There’s a moment in my own personal history when The Newsroom — Aaron’s Sorkin’s earnest, optimistic, frenetic return to television —would have been my favorite show on the air. The one I’d endlessly pressure my parents into watching whenever I returned home from my name brand liberal arts university, to passionately recount all of the life-changing lessons I had learned about the morally decrepit state of American media. This moment was second semester, sophomore year, when a “Politics and Propaganda” class taught by a particularly bellicose and well-informed professor included a viewing of Good Night, and Good Luck on the syllabus.
For an optimistically naïve liberal with a still-intact faith in the almighty journalism, this film was a game-changer. The good old days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite (who are both mentioned during the pilot of Newsroom, natch), weren’t that far behind us, and dammit, they could be here again! All we needed was a few good (wo)men who were brave enough to shift the focus from the latest blonde missing in the Caribbean to the real news, and the ignorant American public would suddenly become interested and informed.
If 2006 me had had an impossibly quick wit and a tendency toward perfectly crafted off-the-cuff long-winded speeches, she would have made a great intern at Newsroom‘s fictional News Night. But one of the inherent problems in Newsroom is exactly that: it’s fictional. It’s fictional, but focusing on real events from the very recent past (2010), so the stories it’s telling are ones we’ve already heard, just… different. In the pilot, the new staff of Will McAvoy’s (Jeff Daniels) beleaguered show (he’s being called the Jay Leno of nightly news — ouch) come together to break the story of the BP oil spill. But instead of focusing on the search-and-rescue mission like every other lazy outlet, McAvoy, suddenly inspired by his new EP-slash-ex flame MacKenzie MacHale (played by a frustratingly skittish Emily Mortimer), aim right for Haliburton’s jugular. This plays out like some highly idealistic fan fiction: the backdrop and many of the characters are the same (an upcoming episode features the shooting of Gabby Giffords), but the rest is all Sorkin’s fantasy-land version of what should have went down on television news two springs ago. It didn’t, and most of us have moved on to just being really pissed off about the economy.
I’m not saying that Sorkin’s frustrations with the news media are not warranted, or that a show about a ragtag group of earnest, capable, fightin’ journalists couldn’t be fascinating. It’s just that the ideas presented in Newsroom are well-trodden and repeated to the point of exhaustion, and the journalists we’ve met thus far can be summed up with one adjective. Much of this (even the maddening 2010 backdrop — couldn’t they just have made up stories, like on West Wing?) could be forgiven when partnered with some nuanced, well-rounded characters and good storytelling, but the pilot leaves much to be desired in that department. Alison Pill‘s Maggie is likable, but her love triangle with the smug, totally wrong for her Don (Thomas Sadowski), and the brilliant-slash-humble-slash-adorable Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.) doesn’t really stick in the pilot. It’s almost as if Sorkin spent so much time crafting his mad as hell, “let’s save the news” verbal symphony that he scribbled in the rest on the fly. Particularly underused is Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel, who is the subject of a racially-motivated IT guy joke. That’s about it.
All in all, Newsroom‘s woefully flawed pilot leaves a lot to be desired, but I’m still going to give this one another go. The actors are all capable enough to make this interesting down the line, and, since it’s Sorkin, a lot of the dialogue was pretty damn funny. Moments like an indignant McAvoy shouting “I’m affable!” after learning that his staff had deserted him due to his brusque personality showed promise, and again, that Jim is very, very cute. Sam Waterston gives a fantastic performance as cable-news-division president Charlie Skinner, and Jane Fonda should be making her debut any day now. Any Sorkin project is going to suffer from the weight of high expectations, but if he tones down the condescension and adequately uses his superb cast, Newsroom can be saved. And hey —isn’t this the weirdest companion to True Blood you could possibly imagine?
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[PHOTO CREDIT: HBO]