Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Newsroom: Aaron Sorkin Speaks Truth to Stupid

Jeff Daniels, Dev Patel, Sam Waterston and Emily Mortimer in The Newsroom, on HBO

Contains minor spoilers for the first episode of The Newsroom.

Tonight the third episode of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new workplace drama, airs on HBO, and it pains me to admit that I’m not really looking forward to it. When the series – which is set in the anguished world of TV news production, and boasts an impressive ensemble cast including Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, and Sam Waterston – premiered two weeks ago, I tuned in with cautious optimism.

On the plus side, the pilot episode marked Sorkin’s return to series television after five long years, since the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip aired on NBC in 2007. On the negative side, well,  Studio 60: a series which, like The Newsroom, came with a great cast (in that case Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford), a promising premise, and great expectations. Sure, the show had intelligent characters, and the mile-a-minute dialogue that Sorkin so brilliantly employed in his two previous critically-acclaimed shows Sports Night and The West Wing, but Studio 60 quickly became bogged down by Sorkin’s own ambitions. By mid-season, the show’s big ideas about America’s so-called “culture wars” began to dwarf the characters and story, and more often than not its speeches felt like Aaron Sorkin debating Aaron Sorkin: staged political dialogues, voiced by Hollywood actors. It was smart, funny, and looked and sounded great, but it grew progressively more tiresome, until I began to look forward to its inevitable cancellation.

But in the years since Studio 60’s cancellation, Sorkin has more than proven he’s still got chops, with three Academy Award-nominated screenplays for Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Social Network (2010) and Moneyball (2011), winning the Oscar for The Social Network.  Hence my tempered expectations for The Newsroom. Unfortunately, my ambivalence was more than validated by the first two (of ten) episodes. In the end, The Newsroom seems to be a kind of beautiful mess – but a mess nonetheless.

Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a veteran cable newsman whose popular success seems directly linked to his waning journalistic principles (“the Jay Leno of news anchors”).  But all this comes crashing down in the first minutes of the pilot, after Will loses it on stage during a panel discussion, launching into a tirade which goes viral on YouTube. He returns from a three-week vacation to find most of his staff poached by another show, and his previous executive producer replaced with his estranged ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Mortimer).  Charlie (Waterston, in his first non­-Law & Order regular series role in almost 20 years) is Will’s perennially drunk boss and head of news programming who has decided to take advantage of Will’s public slip-up to pull his old friend (kicking and screaming if necessary) back to his journalistic roots. As Charlie confesses to Will at the end of the first episode:  “For a long time now, I badly wanted to watch the news on my TV at night. Then it occurred to me – I run a news division.”

Writer Aaron Sorkin
It’s hard to disagree with Sorkin’s point of view: journalism, especially TV news, seems to have lost its way. As Will, and MacKenzie, and Charlie, remind us throughout that first hour: news used to matter. Journalists used to uncover truth instead of gossip, and the news used to feed our democratic tendencies, rather than our voyeuristic ones. As MacKenzie preaches in one of her longer and almost infuriately patronising speeches, this is their chance to reclaim “journalism as an honorable profession” and to produce a “nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect, and a return to what's important. [....] Speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot. A place where we all come together.”

MacKenzie is right about the promise of journalism, and Sorkin is right to believe that the so-called Fourth Estate needs to recover its democratic birthright – although the pilot’s continued invocation of the language of ‘patriotism’ was still jarring to this Canadian’s ears. But it is shocking and not a little disturbing how, especially in this election year, the American media seems to have replaced journalism with punditry, and become so focused on political gamesmanship and so-called “gaffes” that they do not even bother to ask if what the politicians are saying has any relationship to reality. But good intentions aren’t the same as good television, and being right isn’t all it takes to tell a good story (though being wrong can go a long way to destroying one). In the end, far too much of Sorkin’s script is spent telling us what to feel instead of showing us. And to put it bluntly, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so frustrated by an hour of television as I was during The Newsroom’s first episode.

The dialogue may be fast, fun and smart, and the interpersonal stuff compellingly told (especially in the second episode), but the show’s lessons remain forced and heavy-handed – often derailing the story’s momentum in the process. Sorkin used to believe in the intelligence of his audience, and not merely the intelligence of his characters. Sports Night didn’t have to explain why sports and sports reporting mattered because we could see how it mattered to the characters and the characters mattered to us. Entire episodes of The West Wing used to be about figuring out what the episode was about. But in The Newsroom pilot, we’ll see Charlie literally interrupt the flow of a classic Sorkin scenario, a brilliantly engrossing fifteen-minute sequence of “smart people working as a team to do something amazing,” in order to make sure an underling, and by extension the audience, knows precisely what is so impressive about what we’ve been seeing:  “We're doing this whole broadcast on the fly. Will doesn't have a rundown, it's the EP's first show, and she's got the whole thing in her head. She's the only one who knows where we're going next. It's a feat that requires incredible trust between the anchor and the EP.” No kidding. I was watching that until you decided to pause and tell me what I was watching … How about extending a tiny bit of that same trust to your audience?

Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing
For many left-leaning Americans, The West Wing (which aired from 1999-2006) offered a political dreamscape during the long George W. Bush presidency. President Bartlet inhabited a White House in an alternate reality where the US wasn’t fighting two apparently endless wars overseas, where partisan bickering didn’t disrupt all legislative efforts, and where political and moral idealism could actually make a difference in the world. But despite its overtly fictional frame, The West Wing was more than simply escapist: it could critique, inspire and inform, precisely during a time when much of its audience had lost faith in the very political process the show dramatized. Political reality could be clarified and exposed in the light generated by political fantasy. And here is perhaps the biggest problem with The Newsroom: Sorkin has made the brave and awkward decision to set the series in our reality, albeit set two years in the past.
One of the biggest surprises of the pilot occurs when the details of their first big story are revealed – there’s been an explosion on a deep sea oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. And then, for the first time, the date appears on the screen – April 20, 2010 – and we get to watch Will and MacKenzie’s respective teams come together and actually do their jobs.  And this should be the payoff for the idealistic speeches, a poignant testimony to the power of journalism done right ... But instead we see the News Night team very quickly collect all the interesting information currently available on the BP disaster magically in a matter of minutes. (Fortunately for them, a single character has not one, but two well-placed sources – the first his college roommate, and the second, his sister! – who call him almost immediately after the story breaks, blowing the lid off many of the disaster’s most shocking revelations.) With barely any independent verification of these sources, they rush a story onto the air in order to beat those other, perhaps more cautious, news outlets to the punch: our team hasn’t so much done it right, as done it first. But here’s the rub: how exactly is this any different from the journalistic culture it is meant to ostensibly critique? (Four days after the pilot premiere, the world witnessed a perfect example of how “getting it first” more often means “getting it wrong,” as both CNN and Fox News initially reported on the US Supreme Court’s health care ruling without reading past the second page of the 193-page decision, just to get a 30-second jump on the competition.)
John Gallagher, Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill
As interesting and perhaps as ambitious as placing the show within our universe might be, serious thematic and dramatic issues emerge already in this first episode. What then are we, and The Newsroom, really celebrating at the end of the pilot? Nothing their news team reveals in that first hour of news is actually news to The Newsroom’s viewers. Everything they report was already reported by the actual media back in 2010, except that those first journalists lacked the benefit of hindsight that comes with being, you know, fictional. But so long as Sorkin sets his stories in our reality, how could it ever be otherwise? He can’t make up facts (without risking libel suits), nor can he change those already established. So either it seems that journalism doesn’t actually need fixing, or a “reclaimed Fourth Estate” won’t have any impact on world events in any case – since future events will have to unfold precisely as they already did in reality...! (Have I mentioned yet how much this episode infuriated me?)

But the real problem with setting the show in roughly our current reality is that the most revolutionary stories need some distance in order for us to begin to see our “now” anew -- if we could actually see the present for what it is, we would already see it that way. This is why The Newsroom compares so poorly, in both tone and execution, to The Hour – the recent BBC period drama set in the early days of British TV news against the backdrop of the 1956 Suez Crisis.  We have enough in common with The Hour for its story to be a reflection for our current social and political situation, but enough distance to allow us to rethink our current norms and expectations. In six one-hour episodes, The Hour not only portrayed the challenges of modern television news reporting, dramatized the internal struggles of idealism versus pragmatism, and posed the question of conflicts between ‘patriotism’ and journalistic integrity, it also threw in a sexy love triangle and a spy caper to boot!

Last week, HBO renewed The Newsroom for a second season after airing only two episodes. (HBO similarly renewed its two new comedies Girls and Veep, as well David Milch’s ill-fated Luck after two episodes earlier this season.)  All frustrations aside, there’s an addictive pacing to The Newsroom – to the group dialogue in particular – that calls me back to the best scenes of Sports Night or The West Wing. Even though those moments sometimes imply a camaraderie that this cast of characters hasn’t quite earned yet, they are still more than enough to bring a genuine smile to my face.  In the second episode, not only do we get more satisfying interactions between Will and MacKenzie, but some of the other characters begin to shine, especially Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Midnight in Paris) as Will’s assistant/new associate producer Maggie, and Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel as Neal, the team’s internet savvy blogger whose particular task in these early episodes seems to be wordlessly reacting to other characters’ inappropriate workplace conversations. In between the inevitable speeches, Sorkin’s signature voice still shines through. I expect that I will be watching the remaining eight episodes of this first season, because part of me is still hoping to see a little less TV News 101, and a little more Sports Night.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece. The show is wrong is some very interesting ways. I wonder if he'll be able to right the ship in later episodes??