Episode Title: ‘We Just Decided To’
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Directed by: Greg Mottola
The new series from “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin opens at a panel discussion between newscasters at a college campus. While the conservative and liberal pundits have at each other, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) – described as “the Jay Leno” of newscasters, since he doesn’t offend anybody – stays mum until he notices a mysterious woman (Emily Mortimer) in the audience.
Inspired by her prompting, McAvoy melts down on stage, yelling at a college student who asks him why America is the greatest country in the world. McAvoy goes off on a tirade about why it really isn’t, but it used to be, and leaves the stage unsure of what exactly he just said and blaming vertigo medication for the outburst.
Forced to take a vacation after the clip goes viral, McAvoy returns to his job at Atlantic Cable News (ACN) only to find that all but his youngest staff is missing. Confronting the head of his news division Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) for answers, Skinner explains that one of McAvoy’s protégé’s has taken over an anchorman position, taking McAvoy’s producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) and most of his staff with them.
Furious, McAvoy confronts Don who reveals that he’s leaving for many reasons, not the least of which is because McAvoy is kind of a jerk. Don is also dating McAvoy’s assistant, Maggie (Alison Pill), but is unwilling to meet her parents while they’re in town, upsetting her.
McAvoy is upset to discover that he doesn’t have veto power over his next executive producer, whom Skinner hired for him during his vacation. Her name is Mackenzie MacHale, and she’s the woman McAvoy thinks he saw at the panel discussion from the beginning of the film. Furious (again), due to an unspecified personal history with MacHale, McAvoy storms off to his agent’s office to renegotiate MacHale’s terms.
By the time she arrives – and immediately makes Maggie an associate producer – McAvoy has already made her supposedly three-year contract into a weekly deal, in which McAvoy can fire her whenever he wants.
MacHale holes up in McAvoy’s office to try to talk him into supporting her vision of the news – integrity above all things, even ratings – while her senior producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) makes waves in the newsroom. There’s been an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but nobody seems to think it’s a big story, especially Don. Jim gets calls from his sources revealing the level of the now-famous catastrophe, and against Don’s wishes confronts McAvoy and MacHale with the news.
Uncertainty rises over whether to trust Jim’s sources – one of them turns out to be his own sister – but in the end MacHale decides to lead with the story and test out his new news team, firing his old one immediately.
McAvoy’s show goes live without much preparation. He makes up his hosting duties on the fly and interview subjects that MacHale, Jim and Maggie acquire at a moment’s notice, not giving them any quarter. The show is an enormous success, and well ahead of the curve in treated the BP oil disaster as the momentous news story it really was. Skinner expresses how proud he is to have put on such a show, and thinks that McAvoy could be the next Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite.
Threatened by Jim’s apparently romantic interest in Maggie, Don relents and agrees to meet her parents in a compromise. McAvoy and MacHale come to an understanding, although McAvoy retains the right to fire her at the end of every week. He finally confesses that his meltdown was the result of seeing MacHale in the audience, but leaves before she can tell him that she was really there.
What is “The Newsroom?” The answer comes quickly the HBO series’ first scene, when anchorman Will McAvoy gives his little tirade putting America, and by extension America’s news institutions, “in their place” with another memorable and sharply written speech courtesy of Aaron Sorkin. It’s the kind of scene any other movie or television series would have saved for the rousing climax, or at the very least that Network used to wake up the audience after establishing the characters’ state of affairs for a little while.
The implication is that “The Newsroom’s” audience already knows exactly what’s wrong with America, and its news, and has been waiting for Aaron Sorkin to provide a meaningful catharsis. It’s the first shot fired in a television pilot with more targets than ammunition.
The issue of news, particularly televised news but it’s a problem across the board, is that the principles of journalism seldom meet the modern standards of marketability for a pleasant chat over coffee or tea. The interest of keeping the American public accurately and fairly informed has, at best, become a secondary concern to keeping audiences entertained.
Oh, for the good old days, many like myself have been weeping, when a series like “The Daily Show” (designed as it is to criticize the news machine more than the actual news) would have no material to work with. Such is the mission statement of Emily Mortimer’s executive producer Mackenzie MacHale, whose name sounds suspiciously like a Preston Sturges character and whose seemingly insurmountable drive for greatness could provide strong forward momentum for a series like “The Newsroom.”
So it’s baffling, then, that Aaron Sorkin sets “The Newsroom” in 2010. Just to recap: it’s 2012 already, and Sorkin’s dramatic series introduction, once again, relies on the audience’s pre-existing exasperation with the modern news cycle. The audience is supposed to want the heroes to succeed in turning TV news around, but the only logical interpretation is that MacHale and her entire team of spunky young hopefuls and old recovering cynics have either already failed in their efforts to spearhead meaningful change, or still struggling after 731 days.
That’s long enough to conceive a child, bring it to term and listen its first words, but not – for this otherwise apparently preternaturally talented group of individuals – enough time to make the difference upon which the cast “The Newsroom” places all of their hopes. If Sorkin had produced a series about an advocacy group fighting for gay rights and set it entirely in 1995, it would have the same effect.
Sorkin’s creative decision prevents him from having to invent fictional news stories, but sacrifices the premise of the series as a result. It doesn’t help that hearing Sam Waterston use Jeff Daniels’ character’s name in the same breath as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite only raises the bar high enough for “The Newsroom” to hit its head on it.
Sorkin’s trademarked dialogue – cyclical, rapid-fire and repetition-heavy – has the superficial effect of giving “The Newsroom” momentum, even though the bulk of the pilot episode hides behind it, waiting impatiently for the drama to begin. In a feature film, where time’s a-wasting and the conclusion of the story looms on the horizon right from the get-go, Sorkinistic prose is filled with insight and incident, usually simultaneously.
With more time at his disposal – an entire television series’ worth, to be exact – the justly acclaimed writer seems content to keep story and character development separate, since spacing them out vaguely implies that “The Newsroom” has enough content to fill a one-hour episode, perhaps because Sorkin knows that more episodes are on the way and they’ll need subplots as well.
But the character dynamics don’t introduce enough drama to leave us wanting much more. We’re presented with a formulaic romantic backstory between the long-separated leads and a predictable love triangle between their staff. It even comes with the prerequisite dickweed boyfriend, whose appeal to Alison Pill seems impossible to fathom until you remember that something has to keep her away from her true love long enough for x-factors to seep in and continue keeping them apart after she dumps Don’s ass in a future episode.
I look forward to that episode, probably for the wrong reasons. It’s clear that a dramatic incident is on the horizon that will result in Pill establishing her independence; so clear, in fact, that not showing it in the pilot episode feels like tiresome padding. I leave room for the possibility that Sorkin will take these familiar TV tropes in an entirely different direction, although why he’d make no assurances that “The Newsroom” is an unconventional series in the pilot episode, proving the series’ worth right off the bat, is a mystery.
Sorkin’s wish-fulfillment fantasy of fixing the news has a big (bleeding) heart, and the hope that he could eventually succeed in selling audiences on the value of real journalism is charismatic. Romantic, even. But with the exception of Mortimer, none of the actors seem to be having much fun with their roles. There’s a perpetual air of shoehorned intensity that drips off of every frame, like the only direction anyone has been given was to act more frustrated.
Almost every line reading seems to imply that the characters are too distracted to engage each other, and indeed their dialogue – however well intended – seems to fly past everyone’s heads as they pick up the bullet points and either ignore or fail to sell any deeper meaning behind their semantics. The humor takes the biggest hit, since repeating “I have a blog?” ceases to be funny the third time if the character never acknowledges that saying it in the first place is somewhat silly. In real life, people are funny. In “The Newsroom,” only Emily Mortimer is afforded the privilege.
There’s hope for “The Newsroom.” The cast is spectacular, or has at least proven to be on former occasions, the writer has a tendency for genius and the fast-paced television news environment offers no shortage of incident to make the heroes run around like tomorrow won’t be another day. But as a series with a clear mission statement, the gun already seems aimed squarely at its foot. And as drama, it’s off to a sincere but flimsy, unremarkable start. This just in: “The Newsroom” already underwhelms.