Aaron Sorkin has a problem. He doesn’t know when to stop. I love that he’s something of an idealist. I love that he writes dialogue in a way nobody actually speaks. I love the effortless ways he can build tension into a script with nothing but words, as seen during the broadcast of a news program in the first episode of his new HBO series, The Newsroom. The problem is that he has no filter. He has no sense of proportion. He doesn’t understand that the idealism with which he writes is only appropriate in certain settings.
When Sorkin was dealing with a fictional presidency surrounded by fictional politics in The West Wing, it worked. A dash of realistic policy jargon, stirred in with some heightened dialogue, hilarious characters, and a format that allowed for the fantasy of the perfect modern President to take shape on television week after week. Of course, then Sorkin came back with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in which he attempted to bring the same level of social import and awareness to a setting that could never believably call for it. A Saturday Night Live-type show dealing seriously with weighty concerns? It didn’t help that we never actually got to see the fake comedy show being remotely funny enough to justify its own existence. The Newsroom sits somewhere between these two spheres of Sorkin, which makes it all the more frustrating.
The Newsroom is about a news anchor named Will McAvoy, played with gusto by the great Jeff Daniels. It begins with McAvoy at a public panel discussion at a university losing his cool and going off on a tirade about how America is not longer “the best country in the world” in meaningful area. This is in stark contrast to the news show he runs, in which he’s sacrificed good journalism and standing against spin for the sake of high ratings and an enormous salary. He’s referred to in the episode as “the Jay Leno of news.” A guy trying too hard not to offend anybody.
The real plot of the episode, though, is kickstarted not long after McAvoy’s outburst, when his executive producer decides to jump ship to a new show on the network, taking most of the staff along with him. The news division head, played by the wonderful Sam Waterston, hires McAvoy’s former partner (and lover?) Mackenzie. Emily Mortimer does a great job playing Mackenzie as a character with much more strength than her frail appearance lets on. In fact, the cast of this show is generally incredibly strong, and they certainly do a great job of spouting Sorkin’s dialogue.
Where The Newsroom doesn’t quite gel is in the idealism area. There are a few reasons for this, and a lot of it comes down to a clash between Sorkin’s view of the world and his decision to set the show within the realm of actual recent news events. First, Sorkin’s worldview. His is more than just idealistic. It actually bares no resemblance to how the world actually works. Sure, if the world was as Sorkin imagined it, problems would be so much easier for us to fix, but they’re not. Case in point: this idea that McAvoy being “the Jay Leno of news” would be a successful business model, even in 2010, when the show takes place, is patently absurd. With the cable environment as it is today, CNN proves that this method is a failure. Instead, the well-oiled ideological machine at Fox News is what works to garner ratings. Sorkin’s response to his own invented conundrum is that McAvoy needs to start doing a news show where he can actually take sides, but specifically whichever side holds the facts and the truth, not merely ideological or political spin. A great notion, and one that might work as a naïve fantasy of what news should be, except that then Sorkin goes and bring real world events into the mix.
You see, the first episode of The Newsroom. Also features the first big story with all these new players on McAvoy’s show. “There was an explosion off the coast of Louisiana.” Boom, BP oil spill! In a way, this idea of having a real news story makes the show quite tense. We as an audience know how things ended up playing out, so we are held in suspense watching to see how the team will manage to report the story, report it first, and get the best exclusives. It’s damn entertaining. But it also makes no sense. First of all, if the aim was to show how real journalism is done, well, this wasn’t the way. All the information they end up getting is through luck in already having sources. Furthermore, and much more fundamental, by using news information that by now is common knowledge, we’re left with the truth, which is that all this stuff was reported. Which means that as idealistic as Sorkin wants to be, giving us the perfect news operation revealing stuff nobody else could… well… he’s using information that was dug up and reported on by great journalists at newspapers and TV networks, including the CNNs and MSNBCs and Fox Newseses Sorkin is so readily jabbing.
It’s a failing, and a big one. A huge one. In fact, unless somehow Sorkin veers away from using real news in the show, it will be the flaw that sinks the show. On The West Wing, though plots were often inspired by or based on true events, it was always told with a veneer of fiction. The politics could be unrealistically idealistic, because it was all set in an idealistic universe, very similar to our own, but removed enough that its themes connected. The Newsroom’s themes don’t connect because they are set in our world, and we know our world, and we know damn well that our world looks nothing like the way Sorkin thinks it does.
So long as Sorkin brings the real world into the show, the show will not work. The moment-to-moment drama might, but the overall effect won’t. The themes won’t punch. The satire will fall flat. Worse than that, the characters won’t work because they are motivated by ideas that don’t make sense. The do things that work for the plot of the show, but which we as an audience recognize as foolishly naïve, with only luck able to string them along, apparently. In fact, other than the great performances, there really wasn’t much there to connect with the characters at all. Once their motivations are dead in the water, we see them for the Sorkin-esque platitude-delivery-devices they truly are. It’s quite unfortunate considering the talent pool. In fact, that’s how I feel about the show in general. I’ll continue watching it, hoping it finds a footing, but so far, despite some snappy dialogue, a number of great sequences and handful of great performances, it all appears to be going to waste due to small deep and fundamental flaws with the way Aaron Sorkin has approached the show. It’s kind of a shame.