'The Newsroom' premiere review: Did Aaron Sorkin's new HBO series make you mad as hell, or happy as a clam?
The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s return to television, premiered on Sunday night, and let’s get ready to rumble. It’s a series that will serve as an escape-valve of relief, anger, and confirmation, articulating so many things that so many people feel about the frequently-pathetic state of the news media. (In a sense, it wants to be this TV generation’s equivalent to the 1976 movie Network, with the Paddy Chayevsky-written line, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”) It’s also a series that is going to drive some people crazy. For some, it will be because the show is frequently hectoring and repetitive, and it has storytelling problems with its office romances. But for others, it’s going to make them crazy because no matter how clearly Sorkin states the opposite (on-screen and in interviews), The Newsroom is going to strike them as one long liberal — or as Bill O’Reilly will doubtless label it, “far left” — screed.
Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterston give superb performances as, respectively, news anchor Will McAvoy and cable-news-division president Charlie Skinner. Emily Mortimer manages to occasionally shine as Will’s old flame and new producer even though her character, MacKenzie McHale, is — on the basis of four episodes I’ve seen — a schizo botch: Part genius news journalist, part ditzy romantic. And before you say we are all conflicting combinations of our behaviors, let me say that no male in the series is as needy, foolish, and desperate as MacKenzie… unless it’s Alison Pill’s Maggie, the recently-promoted assistant-turned-associate producer of Will’s show News Night. Sorkin gave MacKenzie some of the pilot’s most stirring lines, about “reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession” and “speaking truth to stupid,” but (non-spoiler-alert) he’s also going to have her date a jerk to primarily make Will jealous and have her repeatedly dither, tongue-tied, when asked about her break-up with Will. When you consider how well-delineated, say, Felicity Huffman’s TV-producer character was in SportsNight, you have to wonder what happened to Sorkin’s fem-dar on this project. If, as seems to be the case given the pacing and choreography of the action and dialogue, Sorkin was going for screwball comedy in lengthy sections of Newsroom, he’s lacking a Roz Russell/Katharine Hepburn/Barbara Stanwyck-tradition strong woman here.
Whatever else it is, The Newsroom is – and I write this without sarcasm – noble and earnest. Sorkin wants to emphasize how the news media has failed us by pandering, retreating, and colluding with business interests from which it ought to be independent, a belief held by many of us, and which is a balm to hear in musically written speeches by Sorkin emerge from the mouth of a wonderful actor such as Daniels. Sorkin delivers many of the same messages you hear nightly from Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and (to take a show that more closely resembles what Will and Mackenzie want theirs to be) MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. He has Waterston’s Charlie specifically invoke Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite as examples of “anchors having an opinion” being both “not a new thing” or a bad thing. (What he leaves out is that both of those anchors also helped create a cult of personality — Murrow the chain-smoking hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart of correspondents; Cronkite the Uncle Walter you can trust — as surely, and as artfully artificial, as Lucille Ball or James Arness did in entertainment television.)
Perhaps the most audacious stroke of storytelling performed by The Newsroom is to place it in the recent past, and have the series demonstrate how a principled news broadcast, aggressive in its pursuit of facts, would have covered actual events such as (in the pilot) the 2010 BP oil spill. By showing us how an ideal anchor might have gathered the available facts and cut through the corporate cant, The Newsroom accomplishes what a first-rate dramatist like Sorkin has always done best: Rouse your emotions while magically fooling you into thinking he’s rousing your I.Q.
Like the once and future playwright he is, Sorkin plays much of The Newsroom as farce. Characters stumble over office furniture, enter the wrong rooms, and slam doors. One of the things I kind of like about The Newsroom is that, despite the network it’s on, it’s less HBO than it is TV — that is, broadcast TV, broad broadcast TV, with slapstick, jokes that nail down the ends of scenes as though the show was cutting to a commercial break. Sorkin doesn’t even much use the profane language permitted on cable, and I’ll bet TV producers curse a lot more than these News Night folks do. (No nudity yet, but I’m guessing that when it does occur, Sorkin will opt for full-frontal of Waterston clad only in a bow tie, just to mess with our heads.)
The Newsroom is funnier than Sorkin’s NBC show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and rather less funny than his ABC show SportsNight. Indeed, there’s a sense in which almost everything The Newsroom has to say about independence and creativity in TV programming was already said in a 1999 episode of SportsNight. There, William H. Macy delivered a spine-tingling speech about Philo Farnsworth, the invention of television, and corporate leadership that distilled everything The Newsroom says, but in under three minutes. Some of the speechifying in The Newsroom could be snipped in favor of some sorely needed character development, and perhaps a scene in which someone ridicules Will’s middle-aged-crisis leather jacket.
The Newsroom has quite a few good tricks up its sleeve, including the revelation about Will being a Republican that will confound or irritate early snipers ready to blast what will inevitably be termed the show’s “agenda.” (It’s a trick I’m not even sure Sorkin quite pulls off, but I’m glad he tries.) Although The Newsroom has received a lot of mixed-to-negative advance reviews, there are also going to be some media chatterboxes and viewers who will over-praise the show because it’s such a gol-dang relief to see characters on television react to news events in a manner in which many of us would like to see our news-spouters spout, while downplaying the show’s structural problems. And its often peculiar approach to anyone under the age of 30: The young characters are either airheads or geniuses, either deeply versed in broadcast history or dumb-foundedly impressed that Will is able to vamp on-camera when nothing’s on his monitor. (Gee: He’s, like, smart!) Plus, I do not believe for a second that one of the key young ‘uns would ever make a casual reference to a character in the Little Orphan Annie newspaper comic-strip.
Still, I’m looking forward to the broader discussion the show is going to provoke on every all-news cable channel, which I’d wager is going to fall hook, line, and sinker for every bit of controversy-chum The Newsroom dangles in front of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. Aaron Sorkin is going to do more to unite Bill O’Reilly, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Howard Kurtz than anything short of the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln touting a tax cut for TV commentators. Oh, it’s going to be nutty, sanctimonious, and, occasionally, right on-target (I’m looking at you for that last quality, Colbert).
For all its flaws, The Newsroom is well worth watching, every week — or, at least, I’ll be watching it. I mean, what’s the alternative? It’s either this, Longmire, or one’s DVDs of the final, newspaper season of The Wire…
What did you think of The Newsroom?