July 2, 2012

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “The Newsroom”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and the production of episodes for the regular season: a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads. The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting, and even story. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.’

Previously… on THE NEWSROOM:  Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is a bland, successful cable news anchor who snaps one day in public, condemning his own medium for its superficiality and refusal to take a stand.  After a forced rest, he returns to the network to find that his executive producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) and most of his staff have left his sinking ship–all but Will’s assistant Maggie (Alison Pill), who happens to be Don’s girlfriend–and that Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the head of the News division, has replaced Don with MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), who apart from being a firebrand believer in the sanctity of news reporting, happens to be Will’s ex.  Charlie wants to try doing Mackenzie’s kind of news show, with a young staff that’s going to learn on its feet–headed by her Senior Producer Jim (John Gallagher, Jr), who’s already falling for Maggie–and Will and his new team jump in the deep end, covering the BP oil disaster on their first night.

Episode 2:  A few days have passed, and while the oil is still leaking off the coast of Louisiana, nothing new is happening there.  Will’s ratings, coming off the BP story, are climbing, and network research guy Reese (Chris Messina), wants the show to keep hitting the oil spill story.  But Mackenzie thinks it’s time to move on to more current stories even if they don’t have flashy visuals, in this case Arizona enacting its immigrant-identification law.  Mackenzie also provides the staff with her statement of principles for “NewsNight 2.0” (the title of the episode), which basically require that the show tell only important stories in the most informative possible way.  But Maggie badly screws up booking the guests who are supposed to speak on behalf of the Arizona bill, losing the governor and booking 3 right-wing idiots instead, which leads to a disastrous show.  And she’s not the only one to fail horribly:  Mackenzie mistakenly sends an e-mail to the entire company revealing that she and Will had broken up because she cheated on him.  On the plus side, she hires Sloan (Olivia Munn) to be the show’s new economics expert.

Sometimes, the knowledge acquired through development and production of a show’s pilot makes a show significantly better when it moves on to regular episodes (Girls is a recent example).  More often, the principle of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies, and the show you got in the pilot remains the one produced as a series.  Occasionally, a series gets worse.  Like, for example–forgive me–Smash.  That, unfortunately, was the case with Episode 2 of The Newsroom, written by series creator/demigod Aaron Sorkin and directed by Alex Graves (a West Wing veteran).  Everything that was annoying in the pilot was far more pronounced here, and by dealing with a bad episode of the show-within-a-show instead of a great one, the zing of the pilot’s let’s-put-on-a-show sequences was lost.

Episode 2, sadly, was guilty of all the things that naysayers accused the pilot of being.  Mackenzie delivered the same speeches about her principles that she had before, except even more stridently.  Worse, both she and Maggie were presented as absolute morons in every moment that dealt with their personal lives, while Will and Jim were only mildly foolish–which consequently came across as sexist, although that couldn’t have been what Sorkin had in mind.  Mackenzie proved herself unable to have a conversation about Will or men in general without sounding like Bridget Jones, and she was so incompetent at sending an e-mail that instead of writing only to Will about their prior relationship, she sent it to the whole staff.  Although she’s supposed to be an uncompromising force for real news, Sorkin had no problem with undercutting Mackenzie by having her tell Sloan that part of the reason she’s being hired is because of her great legs.  (This is while she’s condemning Will for caring about ratings.)  Even Mackenzie’s backstory was awful:  it was only in cheating on Will that she realized (after 2 years together) that she truly loved him.  Maggie ruined NewsNight because the press aide she had to pre-interview was her ex-boyfriend (leading to a scene that made her sound even more silly, telling the story of that brief romance to Jim), and she compounded it by throwing herself at boorish Don after he’d broken up with her and underscored what a terrible guy he is.

The women bore the worst of this week’s Newsroom, but the men weren’t exempt.  Will basically spent the hour retracing his steps from the pilot, having to realize yet again that Mackenzie’s view of things (other than their romance) was true and right and good.  And then he lost credibility at the end of the episode because his apparently deep (however misguided) anti-immigration views magically vanished after the dumb interviews he ended up doing with the pathetic substitute pro-Arizona guests.  (Those guests were hardly Sorkin at his best, being clay pigeons like an openly racist professor and a simpleminded beauty pageant contestant.)  Jim risks looking like an idiot himself for being interested in flighty Maggie.  Chris Messina’s ratings guy was so clearly evil that he should have had fangs.

Newsroom, much like “NewsNight 2.0,” is still very new, and there’s no reason to think Aaron Sorkin and Mackenzie MacHale can’t right their respective ships (Stop mentioning Studio 60!  Stop!)–assuming that they understand something is wrong.  The problem with the auteur theory of television, though, is that sometimes the greatest auteurs can be as dumb as… well, as brilliant news producers who can’t figure out how to send an e-mail.   The Newsroom can be every bit as inspiring and smart as Sorkin wants it to be.  Or–and it’ll be his doing either way–it can fail.


EPISODE 2:  Keep It In Series Manager… For Now



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."