Finally, Aaron Sorkin has found the right premise.
In 2006, Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip lasted one inglorious season before the overly expensive and lightly watched “inside the writer’s room” dramedy was cancelled by NBC. Why was the show such a failure? The premise, I wrote.
At the heart of every Hollywood production, there must be some kind of believability. This is a sliding scale, of course. (We accept that James Bond will never be seriously injured because he’s a summer action star.) But with Studio 60, the show was built around a comedy show, and Sorkin was completely out of his element. The jokes and skits simply weren’t funny and the political dialogue seemed completely out of place. Had Sorkin changed the show to an inside look at The Daily Show or the Colbert Report, the premise would’ve been more palatable.
This brings me to Sorkin’s new show The Newsroom on HBO, which is the perfect setting for his long-winded, highly stylized soliloquies. When Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) kick starts the series with an elitist rant about why America is not the greatest country in the world, it feels more natural than when Wes Mendell of Studio 60 started his respective series in the same way. Politics and government belong in a news studio more so than on a skit in SNL. The comedy shows go straight for the laughs first and the lessons later if there happens to be one.
To be sure, the show can be overly preachy at times. Take this excerpt from the new executive producer of McAvoy’s show, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer): “There’s nothing that’s more important in democracy than a well-informed electorate. When there is no information or, much worse, wrong information, it can lead to calamitous decisions that clobber any attempts at vigorous debate. That’s why I produce the news.” Elitist? Sure. Snobby? You bet. Would never happen in a ‘real’ newsroom? Absolutely. But contextualized within the story, it seems to fit naturally within the dialogue, which has been Sorkin’s best skill as a writer. And as a viewer, this is one of the places where it’s acceptable to suspend belief for a moment and simply be entertained and inspired.
Also making appearances in The Newsroom are Sorkin’s trademark “walk-and-talk” and the rapidfire ping-pong dialogues. Critics have derided this as unrealistic for years, while Sorkin’s biggest supporters can’t get enough of it. One thing that both sides can agree on is an outstanding supporting cast that includes Sam Waterston (Law and Order), Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), John Gallagher Jr. (Broadway’s “Spring Awakening”) and Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World).
Another reason why The Newsroom soars above Studio 60 is the relevance to the present. We are a nation that is the most divided and polarized we’ve been since the Civil War. We are in the midst of one of our worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. Reporting itself has become political discourse rather than factual discovery. These are topics that had no place in a comedy writer’s room.
The main criticism (and this is a huge, huge criticism) not just of The Newsroom, but Sorkin’s overall writing, is the love triangles and his female characters. Let’s start with the relationships: I personally don’t care about Maggie, Jim and Don. Not only do I not care, I found it to be contrived and downright loathsome. There is exactly zero chemistry between Jim and Maggie. Speaking of no chemistry, Will and McKenzie’s relationship is even worse. It’s dull and boring, generally irritating, and is completely unnecessary to the show.
Which brings me to my next point: Why is it that Maggie and McKenzie are completely incompetent? Both are allegedly billed as highly competent in their jobs, but can’t seem to separate their personal and professional lives. Are we to believe that McKenzie, who was embedded with the U.S. Army in overseas operations, can’t figure out how to use a Blackberry? Does she really not know how to send an email to one individual as opposed to the entire news organization? Does Maggie consistently need to start crying at work? It’s an injustice not only to Mortimer and Pill, but to women in general in Sorkin’s writing (see Studio 60’s Harriet Hayes).
Relationships aside, I enjoy the politics of The Newsroom. I enjoy almost anything that Sam Waterston is in. And most importantly, I enjoy the premise that Sorkin has found.