My cohort Tom Houseman has invited the rest of the BOP staff to participate in his Crashing Pilots, and the return to television of Aaron Sorkin struck me as the perfect opportunity to participate. I would note a couple of key differences between Mr. Houseman’s viewing habits and my own before going any further.
Crashing Pilots: The Newsroom
By David Mumpower
June 28, 2012
In his introductory script, he mentions that he gave Modern Family another chance a couple of seasons after the pilot. I am of the opinion that Modern Family is one of the best pilots in sitcom history. And he has pointed out that he primarily focuses on sitcoms. I am someone who enjoys all forms of serial television from seven episode BBC sitcoms to the 23 chapter flow of Murder One’s first season. My favorite television programs in the 2000s are largely dramas such as Gilmore Girls, Firefly and Battlestar Galactica but my all-time favorite series are titles such as The Simpsons, The Wonder Years and Sports Night. All forms of television are agreeable to me.
The topic of this column is The Newsroom, which is a program of note to someone who has already acknowledged Sports Night as one of their favorite series. Long time readers of BOP are well aware of our staff’s love affair with the work of Aaron Sorkin. The author I consider to be the world’s greatest living poet is a source of continual amusement to me, not because of his individual talents but instead due to the impact of his mystique on others.
Those who read the reviews of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip remember the incendiary attacks on the program’s central premise. The critics tasked with judging the show on its own merits failed completely in this regard, instead bemoaning the underlying theme of the show. As Tina Fey was given a pass for a show with the same premise, Sorkin was systematically assaulted for having the audacity to do what he has always done: examine what happens behind the curtain of a specific business. Previous professions were sports media and the executive branch of the American government. When Sorkin chose Hollywood and a Saturday Night Live-inspired theme, however, that was beyond the pale to many.
Gawker in particular had an axe to grind with the series as well as its creator. The rancor of their obsession reached a crescendo at the oddest time: years after the show’s cancellation. One of their humorists (?) inexplicably live tweeted his thoughts during a marathon viewing of the entire season. The entire affair felt like a lame attempt to kick someone while they were down, but Sorkin had the final laugh when his work in The Social Network was rewarded with a long overdue Academy Award for writing. The fact that he did not even receive a nomination for 1992’s A Few Good Men still blows me away 20 years later, particularly because of the mediocrity of ten nominees chosen in his stead. But I digress. After decades spent building the respect and awe of his peers, Sorkin finally broke through the glass ceiling and was acknowledged for what he is, one of the greatest living scribes.
In the interim, Sorkin’s grudge with the rush to judgment nature of the social media era has intensified. As is his wont, Sorkin has chosen to attack the issue directly. With The Newsroom, his first HBO program, the vaunted director states exactly this purpose through the voice of a character. The belief is that the nightly news was once the stateliest of endeavors and that a proper refocusing could lead to its return to greatness. With this lone conceit, Sorkin has lobbed a holy hand grenade at all major news gathering organizations, many of whom comprise the composite voice of the Internet. Heady with recent career triumphs, Aaron Sorkin has picked the most all-encompassing fight possible. No matter what you may think of them, you have to admire his temerity.
The early skirmishes have been predictable. The same people who unfairly dismissed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip out of hand are now quick to dismiss The Newsroom for its sanctimony. I swear to God that I read a Sorkin interview the other day wherein the author was completely intimidated by her face to face meeting with him. Afterward, she had to use the words “jejune and vituperative” in her column in order to make herself feel better about their encounter. The poor writer’s crippling insecurities were laid bare for all to witness because of one awkward encounter with a living legend. This is what the presence of Aaron Sorkin does to people who lack confidence and self-esteem. This is why Aaron Sorkin has become a divisive presence in pop culture. As such, middling reviews of The Newsroom were to be expected.
