I don’t review television shows on this blog, mostly because I really don’t watch (much) TV. I have a few stock shows that I’m dedicated to, but all of them air on HBO. So because I don’t watch TV, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair for me to review specific shows. There is very little context I can offer. The only show I’ve reviewed on this blog is Girls, because at the time, it needed as many advocates as it could get. And it’s for the same reason that I feel compelled to share my thoughts on the pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin’s could-be-brilliant The Newsroom.
On Friday evening, reviews started flooding in on Twitter about how bad The Newsroom was. It’s too idealistic, too safe, too Sorkin. Star Jeff Daniels was inappropriately cast, the banter was too sharp, the scene scenarios were unrealistic – basically, much like Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Newsroom was a serious miss. Problem is, I actually dug Studio 60. Sure, like Sorkin’s first series, Sports Night, once Studio 60 realized they were getting canceled, everyone involved completely phoned in their respective tasks, but at its heart, Studio 60 was an entertaining network dramedy.
The point, in short, is that I felt The Newsroom deserved a shot. And after watching its first episode last night, it appears I was right.
The show tells the story of Will McAvoy, a popular television journalist who is an affable news presence on the bright side of the camera, and a complete asshole when he’s not on air. After shaking up a college Q&A with a heartfelt rant about the current state of America (which, you know, isn’t all that great, or so he argues), Will takes some time off, before coming back and finding his newsroom dismantled.
While he was away, Will’s boss, Charlie (Sam Waterson) hired Will’s ex, Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) to be Will’s second in command. The two had a tumultuous falling out, and bringing Mackenzie back into the mix infuriates Will to no end. Despite this, when the story of an oil rig exploding off the coast of Louisiana breaks (the pilot takes place in August 2010), Will and his small, capable, fictional newsroom are the first and only ones to stick their balls out there by starting the blame game.
Now, because this is an Aaron Sorkin show, we expect a certain level of stylization to come with it. Sorkin’s characters talk fast. And furious. Their words (especially when spoken with HBO’s profanity-encouraged banter) fly off the screen. They are poignant, deliberate, repetitive and, if things are working as planned, oddly heartfelt. Unless, of course, they aren’t.
Look, Sorkin’s style is so deliberate, that it’s bound to be polarizing. It’s the same reason people whose movie opinions I respect think Quentin Tarantino is a hack, or Terrence Malick is a bore. I get why people don’t value Sorkin speak, but to say I dig it is to speak modestly. However, just because I like the way something is written doesn’t necessarily mean I like what is written.
And that’s where my few flaws with The Newsroom come into play. The hour and a half premiere was laced with mostly stellar sequences of verbal ratatat. Everything that came out of Alison Pill and Dev Patel’s mouths was reliable gold. The two play newsroom lackeys low on the totem pole, and they play them well. Likewise Emily Mortimer, who proves here that she’s as comfortable spitting Sorkin’s lines as she was David Mamet’s.
The flaw, it must be said, is in Daniels himself, who, occasionally, pushed a little too far. His delivery came off as forced, loud, and obnoxious in all the wrong ways. This was sparse, mind you, because for the most part, Daniels and Co. killed it. Case in point: there was a thrilling sequence in which Mortimer (in the control booth), told Will (who was interviewing someone on live television) which direction to take the questioning. It rivaled and simultaneously paid homage to James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, which is a rather fine compliment.
Was The Newsroom perfect? No, it was not. But I challenge you to find a pilot episode that is (FX’s The Shield comes close). Pilots are typically shot months (or even a year) before the second episode is. If The Newsroom hits its stride (which, for the record, I think is going to happen), then it will hit it a few episodes from now. The Newsroom is arguably the most upfront Sorkinesque thing the man has written. For me, that’s enough of a selling point, for detractors, they’d be best to stay away. B+
Note: You can watch the first episode of The Newsroom on HBO for free here.