June 25, 2012

TV: The Newsroom (HBO, Sun 10)

So, Aaron Sorkin is back. And The Newsroom has everything you expect from Sorkin -- rapid-fire dialogue, much of it delivered while walking; a rosily idealistic view of what the media should be; stellar actors (and Dev Patel, but let's just pretend he isn't there, OK?). What it also has are the familiar -- by now, perhaps overly familiar -- Sorkin character types; a weird focus on exactly the wrong side of the story; and a narrative choice that only emphasizes Sorkin's tendency to smugness.

We're backstage again, as we usually are with Sorkin, this time in the world of cable news. Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is an amiable anchorman, content to present the blandest, least offensive news show possible. He's "the Jay Leno of news," we're told, and it's not a compliment. But then he snaps at a college student who asks him "why is America the greatest country in the world" -- short answer: it's not, though this is Sorkin, so the answer isn't short, but is instead an operatic rant -- and after being suspended for a few weeks, returns to find that the staff of his show has mostly deserted him for the network's rising young star.

He also finds that his boss, Charlie (Sam Waterston), head of the news division, has hired a new executive producer for his show. She's MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), and Will is not happy, because they have A Past. But it seems that Charlie and MacKenzie have been inspired by Will's moment of honest ranting to overhaul his news program into what cable news should be -- passionate, devoted to the truth, committed to in-depth reporting of the stories that matter, and willing to ignore the celebrity gossip and trivia of the day.

Those three principal characters fall neatly into the types that we've seen Sorkin use of his other successful shows, Sports Night and The West Wing. (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip deviated a bit more from his standard types, which may be one of the reasons it never quite worked.) Will is solidly in the Peter Krause/Bradley Whitford tradition -- talented, filled with integrity, but capable of being abrasive to the point that no one wants to work with him. MacKenzie is the Felicity Huffman/Allison Janney figure -- strong, forceful career woman who will be all work and no nonsense right up to the moment when Sorkin decides to have her go to pieces over some utterly silly plot point. And Charlie is the Robert Guillaume/John Spencer grownup -- cheerful, avuncular, good-hearted, and capable of breaking out the big stompy foot when it's required.

(The line between Peter Krause in Sports Night and Daniels' Will McAvoy is even more direct when you realize that both characters are at least partly inspired by Keith Olbermann.)

The actors are superb -- the supporting cast includes Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., Thomas Sadoski, and Olivia Munn (and though she's not in the premiere, Jane Fonda will have a recurring role as the network's owner) -- and it's marvelous to hear Sorkin's dialogue on TV again. The first episode is terrifically entertaining, and completely successful as drama.

As social/political/cultural commentary, though, it's less successful because of one specific storytelling choice. Rather than set the show in the fictional present, and use fictional news stories as his backdrop, Sorkin sets the show in the recent past, and has his reporters covering real news stories.

The premiere is set on the day of the explosion on the Blackwater Horizon oil rig. That explosion happened in the early afternoon; by the time the evening news shows went on that night, less than six hours had passed. The explosion was reported on most networks, but as a short piece late in the show, and the focus was on the search-and-rescue mission.

It would be several days or weeks before it sank in that there were problems with capping the well and that this was going to be a major environmental disaster. But with the benefit of two years of hindsight, Sorkin has his team of crack reporters go on the air that night with a full hour devoted to the story. They've got a statement from BP acknowledging that they don't know how to cap the well; an on-air spokesman from Halliburton discussing the flawed tests of the substance that was supposed to have capped it automatically; a phone interview with the government inspector who most recently inspected the well (not credited, but I'm pretty sure that was Jesse Eisenberg's voice on the phone) -- stuff that it wouldn't have occurred to anyone to get on day one, and that they wouldn't have been able to get if it had occurred to them.

If Sorkin wants to use his show to argue that cable news sucks, and to present a vision of how it could be better, that's fine; it's a perfectly legitimate use of the airtime he's been given. But to present a vision that is completely unattainable is emphatically not fine; it's a narrative stacking of the deck that unfairly makes real cable news look even worse than it is. It's like scolding a child for getting an 85 on a 100-point spelling test instead of getting 237.

(If you want to argue that the right mix of lucky breaks and flukes could have gotten that kind of reporting on day one of the story, you're stretching the laws of coincidence beyond even their most generous fictional levels of plausibility, but I might be willing to let you get away with it. ONCE. If McAvoy and his team pull off this kind of reporting every week, it will be a serious problem with the show.)

I also think that in a world where there really are no news networks or anchors this idealistic, presenting the case of a bunch of execs who care less about ratings than about journalism is a bit silly. The real world scenario that reporters are more often faced with is even worse: Doing real journalism when the boss wants to spend ten minutes reading Thurber stories, or giggling over Gerard Depardieu pissing on an airplane, or mixing cocktails (Keith Olbermann, Anderson Cooper, and Rachel Maddow, respectively, have wasted time on their "news" programs on such drivel). That would be just as compelling a story, and far more relevant to the world we actually live in.

But despite those flaws, the story's constructed well, and when Daniels, Mortimer, and Waterston rip into that Sorkin dialogue? Oh, it's almost as good as being back in the Bartlet White House.

1 comment:

Shaun said...

I never watched the Newsroom until this weekend. A coworker at Dish told me I would like the show after having a political talk at lunch one day. The one thing I love about HBO, they have so many ways to access their content that you can spend a couple days and get caught up on a season of a show. The show itself I like, it does tend to get a bit too political for me, but the humor in it helps lighten that mood and move on. I know what you are talking about on the timeline, I am sure they modified it to fit more into the show instead of being dragged out for weeks.