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.
Both 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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