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'The Newsroom' is Prime Aaron Sorkin, Which is a Good and Bad Thing

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire June 20, 2012 at 1:26PM

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."
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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.

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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.

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"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.

This article is related to: Television, TV Reviews, The Newsroom, HBO







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