Aaron Sorkin hasn’t changed — TV has changed. Watching the first few episodes of “The Newsroom,” which premieres on HBO this Sunday, June 24th at 10pm, it’s striking how consistent the series is with what Sorkin’s done before on “Sports Night,” “The West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” and how old-school and straightforward that looks compared to a current crop of shows that includes “Mad Men,” “Girls,” “Community,” “Louie” and “Breaking Bad.”
In an age of moral ambiguity, Sorkin’s characters are all about “fighting the good fight,” a phrase that the hero of “The Newsroom,” anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), actually uses to describe what he’s up to in the fourth episode. Installments tackle Big Themes about How We Live Today (or How We Lived Yesterday, since the series is set in the near past), and the characters talk about them, caps intact, about what’s right and what’s wrong and what needs to change.
This isn’t such a bad thing, though “The Newsroom” sometimes turns the sanctimony up to 11, at which point it becomes deafening. Sorkin’s shows have always been a warm, fuzzy fantasy about work as salvation and sanctuary, about places staffed with clever, competent, fast-talking people, people who actually struggle over ethics, people with little to no personal lives to speak up outside the all-consuming office. Yes, they suggested, the behind-the-scenes of “Saturday Night Live” and the White House and “SportsCenter” are as smart, lively, close-knit and nerdy as you’d hope.
“The Newsroom” falls somewhere between “Sports Night” and “The West Wing,” using a setting like (and characters right out of) the former while getting to take on the heftier themes of the latter. Will begins the show by having a “Network”-lite breakdown during a forum at a college, in which he’s snapped out of his professional lethargy (his inoffensive, middle-of-the-road approach has led one reporter to call him the Jay Leno of news) by a girl’s question about why he thinks America is the greatest country in the world. In short — he doesn’t, but he thinks it was once and can be again. The controversy and energy he shows leads his boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) to engineer a shake-up of Will’s nightly show “News Night,” bringing in the idealistic Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), Will’s ex, as the new executive producer.
Mackenzie’s very much Dana Whitaker to Will’s Casey McCall, and she brings with her young producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), who plays Jeremy Goodwin to Alison Pill’s Natalie Hurley equivalent, the two forming a tenuous connection complicated by the fact that the Pill’s character has a dislikable boyfriend named Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) who also works in the news division.
There’s also Dev Patel as Neal Sampat, the blogger and internet researcher, Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith, the show’s financial analyst, and some others hurrying around in the background — and Jane Fonda shows up for an episode as Leona Lansing, the owner of the network who’s not pleased with what’s happening to “News Night.”
What is happening is that “News Night” is reinventing itself as an actual hard news show, one that doesn’t do human interest stories, that does real reporting instead of taking the easy route, that doesn’t pretend that there are two sides to issues that don’t have them. Lead by Will, whose fiery genius at asking the tough questions and hunting down the real story is never questioned, and fueled by Mackenzie, the show takes on real events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the 2010 elections, the date flashing on the screen when a story starts to break mid-episode. We watch, in the pilot, the barely assembled new staff take on the BP disaster the correct way, tracing down sources and making calls and figuring out what the real heart of the matter is on the fly — the show’s all but put together live, the camera cutting to Will’s teleprompter to show us where it says “[VAMP]” instead of anything pre-written.
It is unapologetic exploitation of hindsight — of course this is how it should have all gone down, it’s so much easier to see when all the reporting’s already been done — but it doesn’t come across as shameless as it could, because “The Newsroom” is high-end television comfort food, escapism for people who watch Fox News so they can rage at it in the same way “The West Wing” provided a delightful alternate ficitonal narrative to what was actually going down in the White House in the Bush years. Watching the crew work together to assemble the story is great, it’s exhilarating, from Pill’s character Maggie Jordan getting her first chance to shine to Will jousting with a Halliburton spokesperson when he dissembles on the topic of the part they played in the disaster.
When rallying Will with a signature Sorkin impassioned monologue, Mackenzie declares she’s all about “reclaiming the Fourth Estate” — an admirable and important goal, but also one that’s no one thinks is likely to happen in the realm of TV news, which is leagues away from the current frontiers of journalism. Indeed, for people who live and breathe news, the staff of “The Newsroom” are oddly cut off from the online world — Will expresses disbelief when he learns that he has a blog; Mackenzie accidentally emails something to the entire company; Charlie demands that a random staffer put something on her Twitter account. Will rages against the idea that TV news is entertainment as opposed to journalism, but blustering about obligations to the American people and informing the voters is as deep into that issue as the show has, at least so far, been willing to get. That it’s a business, that there are those higher up in the company (literally — Will refers to them by the heighth of the floor they’re on) are interested only in the numbers and shareholders isn’t ignored, but is left murky — so far, at least, these are other people’s problems.
HBO isn’t as natural a fit for Sorkin as it might seem on the surface — he’s not a creative voice to ever come across as having a deep desire to cut loose or throw a few topless beheadings in the mix, and while topic-wise “The Newsroom” may deal with timely issues, it’s not as sophisticated in terms of storytelling or characterization as other series on the network or elsewhere on TV. Sorkin’s shows come across best when fleshing out their settings as places you want to visit, their network-enabled regularity allowing a sense of the routine of the workplaces they depict.
“The Newsroom” bounces forward through time, spanning months in a few episodes, and yet the personal dramas of the characters, particularly between Will and Mackenzie, seem to move at a slower pace. Their history comes out, they try to clear the air and move on, and yet they’re obviously destined for each other in some way — a patterned echoed by Jim and Maggie’s own flirtation. Despite winning performances from Daniels (who’s nicely irascible in a way that cuts through his self-righteousness) and Mortimer (who’s ridiculously stuck with the blame for everything that went down between them), it’s hard to root for them when the whole thing seems more like codependence than romantic tension. There’s still promise in “The Newsroom” despite the preachiness, but you also want to shoo everyone outside to get some air.