just might need a little work, his luck changes. Most of his staff, including executive producer Don (Thomas Sadoski), defect to a new show, leaving behind a few staffers including Will’s assistant, Maggie (Allison Pill) and his blogger, Neal (Dev Patel). In to revamp “News Night” is EP Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), an experienced journalist recently back from covering Afghanistan who also is Will’s ex. She brings along one of her top producers, Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), and grand ideas on reshaping the dialogue of cable news. (Her reference to Cervantes and Don Quixote is one of the several ways Sorkin self-plagiarizes; such topics also used in his show “Sports Night” in the 1990s.) “That studio is a courtroom and we only call expert witnesses,” Mackenzie tells the staff. “Will is the attorney for both sides, he examines the witnesses and reveals facts.” While the way in which Sorkin is examining the news — by working in the past — is questionable, the actual questions his characters are voicing regarding the news world are not only valid but believable and necessary. “I’m looking at an oil rig sinking into the ocean. That’s pretty good television,” Will tells Mackenzie in Episode Two as he pushes to lead the hour with more oil spill coverage and she wants the immigration bill at the top. “We don’t do good television; we do the news,” she replies. These are the types of discussions that are happening in newsrooms worldwide, no matter if they are for print, broadcast or online products. The future of journalism is still being written, and if you aren’t interested in debating it, or even considering it, you probably shouldn’t watch “The Newsroom.”
That said, it is important for fans of Sorkin like myself to admit that part of why I love what comes out of his characters’ mouths is because I agree with what is coming out of their mouths. “The West Wing” is liberal porn, and already “The Newsroom” has had its moments. Look at Maggie’s tirade against the way the Arizona immigration debate was being handled: “The rhetoric we use to talk about these people who risk their lives to have a shot at picking oranges so their kids have a shot at not being dead makes it sound like we’re talking about scraping gum off our shoes. These people choose to take a huge risk to become Americans and they deserve a better descriptor than ‘illegals.’ ” Or take this exchange between Mackenzie and financial reporter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn). Mackenzie: “What’s the difference between a corporation and a person?” Sloan: “Have you ever held a door open for someone?” Mackenzie: “Yes.” Sloan: “Did you ask them for money first?” Mackenzie: “No.” Sloan: “That’s the difference.” Will, at least, doesn’t come across as a raging partisan; based on his conversations he is hard to peg politically. That combined with his cynicism toward Mackenzie’s idealistic views actually help save the show from being bogged down in self-righteousness. Not everyone here is on a crusade.
Will and Mackenzie’s dynamic is fascinating. She broke his heart, we learn in Episode Two, by cheating on him after two years. That was three years ago, and her reappearance in each his life isn’t reopening an old wound — the wound never healed to begin with. Their battles are much bigger than the news they are covering, and every line and every look is weighted with the kind of importance and in many ways heartbreak usually seen on shows such as “Mad Men.” Mortimer, also quoted in the Vanity Fair piece, nailed it when she described the sexiness of a good argument: “The great writers and directors of the past have understood that sexual tension can be so brilliantly depicted in the way that people talk to each other — Billy Wilder and (George) Cukor knew that, Shakespeare knew that, and Jane Austen knew that. And it’s so rarely investigated these days, partly because the world has to be where people talk fast and funny. And one of those worlds is the news.” You can tell Will and Mackenzie get under each other’s skin, and they both love it and hate it. On the other end of the tension spectrum is Maggie and Jim, two twentysomethings with obvious chemistry and Don, Maggie’s boyfriend, in the way. Also in the way is Maggie, a young woman still coming to terms with herself and her talents who, yes, is making bad decisions when it comes to men. Despite all the hubbub that has been made against her and Mackenzie’s characters being considered “weak,” these women aren’t pushovers. There are definite touches of CJ Cregg and Donna Moss of “West Wing” fame in them, from the goofiness to the compassion to the ability to get a man to stop dead in his tracks and wonder just what the hell is happening to him now that she is in his life. Not a one of them is perfect, and that is how it should be. Daniels, Mortimer, Pill and Gallagher Jr., however, are pitch-perfect.
Sam Waterston rounds out the cast as Charlie Skinner, the bow-tied head of the news division and the orchestrator of the Mackenzie-Will team who pops in to encourage the new drive toward excellence. He also wants Will to stay away from Reese (Chris Messina), the numbers guy and little red devil on Will’s shoulder reminding him of ratings and encouraging him to ditch Mackenzie’s new directives. The guidelines for determining what goes on the air are simple: 1. Is this information we need in a voting booth? 2. Is this the best possible form of the argument? 3. Is the story in historical context? And 4. Are there really two sides to this story? Those principles aren’t necessarily the makings of what ratings guys consider good TV, but Mackenzie has already spoken her piece about such an idea. Critics confused with the importance placed upon such debates are either unaware of the state of the modern newsroom, choosing to ignore it or feeling guilty for being complicit in it. “The Newsroom” isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t claiming to be. But the issues broached in the series are ones that influence everyone’s lives, whether realized or not. Sorkin would be wise to return his drama to the present (he has the time; it was picked up for a second season), but viewers shouldn’t disregard the messages based on seeing them played out in the past. The style of “The Newsroom” may be somewhat old-fashioned, but it’s as current of a show as we will ever see.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic at Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.