One of the staples of summer television viewing is that generally the shows are a little lighter. You tend to get a barrage of reality shows or comedy/dramas that don’t make you think particularly hard. Things generally slow down and people tend to be satisfied with fluff that they normally wouldn’t tune in for. I really enjoy True Blood (though I am admittedly having a tough time getting in to this season), but I don’t know if I would be as enthusiastic for a southern gothic vampire soapy drama any other time of the year. Summertime is a time to take it easy.
There are obvious exceptions, of course; I’m counting down the days until Breaking Bad returns and that show is definitely intense. The Newsroom, which debuted Sunday night, would also fall into this category. Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and Oscar winner for The Social Network screenplay, is incapable of creating anything that would be considered fluff. With his quick dialogue and lofty speeches, his shows are not to be taken lightly. When you see “created by Aaron Sorkin” in the opening credits, you best put the margarita down and pay attention. Keep up or be left behind.
The Newsroom follows the behind the scenes working of a cable news program in the aftermath of its anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) having a “Network moment” while speaking at a university. He returns from his mandated vacation to find that most of his staff has jumped ship for other shows and that in his absence his boss Charlie (Sam Waterston) has hired a new executive producer in MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a woman that Will has a past with. MacKenzie has big ideas about making journalism a respectable profession again, with less screaming and yelling and more facts and discourse. She wants to inform the electorate rather than indoctrinate and elevate the “Fourth Estate” to its former greatness. To do this, however, she and Will have to find some way to peacefully coexist. Though the characters, network and news show that they all work at are fictional, the show takes places in our recent past (2010) and they are covering real life events.
I really enjoyed The Newsroom. I am a total sucker for Sorkin’s brand of dialogue and soliloquies and the pilot episode does not disappoint in that regard. Sorkin just has a way with words that is something to behold when in the hands of the right actors. The Newsroom is blessed with a very talented cast that appears up to the challenge; I was particularly happy to see Alison Pill as Will’s assistant Maggie as she did tremendous work in season two of the HBO drama In Treatment. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame also has a supporting role, though I hope he is given more to do than he was in the pilot. All the leads are very good and it is hard to believe that Jeff Daniels is the same guy who was in Dumb and Dumber. The newsroom scenes are very exciting and frenzied as they try to cover a breaking story while still figuring out everyone’s place in the new world order of the office. Dan Rather has given the show his stamp of approval, which I think says a lot about the realism and authenticity of what is portrayed. With its behind the scenes atmosphere and the focus on news and policy, The Newsroom can be thought of as a sort of hybrid between two previous Sorkin shows, The West Wing and Sports Night.
I do have some concerns about the show, despite the fact that I liked it. One of the reasons that I eventually bailed out on The West Wing was that I thought it just got too preachy and sanctimonious (and I generally agree with Sorkin’s politics and world view). I could see that happening very easily on The Newsroom, especially since the show takes place in the real world and is commenting on actual events. It just may be too tempting for Sorkin to avoid. I don’t mind the show taking a position or occasionally giving a lofty ideological speech, but that can’t be the focus of the show. If that becomes the dominant theme I’m going to lose interest. I don’t need to be lectured.
The using of real world events also gives me pause because I fear it gives the viewer too much information. Watching the pilot, I immediately knew what the news story was that they were debating covering and therefore it was very easy to know what the right course of action was. It took some of the suspense out of the discussion and since the viewer knew who was ultimately making the right call, it seemed like a bit of a cheat on character development. I’m not sure if this was also a result of the viewer already being familiar with the event, but the story that they did do came together very quickly. I realize that sometimes you do get all the breaks with a story and are able to put something together in record time, but that shouldn’t be the case for all coverage. That’s fine for the pilot, but in subsequent episodes I’d like to see them work a little harder and encounter some real obstacles. I hope they aren’t afraid to make the team work have to work for it, even if the viewer already knows more information because of hindsight than the characters do.
I’ve only seen the pilot, but other critics that I trust have said that there are some problems with some of the subsequent episodes that hurt the effectiveness of the show. I’ll definitely stick with the program and give it a fair shake, but I am also anticipating that there might be a dip in the quality in the next few episodes. If that isn’t the case, great; but if it does occur I hope that they can right the ship and put the show back on the promising course that the pilot established.
If you missed the show or don’t have HBO, the pilot episode is currently available on YouTube. For subscribers, the show is on demand or on HBO GO.
The Newsroom airs Sundays at 10 pm (ET) on HBO.