Moviejay’s First Thoughts On Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom”
Aaron Sorkin returns to the small screen after a couple of big years at the movies where he won an Oscar for best screenplay for The Social Network and only followed that up with one of the best pure baseball dramas in Moneyball.
His previous outing on television resulted in the mixed bag that was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the dramedy following the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and inner workings of a Saturday Night Live type of weekly sketch comedy show. We had characters worthy of our investment there as well as the snappy dialogue we’ve come to expect from Sorkin, but the show was often self-serious and heavy handed. You could never shake the feeling that what Sorkin really wanted was a train set where he could unleash his ideas, opinions and social critiques into an engaging polemic about show biz, society, and modern living.
But what Studio 60 left us with was an over-the-top production that just couldn’t pull off any number of the multitude of things it was trying to do, such as incorporating network politics into a show about comedians. Perhaps that show also didn’t work because it proved that on the sidelines far away from the spotlight, comedians aren’t exactly funny or interesting people, just a pack of rats like the rest of us.
With The Newsroom, Sorkin finally has a train set more in tune with his global vision and imaginative reach (a train set with little nods to newsrooms of the past in Network and Broadcast News). A show that gets into the world of those prime-time cable news programs that blend actuality with social commentary. You know where to find them and if you’re a news junkie you probably play favorites, pledging allegiance either to MSNBC, CNN or FOX. The fictional network here is ACN and its ratings star is Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, who is seen as the Jay Leno of cable news hosts with his brand of daily coverage of current events that never rocks the boat, just as Leno’s comedy on The Tonight Show is inoffensive and safe.
But all of that changes in a heartbeat after McAvoy appears on a panel at a university town hall talk featuring partisan politicos seated on either side of him in an event having something to do with current events, society, and American life in general. This is where the first episode of the The Newsroom begins as we focus in on a quietly agitated Daniels having to put up with a Democrat and a Republican straight out of central casting, squawking their usual talking points instead of actually listening to each other.
In a Q&A at the event, a student asks the panel to tell her “in one sentence or less” why America is great and that’s when Daniels punches out a brilliant and sobering monologue about where the country stands today. He owns the questioner but not without being condescending to her, as well. The footage goes viral and now the Daniels character is facing a crisis at work with his executive producer and practically his entire news team being lifted to go work with a former staffer who is going to fill the daily 10 pm slot.
Daniels’ performance here as the affable, former idealist-cum-cynic Will McAvoy, coupled with the intelligent writing of creator Aaron Sorkin should make The Newsroom somewhat of a hit on HBO that caters to the Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert crowds. Sam Waterston is excellent as the cable news division head, a drunk who wears a bow tie who’s been in the news biz since time immemorial. Emily Mortimer stars as the new exec-producer and McAvoy’s ex-girlfriend, and gosh is she good here, radiating intelligence and stubbornness right back at the Daniels character. One of the best sequences in the nearly 75 minute opening episode is her trying to convince him to take his show into a new direction.
The stage is set for us to revel in McAvoy’s evolution as an everyday cable news host who finally starts to inject himself into the show instead of just reading the news as usual, and there are already the beginnings of romantic threads in the narrative. For current events junkies, the use of the BP oil spill here is put to good use and the show should have fun ticking off one big news story after another every week.
But for all its many strengths that make it a good, classy, snappy show, I wonder if even this canvas is too small for Aaron Sorkin. In that big opening monologue, was it just me or were you imagining Jeff Daniels as President McAvoy giving that speech? Following the inner workings of a cable newsroom is a better canvas for Sorkin than Studio 60, but when the oil spill stuff is revealed we realize that from this vantage point we’re considering huge issues from the point of view of folks who get to cover those issues whereas the characters in The West Wing get to have a real impact on those issues. I wonder why Sorkin simply just doesn’t go back to the White House. Seems that’s where he’s a natural fit, exploring topical ideas in an environment with characters meant to hash these things over but who, at the end of the day, get to make policy for the entire country. And that’s where Sorkin’s heart seems to lie, even if he’s distracting himself in a newsroom with this, his brand new toy.
Nonetheless, it’s a welcome return to television for Aaron Sorkin. Glad he’s back.