Here we are, friends. After too long a wait, it's the fourth coming of Aaron Sorkin to television. And The Newsroom, on first viewing, seems a suitable return to form, with crackling dialogue and a stringent earnestness in its characters' pursuits of a world--and an America--where trying to be better, and telling the truth, is both lauded and rewarded. For the most part, it pops, although Sorkin's not even a little bit afraid of retreading old ground, character archetypes, and scenes in an almost note-for-note manner. I mean, it's HBO, so now he's got F-bombs to use... but, well, we'll get to the analysis in a second.
THE SHORT VERSION: Will McAvoy is the affable and handsome talking-head host of ACN's "News Night," a nightly show in the vein of AC360. Described as "the Jay Leno of news," Will's on a three-year streak of being the softball guy of late-night news; he's completely bland and unthreatening, despite his intelligence, charm, and once-fiery journalistic rep. All of this changes in a panel discussion at Northwestern University, where he goes off on a young coed after she asks why America is the greatest country on Earth. His response is all over the promos for this show, but the short version is "it's not," and it's all blamed on vertigo meds, which made him see a strange woman holding signs saying "IT'S NOT/BUT IT COULD BE."
Anyway, cut to three weeks later and almost his entire staff has moved to another show; it's revealed that Will, despite being super likeable on the air, is sort of a dick to work with, and his team has abandoned him, with the exception of his blogger Neal and his assistant Maggie. Maggie's dating Don, the former executive producer, who's moved on and caused all sorts of drama and also doesn't want to be publicly seen with Maggie. Network exec Charlie brings in British-American uberjournalist MacKenzie to produce the show--which is a problem, because she's got all sorts of history with Will. She also brings along her young and excitable sidekick Jim, who's smart and has an insta-crush on Maggie.
Everything is on shaky footing until it's revealed that the date is April 20, 2010: the day of the BP oil spill, and, as the action unfolds, the team has a chance to pull together a series of scoops in a full hour on the spill, hinged around Jim's exclusive sources, Maggie's resourcefulness as she's promoted to assistant producer, and Will's ability to riff without a teleprompter. They produce a winning, sourced, and jaw-dropping news program, and it's exactly the sort of moment that makes us all cheer for Sorkin. In the aftermath, we get a little background on Will and MacKenzie, and the nature of their relationship and breakup...and Will reveals he hallucinated HER at the Northwestern panel, setting this whole thing off. She almost goes after him, but in the last shot, we see her notepad...which has the "IT'S NOT/BUT IT COULD BE" message on it, in a cool IT WAS REAL! sort of twist.
WHAT I LOVED: Oh, the dialogue. Sorkin has an ear unlike anyone else, and this is how I wish people really spoke. And hearing Sam Waterston as Charlie speak those words...it's Heaven. It's also really cool to see Alison Pill and John Gallagher, Jr. on a show together--they're both NY stage royalty, and have fantastic chemistry. And Jeff Daniels is a great crown jewel of this cast, with fine back and forths with Emily Mortimer's MacKenzie.
I dig that this, once again, is a show about the possibilities of television and communication, and the responsibilities that those of us who work in these industries have to the general public and each other. I like that Sorkin continuously imagines a world where we all make better choices than we do in this one, and I like that he's once again built a room full of hyper-competent people for us to root for.
WHY I'M WORRIED: Three things about this show are wobbly to me, and threaten to upset the applecart.
First, as I get older, I get cynical, and we've seen these pairings and these people before. It's almost a game--it's so easy to pick out a Bartlett moment, or some Dan and Casey dialogue, or to boiler-plate Studio 60's first cold open over this one. Sorkin's older, wiser, and now has an Academy Award. The old tricks need to be better, for this show to really live up to its potential.
Second, a bold choice was made to set this show in the "real world" of spring 2010; it means that the messy "this is supposed to be funny!" fiction of S60 gets avoided, and real news becomes an interesting palette for this show to work from. That said, it makes the "current" nature of this news show immediately feel a little dated; it's paradoxical, but it's almost like we're watching a period piece, right from the get-go. It's dangerous for the storytelling, and I'm interested to see how it's used in future installments.
Third is the burnout factor--Sorkin's pilots tend to sing, and the first eps of The West Wing,Sports Night, and S60 rank amongst the best of those shows' runs (in 60's case, it's the best show of the run, no contest). This...is less of a slam-dunk outing. It's good, but it's not great.
And maybe it's just that this is very Sorkin, but it's also very much Sorkin we've seen before; smug, smart people talking about smug, smart things, accomplishing idealistic tasks and discussing romances past, present and future.
Okay, I get all that. But it's time for more. Here's hoping. Your move, Newsroom. See you next week.
Watch the full episode here.