In something of a career slumber, Will McAvoy (Daniels) has become the sort of news anchor who’s popular because he’s impartial and keeps his political opinions to himself. When pushed too far during a televised political debate, however, Will snaps and unleashes an uncharacteristically truthful tirade about America’s failings as a nation, causing a media frenzy in the process. Returning to work a few weeks later, Will finds that most of his staff have quit and that his ex-girlfriend, MacKenzie McHale (Mortimer), has been hired as the show’s new producer. With Will awoken from his slumber, they set out to do the news properly…
Where do you stand on Aaron Sorkin? One of best writers in the business? Or a speechifying scribe who keeps repeating himself? The answer, rather crucially, will inform your response to The Newsroom, since it’s arguably the most Aaron Sorkin-y screenwork that Sorkin has ever created. Returning to television after penning a few excellent features (most notably, The Social Network and Moneyball), his HBO drama is everything you’d expect from the celebrated screenwriter. Intelligent, informed and unashamedly idealistic, it’s set in another high-pressure workplace where smart-yet-clumsy characters take part in zippy interplay and heartfelt speeches. As such, fans of his work and those who share his politics (or anyone who also hates how society panders to idiots), will find an addictive, snarky and superbly-written reminder of why they like Sorkin.
Certainly though, the reverse is also true. While Sorkin’s unique voice won him universal (and thoroughly-deserved) acclaim with The West Wing (nobody really watched his criminally-unseen first show Sports Night), his signature style has become both increasingly familiar and increasingly divisive. Like other storytellers whose work is instantly identifiable (see also, Quentin Tarantino), Sorkin’s style has its detractors, and this group is likely to label The Newsroom as another speechy and overly-earnest schmaltz-athon. Of course, it doesn’t help that the gifted scripter is often ‘guilty’ of recycling his own material, as was proven recently by this rather brilliant viral video which amusingly shows similar phrases and chunks of dialogue being re-used in different works.
For any faults it has though, The Newsroom remains a largely classy affair which is – time for some Anchorman-style maths – 80% snappier than 60% of other TV shows. No question, we could do without the occasional lapses into slapstick (staff running into glass doors, Will falling over while putting on trousers), but Jeff Daniels is terrific in the lead role and the dialogue is frequently sharp. Rather inevitably, we’re not talking West Wing standard, but it’s arguably a step above Sorkin’s Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip which was cancelled after one season. Of course, given the screenwriter’s recent big-screen successes you could argue that he’s better suited to films (where the likes of David Fincher and Bennett Miller won’t indulge his bad habits and self-indulgence), but The Newsroom proves Sorkin still has something to say on television.
Okay, so his characters, like Tarantino’s, all sound the same. They’re all brilliant, they’re all well-informed, and they’re all prone to bumping into stuff. But while the show isn’t nearly as interesting when focussing on the supporting players (a central love triangle feels particularly generic), it’s constantly thrilling when the news is being created. In truth, it’s never quite as riveting as the opening on-air rant (which is reminiscent of Studio 60’s opener), but in a rather neat move the series is set in the recent past (2010 to be exact). Though some have criticised this as a cheat which Sorkin uses to pan the media (and there is some truth to that), he uses it in an aspirational manner to show how actual events would have been handled by an idealised broadcast team. This is, after all, coming from the man who gave us the Jed Bartlet administration.
Arguably the most Aaron Sorkin-y screenwork that Sorkin has ever created, your opinion on Aaron Sorkin will inform your response to The Newsroom.