The Newsroom's Series Premiere: Soapbox Derby

The Newsroom S01E01: "We Just Decided To"

There are certain truths to be held as absolutes in this world. We know that so long as there is gravity, our feet will always be held to the earth. We know that so long as air fills our lungs, we may live. And we know that so long as a breathing Aaron Sorkin has his feet firmly planted on this earth, he will make shows featuring impossibly witty characters spouting long-winded speeches in highly rhythmic bouts of inhuman dialogue set against the backdrop of some high-stress, behind-the-scenes profession involving entertainment or politics or both. These are absolutes that cannot be unproven.

With this in mind, anticipating a new Aaron Sorkin series tends to be less about the content of the episodes than the overall setting and characters. Which is to say that, no matter what an episode is about, the dialogue will be of the same general tone and tenor as every other episode. The question then is whether or not the setting and characters speak to us in a way that captures our attention.

With Sports Night, Sorkin took a somewhat niche profession—the production of a major sports news television program—and created an unexpectedly engaging sitcom that centered on extremely interesting, yet still somewhat organic-feeling characters. With The West Wing, Sorkin went for a more ubiquitously interesting subject—the internal machinations of the White House—but kept the same rapid-fire pace and overall cleverness of Sports Night's characters. Then Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip happened. Many interesting words have already been written on the subject of what happened with Studio 60—chief among them, Nathan Rabin's years after-the-fact piece for the A.V. Club—but the brief summary is that the words had overtaken the setting and characters. Suddenly, everything felt hollow, inorganic, and quite frankly narcissistic.

I wish I could say that feeling had dissipated entirely from Sorkin's new series, the HBO drama The Newsroom, but it hasn't. Not entirely, anyway. However, while that feeling still pervades in spaces, the opening episode still showed a strong measure of promise. Of course, so did Studio 60's pilot.

The premiere opened with a scene that appeared familiar to anyone who'd seen the series' first trailer, with cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) seated between two mouthpieces from the left and right bickering at one another during a forum at Northwestern University. McAvoy shifted uncomfortably, unwilling or unable to parse the cacophony of partisan politics being shouted in his general direction. McAvoy's character, we learned, is something of a milquetoast presence these days, dubbed "the Jay Leno of cable news" for his unassuming, inoffensive brand of reporting. Finally, after the forum's moderator refused to let him leave without answering a young girl's question about why "America is the greatest country in the world," Will snaps into one of those all-encompassing, browbeating tirades Sorkin characters are so well-known for. That he asserts that America isn't the greatest country in the world by measurable statistics is shocking enough; that he actually backs it up with facts that prove both sides of the argument are basically bickering idiots is all the more unheard of, apparently.

Cut to three weeks later, and McAvoy returned to a newsroom decimated. Much of his staff jumped ship to a new anchor's debut 10pm show, leaving him with a skeleton staff of younglings whose names he seems doomed to never remember. Then along came the network's news director, played by a wonderfully un-Law & Order-like Sam Waterston. Waterston has a plan to revitalize McAvoy's career amid the blow-up... which, much to McAvoy's dismay, involves a new executive producer for the show, and that executive producer (played by Emily Mortimer) just so happens to be McAvoy's former girlfriend. She wants to build on McAvoy's suddenly disapproving demeanor, and plans to steer the ship toward some true north of journalistic idealism.

Familiar and similarly witted male/female leads who will engage in a lengthy bout of "will they or won't they"? Check. A crusading middle-aged male with a talent for writing and cleverly eviscerating his opponents verbally? Check. A supporting cast of interesting young actors all playing characters who are often misguidedly trying to navigate the minefield of office politics? Check. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I do believe The Newsroom is very much an Aaron Sorkin television program.

Unfortunately, the lack of humanity that plagued Studio 60 feels a little bit present here as well. The characters we have before us—the corporate newsman now freed of the bondage of popular opinion, the whip-smart and potentially still romantically interested producer, the alcoholic news director, the assistant who keeps accidentally wandering into increased responsibility—are all very interesting ideas, but whether or not Sorkin will bother getting down to the root of what makes them tick or not remains to be seen. The opening episode didn't offer a great deal of insight about anyone. Minor tidbits of histories and predilections were tossed out in casual dialogue, but there wasn't much insight into what drives any of these people, outside of hopeless idealism, the all-consuming desire to get ahead in life, and booze.

