HBO Gets Real With ‘The Newsroom’

by Patrick Delgado
Photo via nytimes.com
       If you’re at all interested in television or popular culture or news media, it’s likely you’re familiar with HBO’s The Newsroom, which premiered this past June and aims to satisfy the appetites of fans of all three. It has stirred fierce debate among its fans and its detractors as only a drama from creative mind Aaron Sorkin ever could. Sorkin easily represents one of the most recognizable screenwriters of the past few decades, with titles like A Few Good Men,The Social Network, and much of The West Wing notched firmly under his belt, but over its first few episodes, The Newsroom has proven more likely to justify his critics.
       Clunky, awkward and sometimes just poorly executed, The Newsroom stumbles around with a premise that must have seemed like a better idea at the time. A fictional news anchor (Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels) known for his inoffensive demeanor and lackluster skills (“the Jay Leno of news anchors”) gets the chance to restart his image in a new cable news program headed by an ambitious executive producer (Mackenzie, played by Emily Mortimer). She brings along with her a talented young producer, Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) and they fill the room with a number of young talents (Alison Pill, Dev Patel, etc) who together aim to “do the news right.”
       The show has assumed one of HBO’s most coveted slots, airing on Sundays at 10 PM, but its entire aura creates a strange pairing with the network’s resident vampire soap opera True Blood. That show has descended into muddled confusion but provides a breath of fresh swamp air compared to the high-wired seriousness of The Newsroom.  What does this say about a show in which wild vampire orgies are the norm and induces less eye-rolls than a supposedly level headed news drama?
It’s clear that Sorkin is biting at the chance to tackle this material. The passion is evident in every scene, and while it’s interesting to see him tackle this thesis, it rarely works as drama. Sorkin litters the proceedings with romantic entanglements: Will and MacKenzie are ex-lovers broken up by her infidelity, and Pill’s character Maggie is stuck in a demeaning relationship as Gallagher’s Jim develops feelings for her. But the narrative stops dead whenever Sorkin tries to force the faux emotional turmoil.
The Newsroom’s characters rarely connect; they are ideological suits whose main purpose is to get the plot from Point A to Point B in order to deliver the show’s sermon-of-the-week. Which is a shame, because a great cast has been assembled, and in almost all cases, they prove they are game for whenever the writing wants to deliver the material they deserve. Most notably, Gallagher Jr’s naturalistic acting often lands him MVP honors, and Pill’s charm infects an overly simplistic character.
The show’s leads, Daniels and Mortimer, are less successful, but they do their best with characters that remain firmly on the drawing board. Will McAvoy is merely a placeholder for Sorkin’s idea of the conventional modern day newsman, drowned in overconfidence, and Mortimer struggles with a character that often balks at plausibility (you’ve doubtlessly heard about her inability to work emails despite being an accomplished war reporter). Yet there’s enough interest on the fringes to distract from that: Jane Fonda steals her cameo scenes with her best Ted Turner impression and Olivia Munn brings calm assurance to a character the show often treats unfairly.
        The Newsroom seems to have found a creative team as willing to embrace melodrama as Sorkin. The show’s Important Moments are punctuated by rapid-fire editing and overbearing strings (occasionally, a Coldplay song slips through). It’s clear that Sorkin believes that this is where it all happens: the journalists and culture-makers we have entrusted with our media determine what gets repackaged and distributed to the masses. He may be correct, but for all his valid complaints about today’s state of affairs, he offers little more than idealized musings on what it might be like in a “just world.”
       There’s nothing wrong with a little optimism, but it’s shocking how out-of-touch with reality Sorkin is willing to go in creating his media utopia. The 24-hour news cycle is a topic far too expansive to paint in such broad strokes. Often it feels as though Sorkin is preaching from the pulpit, but his ideas remain firmly planted in Journalism 101. The show’s early episodes seemingly cover “Chapter 1: Integrity,” a royal blue-tinted world where the people entrusted with regulating our news cycle are concerned solely with quality and virtually unaffected by the realities of primetime television programming.
       And while maybe Sorkin has a point somewhere in there, he’s not equipped to explore it. His vision is one that, however ideal, is often condescending and borderline offensive to those that are forced to reconcile these issues everyday. News Night, the struggling program at the center of Sorkin’s drama, gets a few general notes right: less sensationalism, more accountability, and the appearance of non-bias. Yet The Newsroom itself falls through many of these same pratfalls in its first few episodes alone. The show’s dialogue goes full bore sensationalist, the characters are often reduced to the overly-familiar sum of their parts, and in some moments, The Newsroom lets its agenda show just long enough to zap you out of its universe.
       There’s not much debating over one thing: Sorkin is a great writer. He can build the audience into a frenzy at the hands of one of his cleverly constructed monologues. The dialogue is quick and smooth, a style that has become his calling card, and every once in a while he slips in a signature one-liner that lands perfectly. The behind-the-scenes production sequences are often thrilling in a way that the rest of the show is not, but once the show gets caught up in its moralizing, it all quickly heads downhill.
       The Social Network featured the same razor sharp prose but used it to explore the icy jaggedness of its closed-off characters. It remains one of the more accomplished screenplays of the last few years, primarily because Sorkin’s natural talent for smart aleck dialogue spoke to some uncomfortable observations about our generation. These moments felt blisteringly real, yet The Newsroom is more notable for how dated it all feels, despite touching upon some of the biggest news moments of the last few years. If the show-within-the-show’s entire purpose is to examine how the news might have been if it had been done “right,” its strange how simplistic Sorkin’s conclusions are, and how easy it all seems when you’re given the benefit of hindsight.
       With a talented cast and crew, and a premise that could still easily prove fruitful, The Newsroom has more than enough room to grow. A second season has already been announced following the show’s impressive early ratings. It’ll be intriguing to see where things go from here; with the immense criticism heaped upon it, it’s possible Sorkin might turn it all around, and it likely wouldn’t be too difficult for him with most of the pieces already there. But with The Newsroom’s self-interested attitude, Sorkin may just remain stubbornly committed and continue feeding into his show’s self-aggrandizing habits.
The Newsroom airs Sunday nights at 10:00pm on HBO.
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