The Newsroom is less of a rehash of Network than I feared. HBO’s ad campaign made Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy character look a lot like a 21st century Howard Beale, and the problem is that Fox News and MSNBC are chock full of idiots who think they’re Howard Beale. But it turns out that McAvoy is much more a 21st century Edward R Murrow, a guy you can trust to protect the best interests of the viewing public.
At least that’s where I assume he’s going to end up; McAvoy begins the show as an asshole, and I like that creator Aaron Sorkin has given him a path to take. He may be a little too far down that path at the end of the pilot, but I’m sure future episodes will get him sent back a step or two in assholery.
The premise is this: while doing an innocuous panel event at Northwestern, McAvoy has a sudden moment of clarity. Asked why America is the greatest nation in the world he answers with surprising truthfulness - it’s not. It was, and it can be again, but right now it’s not. This is a shocker because McAvoy is a milquetoast TV news anchor whose popularity is based on the fact that he doesn’t offend anybody and lets every politician and general roll over him in interviews. Suddenly he’s got a point of view - a controversial one (and the idea that his POV is controversial is, in my opinion, further proof that America is no longer the greatest country in the world) - and he’s pissed a lot of people off.
McAvoy’s first instinct is to shrug it off, but when most of his behind-the-scenes staff jumps ship, he gets stuck with his ex-girlfriend as his new executive producer. And she wants to use this moment to shake up TV news, to get away from ratings-driven drivel and partisan nonsense and provide the American people with real, good, actionable information.
And so we’re off, with Sorkin’s The Newsroom being an idealistic view at what a good news organization can do - mixed in with some behind-the-scenes soapy stuff. Essentially it’s The West Wing at 30 Rock. The pilot sets up the main characters using patented Sorkinian dialogue ballets, these musical back and forths that bear no relation to how real people talk. But that’s ok! It’s lovely and funny and smart and great, and we should be embracing heightened dialogue whenever it’s done well.
The secondary characters are interesting, and there are more yet to be added (at least as far as the IMDB cast list tells me). Sorkin is great at developing these closed ecosystems of characters, and I’m very interested in seeing where some of the relationships go. I especially like the love triangle being established around Alison Pill’s flustered but competent assistant character.
There are some problems with the show. The Newsroom is set two years in the past, which gives Sorkin the chance to have the characters cover real news (this is quite different from The West Wing, which existed in a completely alternate universe that didn’t even have a 9/11 as far as I know), but that’s revealed in the most obnoxious way - when word of an oil spill in the Gulf comes into the newsroom, a chiron informs us this is April 20, 2010. It’s Deepwater Horizon, guys!
That sort of in-your-faceness is what irritates some people when it comes to Sorkin; it is off-putting at times, but it’s part of the territory. I have come to accept that every now and again Sorkin is going to stop and explain how clever he is. The mitigating factor is that he IS that clever.
That said, I watched the way that Will McAvoy covered the Gulf spill and wondered how this will work on the show from now on. McAvoy revealed elements of the story days, if not weeks, earlier than the mainstream press did back in 2010. Sorkin’s hindsight allows the gung-ho producers to dig up information nobody else had, and to have an omniscient view of the event not available to real news outlets at the time. Is this how the show will go? And if the show’s premise is that good news reporting can save the American system, won’t the show begin creating its own alternate reality in the coming years? I mean, Will McAvoy is going to approach the debt ceiling crisis in a very different way than the regular news outlets did. Shouldn’t that have an impact to help prove the show’s main thesis?
I’ll keep watching to find out. I like Sorkin’s idealism, because it’s based in realism. I feel the same way on many issues that he does, and I find that his tradition of discussing these issues with cleverness, wit and intelligence to be incredibly satisfying.
HBO has put the pilot online for free. You can watch here.