'The Newsroom': Yesterday's News, Today

The Atlantic
'The Newsroom': Yesterday's News, Today
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'The Newsroom': Yesterday's News, Today

Aaron Sorkin has a lot he wants to talk about. The past two years have bubbled over with disasters, both political and otherwise (but mostly political), but poor Mr. Sorkin has been too busy writing and promoting the well-received movies The Social Network and Moneyball to sit down and have a chat with us about it all. Lucky for him then (but not as much for us), that HBO has given him The Newsroom, an hour-a-week platform from which Sorkin can orate about all the crazy, f-ked-up sh-t that's happened since two springs ago. He is mad as hell and, though the rest of us have moved past a lot of it, he's not gonna take it anymore.

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Yes, the strangest and indeed most disastrous thing about Sorkin's new cable news drama The Newsroom (premiering this Sunday at 10pm) is that the action begins in April of 2010 (just in time for the Deepwater Horizon spill), so we are seeing the dogged news team fret over and carefully shape the stories of yesterday. We watch beleaguered, epiphany-laden anchor Will McAvoy (a bellicose, throbbing Jeff Daniels) take noble stands against Sharron Angle and rumors of Barack Obama's $200 million/day trip to India (anyone remember that?) and SB 1070. And we are supposed to be reflexively proud of this character for doing things that, well, we know weren't actually done. There wasn't an ACN (Atlantis Cable News) and there wasn't a Will McAvoy, a toothless Republican who suddenly starts speaking truth to power, lies, and shallowness. The oil spill happened and Gabrielle Giffords was shot, but News Night didn't bravely cover the Gulf with the science rather than the sensationalism, and executive producer MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer, seemingly not sure what she's doing here) didn't staunchly refuse to declare Rep. Giffords dead even though all the other networks had. So why should we care, and more importantly why should we feel inspired? Those things happened, but this stuff never did! So what's the point?? This is Hindsight: The Television Series, a wishful-thinking fantasy that out-wishes even that most wishy of series, The West Wing. Here Sorkin has essentially made a roman à clef out of the past two years' worth of his dinner party conversations and set it in a newsroom. "Here are some things I said that you missed because you weren't at my house." Hm. Thanks? You should have just kept a blog, Aaron.

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That mind-bogglingly misguided and eminently avoidable (just make up familiar-sounding news stories, like The West Wing did!) misstep aside, The Newsroom suffers, like the buffoonishly self-important Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip before it, from a miscalculated, perilously naive sense of place. As evidenced by the series' sappy, Thomas Newman-scored opening credits sequence, which tracks the television news business from its beginnings to the present, Sorkin wants to tell a story of earnest, dedicated newsmen and women (but mostly a man) trying to return to an older, forgotten place of integrity. Trouble is, cable news was never really that place. Sure CNN had its moments in the early days, back when it was a serious and sober outlet for informed news junkies, but the medium has never hummed with the weight and authority that network news had in the Murrow or Cronkite days. And yet, like Studio 60's silly sketch show, Sorkin pretends that cable news has simply lost something that it can, with the right smart haircut in the anchor chair, get back. He tries to graft the gravity of the old nightly news broadcasts onto the zip and harried sexiness of the fervid, modern 24-hour news scrum. It's a nice idea, if it was remotely within the realm of possibility. It's not, though, not really, and so Sorkin has created a tiresomely, at times laughably, literal-minded fantasy. It's as if someone tried to tell the story of The Wire in the world of Game of Thrones. ("Watch them corners, Tyrion.")

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The Newsroom also commits the fatal error of making the on-air personality, of all people, the front-and-center lead of its show. How much more enlightening, more fun, and more truthful it would have been to focus on a producer working from within the ranks, trying to change the gross, venal, pompous cable news system wherever and whenever they could sneak change in. When it's the rich guy in the suit making the big speeches and principled demands, with the help of a few frantic, scrubbed youngsters, it becomes a self-congratulatory hour of cliched speechifying. Was Sorkin being bold, smart, or daring in making Will a Republican? No. Was it a cynical and ultimately foolhardy attempt to preemptively get some right-leaning naysayers off his own back? Yes, it would seem so. Only, pretty early on in The Newsroom (I've seen four episodes so far), Will starts sounding just like any moderately well-worded piece on the Huffington Post. There's an aside in one episode about conservatives labeling Will a RINO and it's a notion that's meant to be, if not laughed off, certainly shrugged off. Trouble is he is a RINO, quite literally. As if to prove Will a non-lefty zombie, Sorkin throws in a ham-handed bit of dialogue about how Will supports SB 1070 (Ask the guy whose job the immigrant took, he snipes), only to have him backpedal during an on-air segment later in the episode. Maybe this is Sorkin's real fantasy, making a Republican come to say and believe all the things that a Democrat would.

