Doesn’t it look familiar? The series appears to a veritable ice cream sundae of creator Aaron Sorkin’s other television works, with three extra scoops of Sports Night and a Keith Olbermann cherry on top. But here’s some food for thought: it’s not really a bad thing. In fact, it could actually be great.
The series, which is headed to HBO June 24, comes from the mind of Aaron Sorkin, the wordsmith behind such critical darlings as The West Wing, Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip, and of course, Sports Night. The Newsroom follows the downfall and subsequent struggle for a nightly news anchor after the public witnesses a mental meltdown; and the project started fresh on the heels of Keith Olbermann’s last public outburst and subsequent publicity problems, though it’s not officially based on those events. Still, it derives from series and controversies we’ve seen ad nauseam on television. But I repeat: that’s perfectly alright.
Aside from The West Wing, which ran 1999 to 2006, Sorkin’s shows often earn love, but not from the folks that keep series on the air. Studio 60 earned almost unanimous applause when NBC debuted the series the same year as the comedy fan’s dream, 30 Rock, but ultimately fell when it couldn’t nab an audience. Studio 60, which shares 30 Rock’s behind-the-scenes at a late night sketch show premise, only aired 22 episodes before getting the axe.
Sports Night, however, was a bit of a different story. The series stuck around for two seasons, and while it held many elements of great, heady television – the underdog story, tormenting unrequited love, political overtones, comedy that may or may not require a college degree (or at least a fondness for encyclopedias and libraries) – its network, ABC, aimed it at a typical sitcom audience. At odds with the material of the series in a line-up of less-imposing series, the network tried to lighten the mood with a dissonant laugh track. Though the laugh track was eliminated by Season Two, it provided an uncertain foundation for a series that attempted to tread the line we now know as dramedy.
The Newsroom appears to be Sports Night’s polished, modern equivalent. It’s got the underdog element: the SportsCenter news show stand-in on Sorkin’s 90s dramedy was the third place show, struggling to balance integrity with enticing content. The Newsroom finds Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) fighting a similar struggle, though his woes are self-induced thanks to an Olbermann-esque public meltdown. It’s got the questionable potentially romantic on-air-producer-and-anchor relationship brewing between Emily Mortimer’s character and Daniels, much like Felicity Huffman’s on-screen relationship with Peter Krause that served as a hook on Sports Night. And then there’s the obvious one: they’re both about news shows and thus prone to the now classic Sorkin “Walk and Talk” shot.
But – and bear with me here – this is a good thing. The problem with Sports Night was never the idea, or the writing, or even the ensemble. It was the fact that the series was a premium cable show trying to fit into the network era sitcom mold. Had Sports Night made the shift to a network like HBO or Showtime (Sorkin was offered the chance, but passed in order to work on The West Wing), perhaps it could have had the proper support to grow into the series it was striving to be: a provocative, borderline offensive, slightly academic look at the truth behind the glossy newscasts (sports or otherwise) that we enjoy on a nightly basis.
Now that HBO has Sorkin at the helm and the boost of modern day parallels as a draw, this could be the perfect platform for The Newsroom to explore the facets of television news that simply weren’t open to a half-hour primetime sitcom on ABC. The Newsroom can be the series Sports Night always hoped it would be.