Sorkin returns with The Newsroom

Last updated 09:34 14/08/2012

One of the most respected film and television writers around, Aaron Sorkin returned to our screens last night with the debut of The Newsroom (SoHo, 8.30pm), a show Sorkin both created and wrote, and which stars Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston.

(Warning: Spoilers from last night's premiere of The Newsroom follow.)

Sorkin is best known for creating The West Wing*, a show to which The Newsroom has been heavily compared: both have a large cast of people who talk about things that seem vital (politics in The West Wing, the nature of current affairs, journalism and reporting in The Newsroom) in a setting most people probably aren't familiar with.

20120814Both are also heavy on Sorkin-isms - articulate and intelligent dialogue spoken at quick pace. A typical Sorkin scene is fast-paced and deals with subjects deemed vital to some larger cultural discussion. You get the sense that these are the things we should be talking about.

The opening scene from last night's pilot is a perfect example: news anchor Will McAvoy (Daniels) takes part in a panel discussion and is asked what makes America the greatest country in the world, to which he uncharacteristically responds that it is not the greatest country in the world, launching into a long (and quickly spoken) diatribe that attacks everything from the notion of freedom to the state of education to organised religion to military spending.

Yet, despite the remarkable opening and Sorkin's at-times clever writing (and despite strong performances from Daniels, Mortimer and Waterston), The Newsroom has two flaws that separate it from Sorkin's earlier work, in my opinion.

The first flaw is that it seems too preachy. I know Sorkin is renowned for using his movies and shows as a platform for voicing the issues he deems important and getting his own opinion out there - but this is something else entirely. I mean, I was never a huge fan of The West Wing (my lack of interest in American politics put me off from day one) but the episodes I have seen didn't feel as though they were pushing their agenda too strongly.

But on The Newsroom, you get a sense that the crew of News Night - the current affairs show-within-the-show - come from a position of "I'm right, everyone else is wrong". Some reviewers have used the word sanctimonious to describe the show, and thus Sorkin's writing, and that might be the best word for it. The result is that there are scenes in The Newsroom that feel as though the characters are talking down to you. It's quite off-putting.

The second flaw is that it feels dirty and deceptive. I don't really know how to explain it any better than that.

For example, early in the episode we find that McAvoy has taken a leave of absence after the opening scene, and that all his staff have left his show to work elsewhere. The team is quickly built back up thanks to a series of lucky events, which leads to several scenes where we find journalists, interns and producers - who all work on the same show, by the way - trying to one-up each other with regards to that night's show.

I'm no journalist, and I've never set foot behind the scenes on a current affairs show, but that doesn't seem how the production office at Campbell Live would work, let alone a large news organisation like that depicted in The Newsroom.

Then there is the fact that Sorkin is deceptively rewriting history. At least, that's how it feels: about halfway through the first episode - after all the back story on Will McAvoy, the introductions to new characters, the establishment of the setting - we're presented with an on-screen title that tells us its actually 2010 and the team are about to do a show in response to the BP oil spill, which is a breaking story in the timeline of the show.

Sorkin, through Will and his team, tries to show that the media did a bad job when the story broke - for example, including details an hour after the story broke in his show that took nearly a month to emerge in real life. The perception that Sorkin is misrepresenting history is part of why the show seems sanctimonious.

It's easy to look back and say that the media were missing parts of the story, but I think any journalist working in mid-2010 would tell you that the story wasn't so obvious on the night the oil spilled.

This is just a single episode; The Newsroom might improve over time, and these off-putting flaws might just be more apparent because it's a pilot episode. But there is still plenty to like: the cast is great - I love Jeff Daniels in this role, and he's surrounded by a fantastic ensemble - and Sorkin shows are entertaining enough that I'll give this one a second chance.

What did you think of The Newsroom? Did you enjoy it, or did you find the same flaws I did?

(*) Sorkin's most recent television creation was the failed Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip. The Newsroom is thus Sorkin's third show about the inner workings of a fast-paced television show: Studio 60 was about the cast and crew of a sketch comedy show, and Sports Night, which pre-dated The West Wing, was about the cast and crew of a cable sports show.

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John   #1   10:04 am Aug 14 2012

If you didn't like the first episode, you'll hate the second. There are a handful of good ones, which I'm liking for the same reason you're not. The first episode was VERY indicative of what is to come.

kiwicossie   #2   10:33 am Aug 14 2012

I watched it about a month ago when they showed the debut teaser and really enjoyed it. Nice to have something intelligent to keep up with and it does remind me why I enjoyed the first few seasons of the West Wing so we're definitely watching this one. Yip I'm sure a lot of what you think is true but I'm not going to over-think it and just enjoy the drama!

Shazza   #3   11:26 am Aug 14 2012

Yeah, this is an acquired taste kinda show. I'm a big fan, but then I was a big fan of the West Wing.

I don't feel like it's preachy, because they're right. But, I can see why others would, and I understand why my husband doesn't like it.

I don't feel like it's deceptive, because it's a fictional show, loosely based on historical events. I take it with a grain (bowl) of salt. I do think their two central relationship story-arcs are a bit cringe worthy.

Really it's a matter of what floats your boat.

Kelsey   #4   11:33 am Aug 14 2012

A relatively intelligent show with fast paced dialogue is usually a winner in my books. But I agree, sanctimonious is probably the right word to describe it. The ensemble cast as a whole are the reason I am still watching, the writing and general tone of the show, however, still haven't won me over.

amc32   #5   12:06 pm Aug 14 2012

i do wish sports night had lasted longer

truly well written and a fabulous cast

i urge you all to 'find' it online if you can

Lauren   #6   12:16 pm Aug 14 2012

It doesn't improve. It gets worse.

I'm a massive West Wing (and Studio 60) fan but this just doesn't cut it.

bruce   #7   12:57 pm Aug 14 2012

The opening scene was brilliant. I agree with your flaws, and I concur with Lauren #6 because that's the sum of the flaws.

Jess   #8   01:28 pm Aug 14 2012

Can't believe you didn't like the West Wing, Chris!!! Best show EVER MADE, even if you don't like politics. So clearly I am a huge Sorkin fan too and was very excited about Newsroom. Although I do agree partly with you, I do see what he is trying to do. There is a massive problem with our media - and what is classed as news and what isn't - and he is trying to call attention to that - and inspire people to do better. It is admirable, even if he has to be preachy in the process. The main issue I had was with the shouting. Too much shouting! Otherwise, bring on the rest of the season :-)

Nicola   #9   01:55 pm Aug 14 2012

I am a huge fan of The West Wing, and also loved Studio 60 (even though it did have some incredibly similar dialogue/scenes to West Wing), and I have been very excited about The Newsroom starting. Although it wasn't as good as WW (but that also had input from Thomas Schlamme and John Wells, so not just Sorkin), it was very good and I'm definitely going to keep watching. Like Jess #8 I can't believe you weren't a fan of WW. I'm not interested in American politics, but I loved that show, and am hoping The Newsroom might come at least close to how good WW was as time goes by.

DBA   #10   02:00 pm Aug 14 2012

I too have only seen the 1st ep, and understand that it doesn't improve to much in the next 3-4 eps. It does come accross as preachy, and very heavy handed. I'll give it a chance though as Sorkin is a good writer and I have for the most part enjoyed his previous work. That and a lot of very good shows have sucked for the first few episodes (the wire and breaking bad for example)

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