The Newsroom: Aaron Sorkin Brings Us a Better Past

I feel the need to start this review with an admission. I knew from the moment The Newsroom was announced that it was one I wanted to write about and have dutifully avoided any critiques or early reviews of the show so as not to taint my personal opinions upon viewing it. I guess I have the misguided notion that this blog is somehow journalism and I needed to uphold unbiased integrity. But that was pointless. It was pointless because there was no way I could watch The Newsroom as an unbiased viewer.

The first adult show I ever watched, and enjoyed, was The West Wing. I watched it because my parents did and even though there was no way I could understand everything, I was only 9 when it started airing, I fell in love. At the age of 10 I named my cat after Zoey Bartlet, almost all of my political ideologies are thanks to the Bartlet administration and to this day, just thinking about President Bartlet’s speech to God in “Two Cathedrals” brings tears to my eyes. But more importantly than affecting my political leanings, The West Wing introduced me to Aaron Sorkin and beautiful dialogue and a love and respect for writing that has stayed with me and inspired my own choice to become a television writer.

So no, there was no way I could go into Aaron Sorkin’s latest foray into television with an open mind and a blank slate, but going in with this level of adoration gave me misgivings as well. While I haven’t read other reviews, I have seen the headlines and seen that they look less than positive. Would I only see what I wanted to see? Would I miss what others might not just because I so desperately wanted to love it? And inversely, would I be severely disappointed because nothing could live up to my expectations?

I am happy to report that, as usual, I might have over thought it a bit. The Newsroom is by no means a perfect show, but it has a distinct Sorkin aura that cannot be denied. Within the first ten minutes, as Will McAvoy gave a stirring response to a loaded question, I had tears in my eyes, not necessarily because of the words being spoken, though they were brilliantly moving, but because they were being spoken. Television has taken a shining to the “realistic” dialogue, a certain frankness and awkwardness that people can relate to more easily. And while that dialogue is difficult to write in its own way, the eloquence and sharp wit that comes pouring effortlessly from Sorkin characters is an art unto itself and it has been sorely missing for the last six years. As Sorkin himself as said, he doesn’t write the way people talk, he writes the way he wishes people talked, though he probably said it better than that.

And it’s this ideology that sets Sorkin’s work apart just as much as the dialogue. With The West Wing he gave us an idealized version of how politics ought to work; of how a president ought to act and with The Newsroom he is presenting an idealized version of how the news should be reported and the way the people bringing us that news should feel. The Newsroom is in many ways the melding of Sorkin’s two most successful TV shows, Sports Night and The West Wing, but it clearly borrows more from the show that won him four consecutive Emmys. In 1999 people still believed that government could be good, but a lot has changed since then. In our new world of mass, 24/7, media, those who comment on the news are more powerful than those making the news, so it makes sense that that is where Sorkin would focus his idealism this time around.

Liking The Newsroom really comes down to whether or not you like Aaron Sorkin. He is nothing if not consistent and is a true television auteur who has never pretended otherwise. He continually provides fast paced, witty, workplace dramas. He likes to pit impassioned idealists against cynical realists and often have them fall in love.  He likes throwaway quips, obscure references, and smart arguments, and most importantly he will never apologize or make concessions for these things. Yes, the lines come fast and you need to be quick (or have DVR) to catch everything, but that’s part of the fun. Too much TV today talks down to its audiences, pandering to the lowest common denominator. Well not Sorkin, and despite the headlines I’ve been reading, I can’t be the only one eternally grateful for that.

All of those lines aren’t easy to perform either. Jeff Daniels, as the jaded anchor, Will McAvoy, does a brilliant job of setting the pace of the show. The entire premise rests on his ability to deliver the previously mentioned speech within the first ten minutes and well; I don’t think I would have had the same reaction if he hadn’t knocked it out of the park. Emily Mortimer is equally well suited to the task as McAvoy’s former lover and current sparring partner Mackenzie MacHale (Sorkin also loves alliterative names) and had me questioning my own ability to recognize musical lyrics. Sam Waterson is clearly going to serve as the father figure to this workplace family and given that that’s the role he’s been playing for the last decade, it shouldn’t be a problem. Though, I have to wonder if his character’s love of alcohol was written in as a way to explain away Waterson’s natural shakiness. Sorkin is all about ensembles and the rest of the cast is clearly strong, but it’ll take a few more episodes for them to prove themselves, though I’m sure they will.

By setting the show in the recent past, Sorkin is able to provide commentary on actual events, but also cast them in a revisionist history. The critical news story of the pilot was the BP oil spill in 2010, and while I clearly remember the incident, I can’t say I remember the way it was broken by the media. Clearly it was broken and it did become the mega story that Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr., another musical reference for those keeping score) predicted.  My one concern is that by establishing that you’re working off a real time line, not one ripped from the headlines, means it’s insanely easy to guess what’s coming next.  But I have faith that if anyone can still pull it off, it’s Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin has had hits as well as misses, and I am not so blinded by admiration that I didn’t see the problems with Studio 60, but with The Newsroom I think he is returning to what he does best at the top of his game.  There is a reason that I keep comparing The Newsroom to The West Wing and its not just because it was Sorkin’s last television hit.  Sorkin has had enough success to draw any number of comparisons, but the overwhelming feeling I got throughout this pilot was that I was 9 years old again and falling in love.

– Devin Mainville

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