Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" might be a consistently good show if it cuts the blather and gets to the news.
Successful news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), tagged as the "Jay Leno" of news for his staunchly neutral public political views, loses his cool during a TV debate and launches into a Left-and-Right-disparaging tirade on the current state of America. His tantrum goes viral and he's forced into a three-week vacation by his network, ACN.
Upon returning to the office, he realizes that ACN news division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) has hired Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) as the new "Nightly News" executive producer. Mackenzie's been leading a front-line reporting career in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past two years with shaggy dog young producer Jim (John Gallagher Jr.). She also happens to be Will's bad-blood ex-girlfriend.
During this shake-up, producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) has taken much of Will's staff to his human interest-and-ratings-friendly 10pm show, leaving Will's 9pm "Nightly News" bereft, except for a few loyal stragglers, including intern-turned-assistant Maggie (Allison Pill) and Will's blog runner Neal (Dev Patel).
Will is so enraged at Mackenzie's hiring that he furiously makes a quick trip to his agent to get a new clause in his lucrative contract, giving him the option to fire her at the end of each week if he feels necessary.
Will and Mackenzie duke it out in his office, fighting over the direction of "Nightly News." Mackenzie argues for an old-fashioned style of reporting that "speaks truth to stupid" and ignores insidious gossip and fluff pieces, while Will remains grouchily unconvinced of her idealistic views. Meanwhile, the newsroom discovers that there has been an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
A superimposed title reveals the date: April 20, 2010.
Jim quickly learns from sources that the explosion cannot be capped. Will hears this, and something in his mind shifts. The newsroom rallies and produces a show that probes the causes of the explosion, taking aim at Halliburton for knowingly using a faulty cement mixture. Herein lies a central component of "The Newsroom": The "Nightly News" team is the only one to see the catastrophic situation for what it is, and report on it accordingly. With the advantages of hindsight on his side, Sorkin has created a dream team of reporters who take risks and get it right the first time. He's re-writing history with wishful thinking.
On air, Will refuses to go his usual vanilla route, and interviews a novice pipeline inspector (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg), impossibly tasked with maintaining hundreds of rigs. Maggie, who Mackenzie has impulsively promoted to associate producer, was the one to discover this angle of the story.
In line with the "Nightly News" hypothesis, the disaster is bumped up to code red. Will is proud of the show and his non-Jay Leno role in it.
The write stuff?
Sorkin seems to be going for a latter-day "His Girl Friday," with rapid-fire dialogue and goofy physical humor. But the screwball feels forced. Fast talk is only fast talk unless there's an urgency behind it. And the first two-thirds of "The Newsroom" pilot are so leaden. When Mackenzie arrives at "Nightly News" and sequesters Will in his office, we have to endure an excruciatingly long scene of the two ex-lovers arguing swiftly with each other — intercut three times with more quick-paced jabbering out in the newsroom. If the characters in this show are living in a political moment that, like Will says, hasn't been so dangerously divided since the Civil War, then perhaps they shouldn't stand around being enamored with their own voices. They should start doing things.
(Though it doesn't necessarily have screwball aspirations, Sorkin's quick dialogue in "The Social Network" works. The characters in that film are insecure and self-loathing, and their defensive, lightning-speed lines communicate that. But then, David Fincher is a very good director. In "The Newsroom," I don't yet feel a palpable, character-driven reason for Will, Mackenzie or any of them to rattle off dialogue.)
Also, good screwball presents an environment that's frantic to the point of silliness. When Jim makes his tripping entrance into the newsroom, or when Maggie bumbles around with her headset, it feels like silliness out of context. Are we supposed to find a man tripping inherently funny? Is a woman more endearing if she's an adorable mess? These contrivances insult us as smart viewers. Mackenzie states in this episode that she doesn't believe Americans are "preternaturally stupid." I'd like to think Sorkin doesn't believe this either.
Sorkin is obviously a gifted, eloquent writer. But I'm yearning for some subtext. The problem with relentless monologuing, no matter how expert, is that it can often say everything about a scene. When Mackenzie gives her speech to Will about the importance of intelligent reporting, there's nothing for us to analyze about her character's priorities because it's all being stated upfront. It's nice to have some things go unsaid.
Wait, it gets better:
The pilot improves substantially when it gets to the actual news. As the characters gain more information about the Gulf oil rig explosion, and as "Nightly News" goes from bland to cutting-edge in one evening's episode, "The Newsroom" starts humming along. I liked the date reveal. It's an interesting and tricky narrative device to look at yesterday's news — something for which we already know the outcome — and to explore it again in a genuinely suspenseful way. It's the Titanic technique, and if done well, it works.
Out with the new, in with the old:
Old media and new media butt heads in this episode. Will is appalled that he has a blog. Craggy Charlie tells a newsroom employee to Tweet that the oil rig explosion episode was produced on the fly, and the young woman looks baffled at summarizing the info in 140 characters. The opening credits reveal an evolution of news show graphics and anchors, complete with Murrow and Cronkite.
I tend to be wary of "good old days" nostalgia. Of course Sorkin has a point when he contrasts the "We just decided to" attitude of past newsrooms with the ratings whoring that's prevalent today. But at the same time, Will's disgust with his blog and the vacant stare of the young newsroom Tweeter suggests Sorkin's misplaced disdain for anything new or youth-oriented. In the opening scene, Will shouts at the blonde young woman that she is part of the "worst period generation period ever period." Is this fair?
Bits and pieces:
- Maggie is dating Don, but Jim also likes her. Given that slick Don is hesitant to meet Maggie's parents, and that Jim is nerdy and sheepish, I think it's fairly transparent who Maggie will end up with.
- Jeff Daniels is an excellent actor. Unfortunately he's saddled with one-note recalcitrance for the first 45 minutes of this episode. But by the pilot's end, he proves he has the gravitas to pull off a hard-hitting news anchor, and that Will McAvoy can be likeable through the grouchiness.
- Emily Mortimer's Mackenzie is described as "physically and emotionally exhausted," with stab wounds on her stomach from her time in the Middle East. I don't buy it. Holly Hunter has the tough screen presence to pull off a role like that, but not Mortimer.
- This episode is directed by Greg Mottola. Jesse Eisenberg's voice cameo makes sense, as he worked with Sorkin on "The Social Network" and starred in Mottola's "Adventureland."