Aaron Sorkin knows, understands and appreciates TV history. In some instances — unerringly the right ones — he even reveres it. And that’s entirely fitting, because, by this point, he’s become an important part of it…
Sorkin’s first TV series, ABC’s Sports Night,
was a playful, deliriously smart comedy about the workplace family that put together a nightly cable sports show.
His second TV series, NBC’s The West Wing,
was — especially in its early seasons — a brilliant, inspirational comedy-drama about politics (and media) at the highest level. It was the last great gasp for commercially broadcast TV dramas — the last time an old-fashioned network drama dominated national conversation and exemplified the medium’s best, before HBO’s The Sopranos
paved the way for this century’s cable-quality dominance.
Sorkin’s third series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,
was less successful than his first two, commercially as well as artistically. But it had its moments — including its riveting opening, which had a variety-show producer melting down on live TV, in a plot that not only echoed, but specifically mentioned, the fictional TV anchor Howard Beale’s iconic “I’m mad as hell” breakdown on Paddy Chayefsky’s Network.
Then, on Broadway, Sorkin wrote The Farnsworth Invention, a really smart, perceptive analysis of the earliest days of television — its genesis and development, and how corporate interests sabotaged part of the medium’s potential while maximizing power and profits.
And now — after such high-profile, high-octane achievements as winning an Oscar for writing The Social Network — Aaron Sorkin returns to television. Not to broadcast TV, but to HBO — to make a series about the making of a cable television newscast.
This new series is called The Newsroom, and it premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, starring Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, prime-time anchorman for the fictional ACN cable news network. And it’s as intelligent and inspiring as most summertime TV is insipid and insulting.
opens, as did Studio 60,
with an unscheduled, unexpected emotional rant, one that disrupts the status quo and leads to a changing of the guard. Daniels, as McAvoy, is one of three panelists being questioned by a moderator at a Northwestern University speaking engagement. When a student in the audience asks the panelists to say why, in their estimation, the United States is the best country in the world, the formerly middle-of-the-road, offend-no-one McAvoy loses it.
He launches into a well-informed, machine-gun-paced litany of America’s comparative rankings, pointing out that our country is Number 1 in only a few categories, including the number of people incarcerated per capita and the number of citizens who believe in angels. It’s a rage-filled rant that dominates the promos for the show, and suggests that Sorkin is rebooting Network for a new era — showing a once-respected news anchor as he loses his way as well as his mind, while finding millions of new viewers along the way.
Except that what Sorkin has in mind is the exact opposite. Will McAvoy hasn’t lost his mind, or his way. He’s found his purpose, and his direction. Right after his rant, still addressing the audience at Northwestern, McAvoy turns wistful, and talks with pride about what America once was, and what it stood for. Eventually, in a slow but sure march to a journalistic epiphany, McAvoy decides to remake his News Night newscast into a proud beacon, where truth, not ratings, is what’s being chased most aggressively.
He’s a character old enough to remember, and revere, Edward R. Murrow standing up to Communist-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Walter Cronkite declaring the Vietnam War essentially unwinnable. In spirit, he’s the new incarnation of Ted Koppel, under whose sober stewardship ABC’s Nightline assiduously avoided the sorts of show-biz ephemera that dominates it today.
The Newsroom employs all the familiar, but effective, Sorkin staples. The walk-and-talk accelerated patter is here, as are the initially unrequited workplace crushes, the complicated intertwining personal histories, and the pivot-turning plot twists. And by focusing on the news — what it is, how it’s reported, and what is and isn’t examined — Sorkin has found anew what he enjoyed in The West Wing: a sense of gravity and purpose, writing about ideas that matter.
In this way, The Newsroom is not only a blood relative of The West Wing, but a direct descendent of Lou Grant, the CBS spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that took Ed Asner’s comic character of a TV newsroom editor and placed him at the center of a dramatic show about a Los Angeles newspaper.
At the time — when it premiered in 1977 — Lou Grant was such a new and foreign concept, a one-hour drama series interlaced with humor, that co-creator James L. Brooks described it as a mathematical equation, a recipe for a new type of TV hybrid: “about 70 percent drama, 30 percent comedy.” Today, most quality TV dramas are like that, including The Newsroom.
Like Lou Grant, which addressed real issues and headlines, The Newsroom confronts them, too — only in retrospect, with the objectifying distance of a few years. Just as Mad Men takes a cold and revealing look at the 1960s, The Newsroom looks at our recent past, beginning with the spring of 2010.
There’s a genius in this approach, because it allows Sorkin and company to pull from actual news footage of real events, from the BP oil spill in the gulf to the rise of the Tea Party, and juxtapose them with the news we could have gotten from TV, had there been a news organization whose employees were smart and dedicated enough, and given the chance to do their very best.
Don’t expect The Newsroom to provide a lot of made-for-cable sex and nudity. Aside from some spicier language, this show could appear comfortably on NBC or any other broadcast network. What’s daring here isn’t the sex or violence — it’s the outspokenness of the ideas.
Sunday’s premiere episode is a little predictable, and even pedantic, at times — but only until a big news story breaks, at which time The Newsroom really begins to shine. HBO sent the first four episodes for preview, and each one is a little sharper, funnier, more involving and rewarding than the last. It isn’t until episode three that the new, non-pandering version of News Night takes shape officially — and as you watch that fictional broadcast, you hope and pine for its real-life equivalent. (Thank the TV gods for Moyers & Company.)
And with The Newsroom, Sorkin has cast his newest television vehicle without a single misstep.
Jeff Daniels, at the center of both the show and the show-within-a-show, has a lot of heavy lifting to do, but never buckles under the strain. He has the on-screen gravitas to pull off the anchor role, the likability factor to play a guy with serious character flaws without alienating the audience, and the comedy chops to nail both the tone and timing of Sorkin’s punishingly long and breathless dialogue. Next year, he should be competing with Jon Hamm of Mad Men and Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad for an Outstanding Actor Emmy — and deservedly so.
And he’s not alone in driving this show, or making it work so well. Emily Mortimer, as the newly hired executive producer, is like the Katharine Hepburn to Daniels’ Spencer Tracy. Sam Waterston, as the old-school boss who puts them together, gets to play more comedy in one hour than he did in a decade on Law & Order — and does it wonderfully.
And there are super-strong supporting roles here, too. Early standouts include John Gallagher Jr. as young new producer Jim Harper, Alison Pill (who played Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris) as a recently promoted intern, Dev Patel (from Slumdog Millionaire) as an initially underutilized staffer, Thomas Sadoski as a veteran News Night producer, and Olivia Munn (Attack of the Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) as an economics reporter for ACN who catches the eye of the new team.
They’re all very good, and given enough room to breathe so that you start to know and like them all — like the gang in those first shows on The West Wing. And it seems absurd to have waited this long to mention it, but the corporate boss of ACN shows up in episode three… and is played, with all cylinders firing, by Jane Fonda.
In The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin is imagining a TV news show that could be better. I suppose I could imagine an even better Newsroom as well — but I’ve very happy with the one I have.