The Newsroom Review: Anchor Away
There is just so much to say about the first episode of Newsroom, a lot of which is summed up by the final name listed in the opening credits: Created by Aaron Sorkin.
Any fan of The West Wing, The American President, The Social Network and Moneyball is aware of what this means. We'll be treated to sterling dialogue, passionate speeches, endless banter, intense fighting and characters entrenched on top of their especially high soap boxes.
More so than any of his previous projects, the opening episode of Sorkin's first forway into cable television, "We Just Decided To," focuses on the latter.
The Newsroom begins with Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy blasting all that America has become, running down its poor rankings in a variety of key areas and even throwing in a jab at Comic Book Guy by spelling out how the sorority girl who asked him a question at a panel discussion is part of the "Worst, period, Generation, period, Ever, period."
But the "first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one," McAvoy says in one of many Newsroom quotes that places journalism at the center of all that ails this country and all that can save it. "America is not the greatest country in the world anymore."
How can it become so once again? Sorkin makes the premise sound oh-so-very easy: the news has to better inform an ignorant public.
Most would agree this is a fair assessment of at least one problem plaguing America. Will is not meant to take the side of either political party, merely the side of truth. He's there to report the facts (as opposed to the facts people choose to believe, as he laments early on) and question anyone who tries to obfuscate them. (Perhaps the most enjoyable back-and-forth is when Will immediately shoots down a Halliburton spokesperson's attempt to dodge a question by stating his company's "thoughts and prayers" are with the victims.)
But Sorkin takes the easiest way possible in order to fictionally fix this issue: he sets The Newsroom in 2010. In the case of the premiere, this means focusing on the BP oil spill; and in the case of many other examples to come, it means Sorkin has the benefit of hindsight.
Of course you can take newscasts at that time to task when you have information two years later they may not have had the day of the spill. Of course you can prop up the importance a character who predicts this will be the worst environmental disaster in American history... when you know it actually will become the worst environmental disaster in American history.
Will and Emily Mortimer's MacKenzie McHale at one point say they can "frame the debate" over whether government is an "instrument of good" and, wouldn't you know it, that just happens to be a major political topic of the 2012 election.
Moreover, it's simply unfair to the real-life reporters The Newsroom criticizes when News Night's big break comes as a result of one employee having a sister who works for Halliburton and a college roommate who works for BP.
We can all probably agree that many media outlets have failed to properly do their jobs in recent years, but we can also agree that none of them had the kind of access Will is fortunate to have at his fingertips the moment the spill takes place. They had to actually report on the catastrophe and that takes time.
It's a rather large cop-out and a rather large problem for the show. Fixing the broken news is a simple task when you can sit back years later, take various real-life reports from various outlets, and have possibly the best television writer in history spin them into eloquent speeches about all this country could and should be.
There's an agenda at work here, which is often the case when Sorkin is behind a script. But, like everything I hate about Glee, the agenda with The Newsroom clearly comes first. Sorkin wants to inform before he wants to entertain. Correction: he wants to preach before he wants to entertain.
On more than one occasion, Americans are referred to as "dumb" or "stupid." I wouldn't blame any viewer who was turned off by a series whose premise is that citizens are uneducated and so easily swayed by what they see on television.
All these criticism aside, though... I sort of loved The Newsroom.
I've seen upcoming episodes and the sanctimonious speeches do escalate, while the female characters grow more marginalized. I'll deal with those and other issues in upcoming reviews.
For now, for this episode, I managed to separate the pompous, over-arching theme but the great individual moments. The back-and-forth is just so quick and witty, the scenes building upon one another so perfectly. I admit to being a sucker for any behind-the-scenes look at, well, almost anything, meaning I was mesmerized by the moments in the control room and the quick pace at which MacKenzie worked with Will over their earpieces.
I simply love how Aaron Sorkin writes.
Unlike Glee, which tries to be several shows in one and which doesn't treat most of its societal themes or messages with the respect they deserve, The Newsroom is as up front as it can be. There's never any doubt that this is an Aaron Sorkin production and each episode will come at you from an Aaron Sorkin point of view, as self-righteous as that can often be.
It may become grating to some, it may already be grating for others and they won't be returning to The Newsroom. But if you can focus on the brilliant writing of the messenger over the message, or don't mind the message being hammered home on a weekly basis, this is one newly-built ship you'll want to ride on every Sunday night.