Thursday, 28 June 2012

Review: THE NEWSROOM, 1.1 – "We Just Decided To"

Thursday, 28 June 2012
**½ (out of four)

Aaron Sorkin offers another workplace drama to compliment Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, populated by familiar archetypes and snappy dialogue. The Newsroom is hardly a stretch for the award-winning writer, who recently moved back into feature films with Charlie Wilson's War, The Social Network and Moneyball, but there's clearly something Sorkin wants to say about the media in the long-form of television. The problem with Sorkin is how his style and politics are now so ingrained in viewers that The Newsroom lacks a bite and freshness it may have done last century. It's just another platform for Sorkin to spread his idealism, through an assortment of characters you half-recognize because they're constituent parts of his previous characters. This excellent viral video even proves that Sorkin recycles his own beautiful dialogue, to be spoken by whichever mouthpiece is available.

The Newsroom concerns moderate Republican anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), referred to as the "Jay Leno of news" because his success is built on fence-sitting and keeping his political opinions to himself. (It's funny to note that these are considerable virtues in UK newsreaders that British audiences expect and demand.) However, after a scene inspired by Network (also appropriated in Studio 60), where McAvoy's cajoled into giving a speech about America's failures as a nation, the start of a new phase in McAvoy's TV career is triggered. In comes ex-girlfriend exec-producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) to run his newsroom, bringing an ideology for intelligent journalism that speaks to McAvoy's reawakened sense of public duty. And so begins the renaissance of Atlantis Cable News (ACN) on the airwaves, given an oily baptism thanks to the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico when a BP oil rig explodes, with McAvoy's team given various scoops via MacKenzie's producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr).

That last sentence is perhaps where The Newroom needs to worry. It becomes clear halfway through the pilot that events are taking place a few years in the past, which obviously gives Sorkin perfect hindsight to pitch his story in a manner that means ACN don't put a foot wrong and report on the infamous oil spill in an effective, disciplined, noble, intelligent way. I can see why Sorkin chose this direction, because it's easier than creating fictional scenarios that are just inspired by real events, but it also comes across as cheating. It's just too easy to sit back with a self-righteous tone and write virtuous characters, with the benefit of hindsight. It gives Sorkin a platform to admonish real-life TV media and how they dealt with breaking news stories, from a position of obvious privilege. It's easy to critique the past, so what a shame The Newsroom isn't courageous enough to make bold statements about how more current events are being tackled, without time and distance to make a judgement in retrospect.

Beyond that bugbear, which may or may not grow into a major problem going forward, there was much to enjoy about The Newsroom. Sorkin doesn't write people in a wholly realistic manner, but there's no denying his nimble dialogue is sweet on the ear. Daniels is also terrific in the lead as tetchy McAvoy, comfortably shouldering the weight of the show and making his character into a compelling workplace monster whose heart's in the right place. Mortimer's his equal, blessedly keeping her English accent (she apparently had problems keeping an American one flowing with Sorkin's dialogue), and the background characters all demonstrate promise—from resident blogger Neal (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) to winsome associate producer Maggie (In Treatment's Alison Pill). They're a talented group of actors that clearly relish the chance to chew on Sorkin's funny, flowing words. Sure, normal people aren't as loquacious as they are in the Sorkinverse, which means this show is another idealistic fantasy land, but as a viewer I admit to enjoying seeing people operating at a higher capacity than normal.

Overall, while The Newsroom isn't stretching Aaron Sorkin's talents, and is comprised of familiar characters and reheated speechifying, I was entertained and bewitched by the adroit script and performances. The only concern I have is Sorkin's decision to have the fictional news tackle real stories, albeit written from a future perspective, because it's too easy to sneer at how the real press dealt with various events and have your own fictional characters choose the righteous path. I'd have been more impressed if The Newsroom was dealing with current events in parallel to the likes of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, but obviously that would be a Herculean task for a drama writer. It's tricky enough when sitcoms like Drop the Dead Donkey attempt that level of topicality. At least Sorkin's on considerably safer ground than his last TV project, the summarily cancelled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, where his deficiencies as a comedy writer failed to make that show feel authentic.

I'm looking forward to sampling more of this, although I hope the issues I had with the narrative's POV don't prove to be an insurmountable error of judgement on Sorkin's part.

written by Aaron Sorkin / directed by Greg Mottola / 24 June 2012 / HBO