Aaron Sorkin’s back with another dreamy bit of wish fulfillment, a behind-the-scenes look at how the sausage gets made for a network’s evening news show. Just as The West Wing idealized the presidency and its ability to compromise and get things done, The Newsroom romanticizes the past, showing us that it’s never too late to start over again. By being set in 2010, The Newsroom is able to correct the gaffes made by real news networks at the time, especially those which, as the show asserts, initially underestimated the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and prematurely declared Gabrielle Giffords dead.
With his ratings in flux, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), anchor/managing editor of News Night, returns to his desk to find his old staff, led by his ambitious yet nerveless executive producer, Don (Thomas Sadoski), jumping ship to the 10 o’clock show. Will’s permissive, easygoing boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), sees this as an opportunity to reunite Will with his ex-girlfriend and former producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), trusting that their explosive chemistry will make for a livelier broadcast. For Mac, who spent the last 26 months solidifying her credentials in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is her chance to avoid the “nattering nabobs of negativity” and report the facts, and nothing but the facts, while also bringing a fresh, hopeful, and un-jaded point of view to the airwaves.
Of course, unbridled idealism can be dangerous on a television show, and Sorkin quickly acknowledges this by having Don warn his colleagues that the public doesn’t want to be educated by the news, they want to be entertained. The problem is that Sorkin aims to do both with The Newsroom: Although Will states that “News is only useful in the context of humanity,” the truth is that his characters are only useful—that is, interesting—when they’re reporting on or preparing for the nightly news. Maybe it’s that fact-checking, pitch meetings, and valiant attempts to provide equal representation are so rarely dramatized, but there’s an exciting rhythm and bounce to these exchanges (the 1928 film The Front Page springs to mind) that the clichéd subplots that occur between broadcasts lack.
Will has become a womanizer ever since breaking up with Mac, the love of his life, and her new hires—Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), who was embedded in Iraq with her, and the extra-nervous and super-sincere Maggie (Alison Pill)—have a will-they-won’t-they relationship that’s defined by how much of a dick Maggie’s current boyfriend, Don, is. Charlie is a good-spirited mentor, but feels insubstantial: His sole purpose is to defend Will to the executives on the 44th floor. The same can be said for Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), a staff blogger who serves as a good listener and provides tangential comic relief, and Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), an attractive Phd who even Mac admits was hired over more qualified economists on account of her legs. Like past Sorkin creations, all of these characters all largely brilliant, fearless, clumsy, and perfectly informed. A series like Veep gets away with all of its characters sounding the same—albeit in a smarmy, conniving, and creatively filthy way—because it’s farcical. But The Newsroom purports to be real.
In other words, The Newsroom is a message-driven delight—at least for liberals—that’s bogged down by uninteresting characters. Each episode seems to lose focus when it switches from its central breaking-news story to its stale, comic romances. Or maybe this is a wry commentary from Sorkin, who provides the minimum amount of dramatic entertainment required for a television show to succeed, and devotes the rest to thoughtful analyses of how to best present a truly “fair and balanced” approach to the news. This is, after all, the same argument Will makes to his Real Housewifes-watching dates, hoping to “civilize” them: Why do we need the “cheap” entertainment of gossip and non-salient personal details?
Consider an episode revolving around Arizona’s controversial immigration law, in which Will bumbles quixotically through a series of miscommunications, Jim helps Maggie through a panic attack, and Neal pitches a story on Bigfoot. This could be any show on TV right now; what defines The Newsroom, then, isn’t the characters, but its thesis that if the news doesn’t fully inform the populace, it’s failed. With Arizona Governor Jan Brewer pulling out of an interview at the last minute, the team is forced to find replacements to speak on behalf of the policy, and the results are predictably unpredictable, with Will attempting to have a meaningful debate with a gun owner, an anti-immigrant author, and the second runner-up in a beauty pageant—all of whom are drastically uninformed.
These News Night segments are engrossing for another reason as well: Because Will was formerly a prosecutor, Sorkin is able to write as if the news were a court (the one of public, but highly informed, opinion), an act that plays into Sorkin’s strengths and often dialectic approach. Whereas Will starts the series being compared to Jay Leno (harmless, inoffensive, and about as far from Murrow and Cronkite as it gets), the more apt comparison is a cross between Jon Stewart and Brian Williams. That’s a character worth tuning in for.