Review: The Newsroom

[Writer’s Note: Ironically, given the topic of The Newsroom, I finish writing this while reading the Arizona Immigration Supreme Court decision and reading the headlines, which range from “Huge win for Obama Administration” to “Key Part Upheld, Huge Loss for President Obama”. That media… it. sure. is. something.]

Disclaimer: I love Aaron Sorkin. I have since I first watched A Few Good Men and began watching The West Wing towards the end of season two in time to see this memorable scene.  Having watched and re-watched The West WingSports Night, and the very uneven, extremely hit-and-miss single season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, I’m a Sorkinphile for sure.

So much so that I saw The Social Network the night before taking the LSAT, finding myself inspired by the classically brilliant Sorkin asshole protagonist in the form of Mark Zuckerberg and his Sorkin quips like, “If you invented Facebook, you. would. have. invented. FACEBOOK!” He was supposed to be the villain? It’s not his fault that he’s smarter than everyone else, including those dumb twins!

Now, to be fair, my love knows it’s boundaries. I’m a conservative Christian Republican after all.  I haven’t always been depicted gracefully in Sorkin World. I don’t always agree with Sorkin. Although my man did help himself out by creating characters like Ainsley Hayes and writing scenes such as this one:

But, by this point in time, as ridiculed by many TV critics ranging from The Washington Post to top dog TV critic Alan Sepinwall himself, we know what to expect from Sorkin TV.  All the characters are as intelligent and quick-witted as we wish we were.  The protagonist is too smart ass for his own good and increasingly more autobiographical of Aaron Sorkin himself.  The women are strong characters, but never the lead, who is the aforementioned male who is too jaded, too ideal, and too heartbroken for his own good. (Bonus points if he’s heartbroken by one of those strong female leads.)  The workplace is the family.  The people work 100 hour weeks… at least.  The world they live in is imperfect and has forgotten the ideals that world was built upon.  And gosh darn it if our team of misfits (with at least a love triangle or two) isn’t going to help solve it.

The formula is tried, true, and probably found its zenith during the first few seasons of The West Wing.  But, even when it’s uneven, unrealistic, and outwardly biased, Aaron Sorkin-world is still better than most everything else on TV or in the movies.

So you can imagine my amount of joy when it was announced that Sorkin was coming back to TV, THIS TIME TO HBO?!? I wrote off the worse parts of the news, such as the fact that Sorkin did his research on Olbermann’s MSNBC show.  That’s Sorkin being Sorkin! After all, most of his research for The West Wing was done with Clinton aides finishing up their stint at the White House.  As the trailers premiered and the cast assembled, I got more and more excited. I watched old episodes and YouTube clips from all of his former shows. I watched my favorite scenes from The Social Network.  I was going to be prepared.

The early reviews weren’t good.  It seemed like it was Studio 60 Round 2.  Sorkin was being too preachy.  The characters were his classic Sorkin archetypes.  It was too sanctimonious.  It was smart-mouth dialogue just for the sake of having smart-mouth dialogue.

I moderated my expectations. After all, I enjoyed half of the Studio 60 episodes as classic feel-good, think-hard Sorkin fun. The other half of the episodes… still better than 95% of the things on TV.  So with Oscar-winning Sorkin returning to TV, on HBO… I still had high hopes.

After reading pieces detailing the show’s process and interviews with the man himself, I was ready. I poured myself a glass of fine Scotch and sat down ready to go.

The pilot had a shaky start.  Did I absolutely love Jeff Daniels’ diatribe about what’s wrong with America today followed by what makes America great? Yup. But Sorkin’s last television endeavor began similarly strong in its pilot before its uneven first (and only) season.  Overall, the first 30 to 40 minutes of the pilot felt like Sorkin was working off some TV writer’s rust.  Characters were screaming too often. The preachiness wasn’t softened by the wit or heart that also accompanies most of Sorkin’s writing.  It felt uneven, as if either the writer or actors or both were still trying to get their footing and tone for the show.

As I spotted Dev “Slumdog Millionaire” Patel, Tom Walker from Homeland and Tara’s mom from True Blood on the newsroom floor, I began to have hope that the show would find its footing eventually. After all, Sports Night took most of the first season to find its groove. And Sorkin didn’t disappoint.  By the time Sorkin introduced his lazily named Jim Harper (who looks, acts, and reminds me of another office lovelorn puppy by the name of Jim Halpert), the show had started to find its footing.  The writing became wittier and more heartfelt.  By the time they introduced the lovely Emily Mortimer as Mackenzie (a character who, like me, grew up watching Frank Capra movies non-stop, cementing her love of this great country we call America), I was on board. Some of the characters were still annoying (although I guess some were supposed to be) and some of the dialogue still felt strained, but I found myself chuckling more, enjoying more, and thinking more.

Was it a perfect pilot? No. But I’m willing to give Sorkin time to flesh out these characters and get me to care about them, love them in spite of their flaws, and argue with the characters and Sorkin’s viewpoints. But what he has to say about media is important. Heck, I’ve been longing for the days of Cronkite that I never knew and arguing for over a year now that the 24-hour news cycle and state of our media today does more to harm our public discourse and efforts to solve our cultural problems than most anything else. So Sorkin’s latest soapbox is one I like a lot. Do I think he’s always right? Far from it. But as a huge fan of his work, I like to think we’d both agree that that’s part of the point, if not the main point. People should be able to disagree and still have a passionate, heated, productive discourse.

The Newsroom isn’t perfect. Far from it. But by the end of the first episode, I found much of my skepticism disappearing. Who cares how realistic the show is? Who cares if the soapbox moments are a bit too sanctimonious? Who cares if the characters are archetypes?

Well, I do. But I come into Sorkin’s work knowing what to expect. And I think he’ll find his footing. And, if he doesn’t, The Newsroom will still be better than most everything else on TV and half of the episodes (like Studio 60) will be some of my favorite television episodes of the year. Love it or hate it, Sorkin’s work is still some of the smartest and wittiest on the screen. With this cast, this writer, and HBO, I expect this series to only get better, much as the pilot episode did throughout its expanded 75 minute running time.  The characters grew on me, Sorkin’s rust was worked off, and the preachiness was increasingly softened by that characteristic wit and heart.

Welcome back to TV, Mr. Sorkin. It’s good to have you home.


Posted on by Joseph Williams in Featured, Television, TV Reviews

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