As someone who is squarely in Sorkin’s fan-base, I wanted to take this opportunity to speak to the choir about his new project. This is an evaluation of The Newsroom by someone who unabashedly hero-worships the writing gifts of the author. I will provide a brief amount of perspective about my opinions on his previous television works and then we will discuss the pilot for The Newsroom.
The most logical comparison to The Newsroom is Sports Night since the premise is identical on the surface level. Each series is a behind the scenes exploration of the lives of employees for a nightly live televised news broadcast. The difference is of course the subject matter, with the titles leading to the obvious conclusion that Sports Night is about sports while The Newsroom is…do I really need to finish that train of thought? You read BOP. You’re smart. You know the deal.
Sports Night was a program that took some time to meld into a cohesive product. Anyone who has watched the pilot recently is aware of the stilted nature of its tone. To my mind, the show did not achieve greatness until its fifth episode, Mary Pat Shelby, and it didn’t hit its stride until the 11th episode, The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee. From that moment forward, the remaining 34 episodes are near-perfect television. Given what I said above about my all-time favorite programs, this should not come as a surprise. I state with all sincerity that I attempt to re-watch the entire run of the series every couple of years. And I find something new to enjoy every time. Sports Night is what all entertainment television should aspire to be.
While Aaron Sorkin’s dismissal from The West Wing lingers in the memories of its viewers, the four seasons he wrote represent the perfect ideal of American democracy in action. For reasons that have become clear over time, the most flawed character is also its hero, an American president victimized by his driving need to prove himself the smartest man in the room. This is the personality flaw Aaron Sorkin understands better than anyone else. It is also why all of the energy his critics expend amuses me. They waste so much time when nothing they could say would ever eat at him the way that his own knowledge of his chief failing does. In the most effective way possible, Sorkin is his strongest critic.
This aspect of Aaron Sorkin’s personality was driven home a couple of years ago when he discussed the perceived failings of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It is the author’s contention that he was too angry when he wrote the series. My opinion is that he is being far too hard on himself. Studio 60 is one of my favorite programs in recent memory. In fact, when I tore a disc in my back earlier this year, I utilized some of the extended downtime to re-watch all 22 episodes. I am of the opinion that anyone who cannot find the happiness in this program is beyond joy. Is it perfect the way that the best Sports Night episodes are? Mostly no. There are a couple of glaring exceptions, though.
After the entire world knew that Studio 60 was a failure, its cancellation was the logical conclusion, but NBC was contractually obligated to produce and air 22 episodes. There was a three month gap between the 16th and 17th of these shows. During that downtime, Sorkin took a contemplative approach to what happened. When The Disaster Show aired on May 24, 2007, Studio 60 had been banished to the post-sweeps week period of the schedule when summer re-runs had begun.
Rather than show any bitterness over the mercurial nature of television viewers, however, this hilarious episode built to a great truth at the end. No matter what perceived disaster has befallen the scribe, Sorkin had this epiphany. “It still beats digging a hole for a living, right?” Later, he adds: “Tell me you still didn’t have the time of your life tonight.” And with this simple summary, a clarity exists that no matter what others may say of Studio 60, Aaron Sorkin loved making those 22 episodes.
The above is a statement of Sorkin as an accomplished man learning how to deal with spectacular failure. Sorkin as an auteur is on display in the pilot for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. People have forgotten by now or perhaps chosen to ignore the fact that the Studio 60 pilot is among the best ever. This 45 minute exercise in storytelling is such a triumph that every network as well as several cable entities launched a bidding war to claim Studio 60 as their own. Whether the show would have enjoyed a better fate had it wound up on a network that wasn’t in total free fall is a question we will never answer. What is undeniable, however, is that everyone who understands television threw themselves at Sorkin in the most shameless ways possible in order to acquire the program for their respective networks.
With a hallmark achievement such as the Studio 60 pilot and later an Academy Award on his resume, Sorkin suffers from unrealistic expectations these days. Even I have fallen guilty to this. As much as I want to say that The Newsroom pilot is a masterpiece from start to finish, this is not the case. To the contrary, the 75 minute episode reminds me of Sports Night a great deal in that it takes entirely too long to get going. Once the viewer suffers through the stilted first 40 minutes of the episode, the final 35 minutes is imbued with exactly the sort of verve we have grown to expect from Aaron Sorkin. Until then, there are major problems.
The Newsroom tells the story of an anchorman, but not a fun one like Ron Burgundy. To the contrary, one of the central problems with this pilot is that Jeff Daniels portrays the lead character, Will McAvoy, far too angrily. As I am sure you know from watching the trailer, the setting here is akin to Studio 60’s beginning. An accredited industry veteran is mad as Hell and he isn’t gonna take it anymore. Unlike Studio 60, the person experiencing the rage is not a tertiary character but instead the principal lead. This is problematic for the viewer.
The background is that McAvoy represents “the Jay Leno” of news anchors, a vanilla personality on camera whose anger and disinterest behind the scenes has led to a group decision to leave for another show. The fact that McAvoy does not even notice at first speaks volumes regarding his lack of awareness. Of course, that is only his second biggest problem at the moment. The first is his recent decision to come out from his shell long enough to berate a college sophomore for her jingoistic question about the greatness of America. He…doesn’t see the country as so great, a problem in the Love Thy Founders era.
The fallout from this is allegedly swift and dramatic. The host is sent on a two week vacation (with Erin Andrews…how do the rest of us sign up for this punishment?), and it is at this point that the network makes some changes with their various programs. The tenor of this change from one host to another is similar to when MSNBC switched their allegiance from Keith Olbermann to Rachel Maddow at the start of 2011. Initally, I incorrectly presumed that McAvoy is being positioned to suffer the same fate as Olbermann but an explanation toward the end of the pilot reveals that this is instead a wake-up call of sorts.
What everyone who comes into contact with McAvoy believes is that the man is a jerk. This causes me to posit that Sorkin is again mining the flaws in his own personality in order to create another damaged hero. As everyone knows by now, Sorkin is not the easiest person to love. In giving the character of McAvoy the same weakness, however, there are automatic limitations placed upon the storyline.
The second most famous person in The Newsroom is Emily Mortimer, arguably the best actress in the world without an Academy Award nomination. Her character, MacKenzie McHale, is intended to be the heart of the story. In fact, she is described as a Frank Capra fan in order to sell her optimism. Unfortunately, her primary focus in the pilot is to act flighty and make the usual grandiose Sorkin speeches. Hopefully, she will be allowed to branch out more in future episodes because Sorkin haters are right that her breathless oratories occur too often and for far too long.
McHale is introduced as having a prior relationship with McAvoy that was undone by an as yet unrevealed mistake she made. She has attempted to apologize for this several times over the years, yet he clearly resents her mightily for this action. When McAvoy discovers that McHale is to be the new executive producer of his news show, he is so outraged that he re-works his contract to accept $3 million less in order to gain the right to fire her at his discretion.
This is the core problem with the first half of the pilot. Within 20 minutes of meeting Will McAvoy, he has berated a 19-year-old for asking a well-intended question, blamed his (largely thoughtful) response on vertigo medication, yelled at a kindly drunk of a boss for making a thoughtful decision without his blessing, and attempted to destroy the career of a woman who is being positioned as the love of his life. Apparently, Sorkin missed the day at mentor William Goldman’s screenwriting class where the author of The Princess Bride described the necessity of making the viewer root for the protagonist. A viewing audience respects McAvoy enough to watch him speak, a boss loves him enough to save his career and a woman he has scorned willingly returns to his life because she knows he is in need. All these people receive in return is a guy acting like the type of jackass who gets punched out at a bar.
Thankfully, The Newsroom pilot exists beyond the character of Will McAvoy. Allison Pill (Kim Pine in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) and John Gallagher Jr. comprise the members of the News Night staff who will be the focus of the series moving forward. Pill portrays an intern turned assistant turned associate producer whose name McAvoy cannot remember. Patel handles McAvoy’s blog and Gallagher is the senior producer whose first day on the job is unbelievable. No, really. I literally do not believe it, which is not something I say often of Sorkin stories.
Without revealing too much (I will save this for the follow-up of Crashing Pilots in a few weeks), The Newsroom has a twist of sorts. I literally groaned at first when I saw it because the use of typed words on the screen felt so artificial that I was momentarily alienated. After I watched the way the tone of the show changed afterward, I came around. Suffice to say that The Newsroom is not set in the modern day, which will provide Sorkin another avenue to explore alternate history in a similar manner to president Josiah “Jed” Bartlet’s two terms.
In the first execution of this premise, a major news event occurs and Jim, Gallagher's character, happens to have two different friends who provide him insider news tips within moments of the story breaking. This is…less than what Sorkin usually does. He even offers a tip of the cap to it at one point yet it bothers me enough that I fear this will become a recurring theme of the show. Some member of the News Night staff knows exactly the right person to call to unearth the portion of the story no other news organization can ferret out. This would bother me.
If this is the only such instance, I can forgive it because the unraveling events lead to Jim garnering immediate respect from his peers. This is especially important because his newfound popularity comes at the expense of one Don Keefer, the boyfriend of Pill’s character, Maggie Jordan. If there is a villain in the pilot – and that villain is not McAvoy himself – it is Keefer, who has led the charge to flee News Night. He has also not comported himself well in his relationship with Maggie, who has stayed with McAvoy out of loyalty even though the news anchor cannot remember her name.
All of this is leading to familiar territory for fans of The Office. Jim seems destined to wind up with Maggie, which makes her the Pam and Jim the…well, Jim. This early opportunity to impress is significant, albeit awkward. And that is the overall takeaway from The Newsroom pilot. Much of what happens in the pilot is forced, stilted. The flow is not what I have come to expect from Sorkin.
Over the past two decades, Sorkin has proven time and again that he has the rare ability to create dialogue that feels perfectly natural. Critics complain that nobody really talks like his characters, but this is what differentiates Sorkin from lesser scribes. His words are always those of optimism, challenging us to better ourselves in such a way that we may one day learn to speak with the rhythm and reason of a Sorkin character.
The lasting vibe of The Newsroom pilot is that somewhat has created a Sorkin knock-off program rather than this exemplifying the finest work of the author himself. This is not to say that there are not great moments. There is a marvelous turn of phrase about Louisiana’s fortune and a Shakespearean reference I am kicking myself for never creating on my own. And I immediately love everything about the character of Maggie.
What the show lacks thus far is precision. To wit, there is no reasonable explanation given for why Maggie is with Don Keefer, who comes across as a calculating opportunist at the start of the pilot and an utterly unskilled news producer toward the end. In fact, there is a direct contradiction when McAvoy tells Keefer that he is the best producer the longtime newsman has worked with yet the body of the episode has him showing all of the innate news instincts of Ralph Wiggum. These are the sorts of mistakes that are easily cleaned up long term but in the short sample size of a pilot, they are problematic.
The tone of this evaluation is harsh, which is a bit unfair. The last half hour of The Newsroom is exhilarating. Better yet, I expect this to be the tone of the show moving forward. It is only the introductory phase that has such limitations. Long term, my gravest concern is that McAvoy will continue to be so dislikable that his presence will cast a shadow over the proceedings. The rest of the staff, on the other hand, is extraordinarily well cast and innately engaging. I wish the pilot hadn’t been this uneven, but if I view it as two episodes combined, there is tremendous growth from the first episode to the second. I fully expect that within a handful of episodes, The Newsroom will follow the model of Sports Night by starting slowly but quickly building to greatness. Sorkin has never failed me before, so I have no reason to doubt him.