June 25, 2012


THE NEWSROOM:  Sundays 10PM on HBO – DVR Alert

We live in an era of TV auteurs.  Although there will always be networks and studios writing the checks–just ask Dan Harmon–it’s arguably the case that writer/producers like Matthew Weiner, Louis C.K., Kurt Sutter and Lena Dunham have more clout than all but a tiny handful of feature filmmakers, especially when it comes to realizing their personal vision on the screen.

And yet, Aaron Sorkin is still special.

Partly it’s because unlike those other showrunners, he’s also a movie guy, with an Oscar for The Social Network in his pocket and other hits like A Few Good Men and Moneyball to his credit, and no matter what TV people may say, that still means something.  Mostly, though, it’s because Sorkin accepts–nay, insists–on embracing Big Important Issues in his work, whether they’re appropriate or (pace Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip) awkwardly not.  The West Wing wasn’t just a great television series, it was a Platonic ideal of a great television series–irrefutable proof, even for those unwilling to respect the Sopranos and Wires of this world, that TV deserved to be taken seriously.

Sorkin is back, although he’s left behind the broadcast networks, with their increasingly dreary diet of procedurals interrupted by soaps.  In a celestially brokered creative marriage, he’s at HBO, the home of “you make the show and we’ll air it,” with his new drama THE NEWSROOM.

Newsroom is unfiltered Sorkin and very familiar in its feel, essentially Sports Night meets West Wing.  Its damaged hero is Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), successful but burnt-out host of a cable TV news show on a fictional network whose news division is run by Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston).  Will has become a hack, the “Jay Leno of news,” and on some level he’s been hating himself for a long time, until one day, asked a banal question by a college sophomore at a public forum, his river of angst overflows its banks and he responds with a tirade about where America has gone wrong.  After a 3-week forced vacation, he returns to find out that his executive producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) and most of his staff have left for a more stable boss and show.  All Will has left are his eager but untried assistant Margaret Jordan (Alison Pill) and internet researcher/blogger Neal Sampat (Dev Patel).  Even worse, Charlie has gone behind Will’s back and hired Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), with whom Will has A History, as the show’s new EP.  She’s brought with her Senior Producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.).  Future episodes will introduce Jane Fonda and Olivia Munn as additional regular characters.

Mackenzie is an Idealist with a capital “I”–and, really a capital “DEALIST” too.  She believes passionately that TV news can be what it once was, a hallowed forum where legends like Murrow and Cronkite were fair and evenhanded but not afraid to “speak truth to stupid.”  She wants Will, and thus TV news, to recover his/its best self, and this near-religious faith (we know it’s quixotic because Mackenzie quotes from “Don Quixote”–or at least from Man of La Mancha, almost the same thing) is what activates The Newsroom–it’s what Charlie still wants to believe, and the young staff, and although he won’t admit it, it’s what gets the blood flowing in Will’s veins again too.

The Newsroom pilot, written by Sorkin and directed by Greg Mottola, separates into 2 basic parts.  The first half is about the upheaval at Will’s show, and while for those of us who are Sorkinites, it’s a thrill to hear his dialogue flying on TV screens again, it’s also a reminder that Sorkin, like his protagonists, comes with baggage.  In Sorkin’s case, it’s his penchant for speech-making, barely cloaking his own point of view as it comes out of characters’ mouths.  Mackenzie gets the lion’s share of the thesis statements, but Will and Charlie have their windy monologues too, and after about 20 minutes of that, we get the point:  it would be a good thing for news broadcasts to be better.

The second, and much more fun, part of the pilot is the Sports Night (which was of course influenced by James L. Brooks’ seminal Broadcast News) second section:  Let’s Put On A Show.  In this case it turns out that the events at Will’s network are occurring on the day of the BP Gulf Coast oil spill, and the on-the-fly telecast allows Mackenzie and Jim (and Neal and Maggie) to show what they can do, which they triumphantly do.  The arena of live television is ideal for Sorkin, because by definition it provides deadlines and suspense for each episode, and he’s wonderful at writing smart characters under intense pressure.  (Sorkin tried to extend this to live comedy in Studio 60, but shows like SNL are in the end scripted, and he needed to contrive reasons for weekly emergencies.)

If you’re willing to let Sorkin periodically fix you in the eye and talk you to death about his passionate beliefs with the zeal of a bible salesman, The Network seems like it should be enormously enjoyable.  It feels like a mild mistake to set the show in the recent past, because it allows for too much easy hindsight (of course the BP spill was an important story), and Sorkin likes to target straw men as it is.  Still, there’s no reason to think that will hurt the series in any serious way.  The pilot only introduced two non-news storylines:  the as-yet not-quite-explained relationship between Will and Mackenzie, and the nascent triangle between Maggie, designated asshole Don, and nice guy Jim.  Mackenzie and Maggie are both essentially Holly Hunter’s Jane in Broadcast News, brilliantly capable when it comes to work, and complete wrecks in their personal lives.  (Both stories also recall Sports Night, respectively its Felicity Huffman and Sabrina Lloyd plots.)

Everyone in the Newsroom cast seems up for the challenge of mile-a-minute Sorkin dialogue, often clogged with statistics and quotations.  Since this show takes place in mostly fixed sets (the newsroom itself, Will’s office, the studio) and not hallways, there are more walk-and-stand sequences than West Wing‘s storied walk-and-talks, but in any case director Mottola (whose films include Superbad and Adventureland) is as expert with them as Sorkin’s longtime director Thomas Schlamme.  Thomas Newman has contributed rousing theme music.  This won’t be one of the HBO series to make great use of its lack of broadcast standards–a few 4-letter words aside, the only sign that Newsroom isn’t a network show is the fact that it flows without the need for periodic commercial act breaks–but of course the real distinction from broadcast TV is that Newsroom concerns itself with ideas in the first place.

HBO has given The Newsroom the best lead-in on its schedule, slotting it after its biggest hit (although perhaps not the most tonally compatible companion) True Blood.  Unless the show is a Luck-level ratings bust, it’s hard to imagine the show won’t get a quick renewal to become a regular part of the network’s line-up.   The question, as Newsroom goes forward, is whether Aaron Sorkin, with more personal control over his material than he ever had at the networks, will be able to restrain his proclivity to teach his audience life lessons, and get his points across through plot and characters instead of undiluted oration.  The hope is that he will; the good news is that even Aaron Sorkin’s harangues are worth a listen.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."