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In one scene between Will's boss Charlie, played with gimlet-eyed fluster by Sam Waterston, and Charlie's big boss Leona, the owner of ACN's parent company (Jane Fonda, doing some steely satire of people she presumably dislikes in real life), Leona puts up a hand to shush Charlie and says "Careful with the lectures." Oh, if only Mr. Sorkin had followed his own advice. Whereas on The West Wing all the pontificating often felt wholly vital — it was the presidency we were talking about, after all — in the offices of ACN, a bloated and ineffectual cable network, the Big Idea talking sounds like better-than-usual internet commenting; it's a lot of fairly obvious, well-trod ideas said in a way that almost covers up the staleness, the lazy condescension. Sorkin has perhaps misjudged his audience. As the company's president (and Leona's son) tells Will, no one is watching for a lesson or to be served their vegetables. Similarly, I can't imagine that the people who intend to watch The Newsroom really need basic liberal talking points parroted back at them as if they were startling new insights. It's not unusual to see Sorkin speaking from such a lofty soapbox, he does tend to think he has a call to educate, but what is surprising about his latest effort is that, at times, the writing hints that Sorkin may actually think he's making grand, original points. That he could think that about a show set in the recent past, which we all remember pretty well, reeks of stupendous arrogance, and it's an acrid, unpleasant smell that permeates the whole show.

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Which isn't to say there isn't anything good about The Newsroom. Despite some awkward, larger jumps in time (the first four episodes cover nine months), the show is prodigiously paced and has the same kinetic, whizzing back-and-forth style of hallmark Sorkin entertainments. As long as you don't consider the real world (though Sorkin desperately wants you to), these people, all fast-talking and frenzied and doing goofy, idiosyncratic stress-mess things, do seem smart and capable and like they're doing something important. Sorkin, and his director Greg Mottola, do a nice job of giving the show the occasional tingly crackle of urgency, even though we know how most of these stories end. Well, the real-life news stories, at least. Of course we've also the characters' personal lives to deal with.

There are two romantic plots at the center of the show's soapier core, one involving Will and MacKenzie's doomed relationship from three years ago, the other with a trio of young staffers. The former set-up is all grumpy acrimony giving way occasionally to breathy admissions of mutual care and respect. The latter is a ripped-from-The Office will they/won't they frustration about the perky assistant turned associate producer Maggie (the bright Alison Pill), her mean-ish producer boyfriend Don (Thomas Sadowski, perfectly asshole-ish), and MacKenzie's righthand man Jim Harper (like Jim Halpert!), a shaggy-cute do-gooder (played with his usual adorable whimper by John Gallagher, Jr.) who is totally smitten with Maggie -- who is totally crushing on him, but, oh man, there's this boyfriend, and what will they do. These entanglements, while well-acted and full of zingy rejoinders, seem a bit of an afterthought, a nod to those not wanting to sit in a classroom an hour a week in the summer, and thus clang up incongruously against all the front-and-center infotainment speechmaking. Still, I'm engaged despite myself. In the "will they/won't they" debate, I really hope they "will they," while it should be satisfying to eventually see MacKenzie and Will get it on as we know they are destined to do.

Rounding out the cast are Olivia Munn, given little to do as an on-air financial analyst who's a genius with a double PhD but is a flighty, stringy social mess (Sorkin's women are high-strung, intelligent little birds, all tweet and flutter and spindly legs), and Dev Patel, given perhaps the most thankless role so far as the quiet-ish Indian whizkid who suffers a running joke about being the IT guy and in one particularly embarrassing plotline has to spend an entire episode trying to sell a bigfoot conspiracy theorist crackpot story. I'm fairly confident that the show will find its character groove eventually, but right now the show feels too binary and interior. Four hours into the series, the world has yet to relax and open up; we're still watching these two main tennis matches with only occasional appearances from skittering ball boys, darting across the frame with wacky, pained expressions on their faces.

I'll be watching every episode of The Newsroom, but I'm not sure how happy I'll be about it. The show is mostly a bummer, a poorly conceived (why 2010???), heavy-handed affair (the Gabby Giffords sequence, set to Coldplay's "Fix You" and full of plenty of "we did it" self-satisfied smiles, is almost offensive in its synthesized grandeur) that mistakes canned wit for sharpness and overreaching for depth. Aaron Sorkin can write a good, zooming scene, but his ideas are starting to feel a little crusty. He was never a revolutionary, but he didn't used to feel like such old news.

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