Still, as an introductory volley for what The Newsroom could be, the pilot offered plenty of tantalizing ideas that make me believe it could all work in the end. I find the decision to actually introduce real news stories as subject matter for the show compelling, if altogether risky. This episode revolved around the new producers and staffers coming together to help break the story on the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That was a massive story, with huge, far-reaching implications for BP, Haliburton, and our own federal government. Here, it's what drove the staff to eventually come together under the banner of breaking a potentially game-changing piece of news. This might seem like a somewhat capricious way to handle major real-world events, but outside of potentially offending the real-life journalist who actually broke the story, The Newsroom handled the piece with care and with largely nonpartisan (insomuch as you can ever be nonpartisan in any story about Haliburton) way.

That said, you also run the risk of turning the show into a Law & Order type of scenario, except instead of the level of creative obfuscation Dick Wolf always gets away with in his "ripped from the headlines" plots, you have real, honest-to-god news staring you straight in the face every week. That could get real uncomfortable real quick, if not handled with deft care.

I just wish I could feel anything for these people, even a little something. It's just the beginning of the season and Sorkin has plenty of time to show his hand, but the pilot's attempt at marrying the introduction of a self-serious news drama with a sitcom subplot about a couple arguing because the guy doesn't want to meet the girl's parents was more than a little awkward. Yes, significant screen time was dedicated to a spat between the boyfriend-and-girlfriend couple of McAvoy's former executive producer (Thomas Sadoski) and his assistant-turned-associate producer (Alison Pill). These two are actually two of the more interesting characters offered in the pilot, but the sussing-out of their barely clandestine office relationship needlessly brushed up against the more interesting news drama going on next to them.

At 75 minutes, the episode already felt a bit bloated solely by way of Sorkin's verbose dialogue. I just have a hard time seeing the lighthearted office comedy surviving in a battle of the fittest against the more important news show, and watching it try wasn't that much fun. If this is going to be more substantial stuff than "guy has crush on girl in relationship with other guy" and "aforementioned guy and girl relationship has some problems," then great. If not, then it's just going to get in the way.

Again, this is an interesting show, which is to say it's a show that I can't give a real criticism to yet, because it clearly hasn't found its legs at this juncture. The first half of the pilot wavered awkwardly between expedient, if not always coherent, character establishment and a great deal of overblown bickering between characters we barely understand yet. But once that eventual halfway point arrived, the episode found a rhythm as it depicted the staff slowly converging on the oil spill story, slowly showing more intelligence and capability, and eventually putting together a news program that I'm pretty sure every real news producer in the world would murder someone to have. Yes, this is perhaps not the most accurate portrayal of a newsroom's behind-the-scenes antics as you'll ever find, but neither really were Network, nor Broadcast News. Nor Sports Night, for that matter. But we love them anyway, because they make for incredibly entertaining drama. I have some hope that The Newsroom can get to the same level. Not a lot of it, necessarily, but some idealism is perhaps better than none.

Random Thoughts:

– Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston, and Alison Pill gave the standout performances in the show's opener. Mortimer is a great actress, but the pilot didn't show much of her character beyond what we've seen in every other strong-willed female character crafted by Sorkin. Pill at least brings an unusual energy and warmness to her part that makes her stand out. Daniels was a great casting choice for McAvoy, and Waterston's brilliant. It's nice to see him having some fun in his post-L&O;m> career. <p>

– No sign of Olivia Munn (who is pegged to be a series regular) nor Jane Fonda in this episode. Munn will be playing a financial reporter who works for the same network as McAvoy, while Fonda will make some periodic appearances as the CEO of the network's parent company.

– I have never worked in a newsroom before, so I won't be critiquing this series on its ability to get news production "right." I'm looking at this purely from an entertainment point of view. So long as they don't do anything too egregious, I'm willing to cut a little slack in the name of enjoying a story.

– How many episodes in do you think it will be before some actual reporter loses their mind over having a story that they broke featured on the show? I give it three episodes. Maybe four.

– As my good friend and yours Tim Surette dutifully pointed out in his preview of the series, for as much as this show purports to be equal-opportunity in its offending, Sorkin is most definitely a left-leaning writer, and it seems likely that we'll be getting a heavier skewering of Republican interests as opposed to Democratic. Just something to be aware of if partisan leanings bother you.

What did YOU think of The Newsroom's series premiere?

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