The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin at His Most Comfortable - And Complacent
A couple months back, after the release of the trailer for HBO’s The Newsroom, I said the following about Aaron Sorkin’s latest television project about fictional cable news anchor Will McAvoy:
The character of Will McAvoy needs to be emotionally filthy, covered in the slime that cable news personalities like Olbermann constantly spew. He needs to be an anti-hero with a particularly strong emphasis on the part before the hyphen.
At its core, I wanted this because it would lead Sorkin to explore something besides the well-worn stories he had explored in Sports Night, The West Wing and Studio 60. I wanted The Social Network Sorkin who didn’t make excuses for his characters, because lately that’s been by far the most interesting Sorkin. Now that the show’s first episode has aired, I can offer a preliminary (read: too early) verdict: We didn’t get the right Sorkin.
Kevin already presented a detailed look at Internet backlash using The Newsroom as a case study, and I’m honestly surprised at just how many people consider this some new low for Sorkin. I could understand criticism calling it repetitive or redundant. But Sorkin didn’t suddenly forget how to write. There’s nothing laughably bad about this show, the structure and presentation are competently done. In fact, this is almost EXACTLY the same Sorkin we got on every poli sci major’s favorite show ever, The West Wing. And that’s what I find disappointing.
It’s not that The West Wing was a bad show. It was a good show, which regularly showed flashes of being a very good show (just regularly enough that they stayed mere flashes though, which got regularly frustrating). But it came to existence in a completely different era of television. The West Wing premiered before the modern conceit of television as an art form was remolded by The Sopranos, which had debuted just nine months earlier. Since then, we have seen The Shield, The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, Game of Thrones, Homeland and other shows that were not only considerably more ambitious than The West Wing and the other shows of its era, but realized their ambitions far better. They created a whole new level of achievement above The West Wing for shows to aspire to.
Basically, with The West Wing Sorkin could talk a big game but play small and he would still get credit for a grand display because so few people even dared to imagine television being more than a mere evening diversion. He does not have that excuse anymore. The Newsroom was made in a creative environment that encourages creativity and daring and airs on a network that gives its creators ample room to spread their wings. Sorkin doesn’t take advantage of that at all here. Instead, he’s still covering the same topics and approaching the same themes in the same way with the same characters. Which can work if you’re Werner Herzog or Woody Allen, but despite the countless times he has been assigned the label of “genius” Sorkin has never worked at that level. The only time he even came close was when he diverged from his typical schtick in the aforementioned The Social Network.
I would love to see what Sorkin could do by turning McAvoy into a true hack journalist. Or even better, it would be great to see him actually focus on the negative consequences of his main character’s ferocious integrity. And in subsequent episodes or seasons, that might very well happen. But in the first episode, McAvoy is such a gigantic asshole that nearly his entire staff of dozens deserts him, yet they’re still able to break the entire 2010 BP oil spill story without a hitch. On a side note, is every event The Newsroom tackles going to be like this? Because the ACN crew broke 6 weeks worth of BP stories in the span of an afternoon. I’ll accept occasional ridiculousness in a grounded reality, but not constant ridiculousness.
Of course, like The West Wing I would still consider The Newsroom to be a good show. It’s a more than suitable Sunday night time waster, and the characters are all enjoyable, save perhaps Thomas Sadoski’s news team coup leader Don who seemingly exists just to be the guy who says “no” even when you have a clear home run story to pitch (These are pretty much the same characters Sorkin has been using for years after all. Emily Mortimer is effectively playing the same role as Felicity Huffman in Sports Night, Alison Pill pretty much has Janel Maloney’s part on The West Wing, etc.) Jeff Daniels and Mortimer are both great in the lead roles. And if nothing else, the patented Sorkin Dialogue (TM) is still incredibly entertaining. It’s at least enough to make me forgive Sorkin’s old man style dismissal of blogs & Twitter or his genuinely stupid view of American history, or even the already tired love triangle between Pill, Sadoski and John Gallagher Jr.’s characters.
But my issues with The Newsroom still come down to the question I asked at the end of my previous post, which at the time was just a lazy way to conclude my mini-essay but was, and is, still a worthwhile question. Will the freedom granted by HBO (and, for that matter, the post-Sopranos television landscape) lead Sorkin to embrace his characters’ darkness or will it just mean they can say “fuck” from time to time? So far after one episode, the answer has pretty resoundingly been the latter. But he has a full season to craft a do-over.