"The Newsroom": Nostalgia Disguised as Diatribe, At Least One Episode In.
If you have not watched the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new series and did not know about it being free to view on YouTube, go ahead and do so. There’s a good chance you’ll disagree with me, and I wanted to disagree with me because of all that bad reviews I’ve read of the show so far. I wanted to brush them off as media people slagging someone who’s basically skewering their entire approach to journalism, but the problem is that if Emily Nussbaum and Richard Lawson are sharing a similar tone about it with Jake Tapper, then there might be an issue. (Although it is funny to read Howard Kurtz savage it without a hint of irony.)
Unfortunately, the best part of the series premiere is the diatribe Jeff Daniels, playing ostensibly bland anchorman Will McAvoy, unleashes while on a panel at a Northwestern U seminar, which is what we all saw in the trailer, and aside from the glorious TV force that is Sam Waterston (playing a booze-soaked former Marine who is in charge of ACN’s news division) and a riveting final sequence once the actual news-gathering and show events get going, one is overwhelmed by the Sorkinese speeches and affectations that mar the minutes in between McAvoy’s YouTube moment and the coverage of Deepwater Horizon.
Sorkin’s problem is that the overarching idea here is a false nostalgia of sorts. I would call it naivete but that would be unfair to dismiss the obvious gripes Sorkin has with the current state of televised journalism, which is more than understandable. He’s chosen the wrong vessels to deliver it, though. While it’s nice to see Emily Mortimer again, her MacKenzie McHale seems like less of a character than a conscience for McAvoy. Hired by Waterston’s Charlie Skinner to be Will’s new exec producer, Mac is also Will’s ex. (This is the first of a couple annoying tropes.) Mac, after Will gives back $1 million a year in salary to fuck with her contract so he has power over her, appeals to Will’s vanity and nostalgia (as well as ours) by talking about taking back the responsibilities of the Fourth Estate, delivering a sermon in his office.
This as a subplot with Mac’s senior producer and comrade Jim develops, including Will’s departing EP (Don, positioned as status quo douchebag) and personal assistant or associate producer Maggie (whom Don has apparently been dating for four months and they’re haggling over meeting her parents.) Then the oil rig explodes, and the place feels alive and clicking, a newscast takes place with fun, snappy stuff (and a voice cameo by Jesse Eisenberg, because that’s how Sorkin and director Greg Mottola, who directed the actor in Adventureland, roll) as NewsNight gets out in front on the environmental disaster end before anyone else because of Jim’s sources.
Part of the show’s problem is that Sorkin decided to work with real things that happened rather than create some of his own. This makes it easier for him to expound upon how the coverage SHOULD have been instead of explain or satirize how journalistic coverage is shaped. It’s real, real easy to Monday morning quarterback TV news coverage two years after the fact; the difficulty for this series will be convincingly explaining why coverage is the way it is. Sorkin already has his answer. In his eagerness to club us with his big ideas, he’s forgotten a few things:
- You have to show and tell. Sorkin is presuming we agree with him and dispensing with earning our rhetorical trust.
- Conversely, while it may be fun to write such speeches about the Obligations, Death, and Revival of True Journalism — it’s really fucking dull to watch. Especially because the people most likely to watch this show already get the points Sorkin wants to make!
- He’s in thrall to nostalgia of a shared understanding and American consensus. Considering the numerous people who were very much disenfranchised during this earlier “consensus,” it calls into question just how much, really, we put stock into the avuncular presences of Cronkite and Murrow. But the title credits will give a very good sense that Sorkin is wedded to that idea as credible.
- Considering Sorkin wrote a movie about Facebook, it seems very, very odd that he would not realize that social media is a huge part of how people (ESPECIALLY PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS!) consume news! Waterston’s character is rambling at a web person in the newsroom to Tweet something about how wonderful off-the-cuff news programming is but his spiel doesn’t fit 140 characters. The only acknowledgement the new world of media gets is Dev Patel’s Neal, who writes the show’s blog but no one can remember his name, so they go for stereotypes. The reason why the “Great Man” is dead is because there are too many news sources to place all your trust in just one of them.
- Seriously, no one in an actual newsroom speaks in that alternating flowing-yet-clipped way that Sorkin has many of them speak in, not normally or without a script.
- Mac’s behavior with Will where she taunts him before the show is entirely and completely unprofessional. “From eight to nine, I own you” sounds nice, but that would get someone disciplined quickly.
I hope it gets better next week but all the reviews from people who got to watch four episodes say otherwise. Sorkin seems to have misjudged a series about a newsroom for a sermon about news rather than the stories of the people producing the news.
(And on a personal note, this really does not help one iota in explaining what people do in a newsroom to outsiders, but that’s really beside the point.)