Aaron Sorkin is back on TV, and he’s at his walky, talky best
THIS needs to be stated, right up front: Aaron Sorkin knows where I live. Not, like, my house number or my street address; it’s entirely possible he has no idea where or what Winnipeg even is. But the playwright/ screenwriter responsible for A Few Good Men, Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Social Network and Moneyball knows where I reside emotionally, as a TV viewer, and he continues to create content for movies and television that pushes all the right buttons and leaves me all a-flutter when I watch it.
Such is the case with The Newsroom, Sorkin’s new made-for-HBO drama that premières Sunday on HBO Canada. Like all his earlier TV efforts and most of his big-screen scripts, this high-minded and infallibly wellworded glimpse at the inner workings of a fictional cable-news network is idealistic, optimistic, sarcastic, unapologetically manipulative and ... well, for this admitted Sorkin addict anyway, brilliant.
As has been shown in the promo clips that have run endlessly over the last few weeks, Jeff Daniels — as disenchanted cable-news anchor Will McAvoy — opens the series with one of those quintessential Sorkin-esque rants that sets the tone for what follows.
McAvoy is taking part in a panel discussion in front of a study hall full of university students, doing mostly
Starring Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston Sunday (check listings for times) HBO Canada
out of five what he has done to earn the nickname “the Jay Leno of news” — ducking questions, offering bland answers and generally trying to remain disengaged from the debate.
But when the moderator presses him for “one human moment” and a young female student asks what makes America the greatest country on Earth, McAvoy snaps, and launches into a detailed diatribe about how the United States long ago ceased to be anything resembling great.
It’s a beautifully worded blow-up; of course, there are consequences, in the ratings-driven news game, to “speaking truth to stupid.”
But the fallout isn’t quite what you’d think. When McAvoy returns to the newsroom from a forced vacation, he finds that much of his staff has abandoned his prime-time newscast to work on a highly promoted late-evening show that’s about to launch.
He also learns, from his irascible boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), that a new executive producer has been hired to run his program — MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), an experienced war-zone producer with whom McAvoy had a romantic relationship that ended badly a few years earlier.
He’s furious; she isn’t aware, until she arrives, that Charlie hired her without consulting Will. As they try to spar their way to an impasse that will allow the show to make it onto the air that evening, a major news event — of the real-life variety, as the delayed on-screen revelation of the date on which this episode takes place reveals — forces everyone to focus solely on the task of reporting one of the biggest stories in recent U.S. history.
And with that, the true personality of The Newsroom, and what Sorkin intends it to be during its 10-episode run, is revealed. The newsroom in The Newsroom is determined to fight the good fight, in the same way the political staffers and President Jeb Bartlett did in The West Wing.
Sorkin, for better and worse, writes characters who speak in language so perfectly worded and delivered that the lines are almost musical in their complexity. The people who inhabit his shows almost invariably view the world from a moral high ground, and they live in a fantastical realm in which right is smarter, funnier and ultimately more successful than wrong.
With McAvoy and McHale as their leaders, the denizens of The Newsroom set out to redefine the TV-news game by ignoring ratings, refusing to bow to pressure from advertisers, discarding the feeble notion that truth and balance are the same thing, and shutting out the shouting heads that have come to dominate newscasts in the 21st century.
It’s a fantasy, and it appeals to the head and tugs hard at the heartstrings of its viewers. But if Sorkin knows where you live, The Newsroom will most definitely be moving in for the summer.
From left, Dev Patel, Olivia Munn, Thomas Sadoski, Sam Waterston, John Gallagher, Jr., Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill.