We have reached the halfway point in season one of The Newsroom and yes, the series has been renewed. In this regard, Aaron Sorkin’s current program has already trumped his previous one, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. With five episodes aired of a ten episode season, this is the perfect opportunity to examine whether the show has picked up after the uneven quality of the pilot.
Crashing Pilots: The Newsroom Part II
By David Mumpower
August 2, 2012
In my previous evaluation of the pilot for The Newsroom, I expressed frustration with the episode’s uneven pacing. My hope as well as my expectation had been that after awkwardly introducing all of the characters, the series would become consistently entertaining. I am disappointed to acknowledge that uneven quality remains a hallmark aspect of The Newsroom. Thankfully, the highs outnumber the lows.
Let’s start with the lows. The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s first cable television series, featured a 75 minute pilot. As I mentioned in the prior column, the first 40 minutes were an inelegant attempt to introduce a multitude of characters in brief interactions. Once all the players were established, the final half of the story exhibited the sort of flair we have come to expect and even demand from Sorkin’s programs. The idea of a recent history evaluation through the 20/20 lens of hindsight is engrossing. My stated belief was that with no further need for introductions, the show should find a stronger balance moving forward.
This did not happen.
The issue with The Newsroom thus far is that some of the characters are well developed and likable while others are not only poorly developed but also undeniably there solely to create conflict. I am speaking of the characters of Don and Reese in particular.
Don is the opportunist executive producer whose first appearance in the pilot was to introduce himself as the boyfriend of Maggie Jordan. Don’s second appearance was to announce that he had ditched News Night for the 10 p.m. program on Atlantis Cable News (ACN). To date, Don is The Newsroom’s primary antagonist.
Over the first half of season one, Don’s driving purpose has been to disappoint Maggie as a significant other. Their mercurial relationship has been described more than shown. The lingering line of dialogue that best expresses Maggie’s feeling about the situation is a sardonic rejoinder of “You were too supportive,” as he failed her yet again a nurturing lover.
Personally, Don is a dying soul who clings to Maggie because he savors her purity, the lone source of light in his dreary days. He is simply too much of a bastard to be appreciative of his girlfriend.
Professionally, Don’s sole purpose in the first 3.9 episodes was outside observer. A shameless career climber, this man was Will McAvoy’s favorite executive producer ever…for the three months they worked together. With no warning, Don hitched his bandwagon to Elliot Hirsch, McAvoy’s protégé. In the interim, the reinvigorated News Night has become the must-watch program on ACN. This turn of events frustrates Don to no end with the result being that he complains all the time.
In other words, Don creates conflict at work and he creates conflict with Maggie. Several episodes in, I say with conviction that the show dies whenever Don is onscreen. There was one notable exception at the end of an episode entitled I’ll Try to Fix You. A discussion involving Reese, whose usage is equally limited, led to a revelation regarding Don’s natural instincts as a newsman. This represents the only instant thus far wherein Don has demonstrated any of the professional acumen described of him.
During the show’s depiction of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, Reese berated the News Night staff about their refusal to report largely unconfirmed news of her death. Don eloquently retorted, “It’s a person. A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news.” I would enjoy this version of Don as a character if only he were on display more often.
Hopefully, Sorkin remedies this issue in season two if not sooner. The auteur of The Newsroom clearly enjoys the character of Don enough that the executive producer is effectively a lead on the show. And this is the problem. The show oftentimes dies when Don is present and unfortunately Don verges upon omnipresence. This is problematic.
The character of Reese is even worse. Long time viewers of Aaron Sorkin broadcasts understand that he feels tremendous enmity toward network executives. With the lone exception of Jamie Tarses, the real life inspiration for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s Jordan McDeere, all studio execs bother Sorkin and have since the 1990s. The character of J.J. on Sports Night had little presence beyond irritating the sublimely talented staff who resented his very existence. Reese on The Newsroom is cut from the same cloth.
Jane Fonda, the ex-wife of CNN founder Ted Turner, is effectively portraying Turner on The Newsroom. Leona Lansing, Fonda’s character, is the head of the media conglomerate that owns ACN. Reese is her son and eventual heir. He is currently the president of ACN, and this places him in the middle of the action. As we all know, Sorkin’s favorite theme is art versus commerce. The mother/son tandem represents the evil of commerce.
Art is an inexact ideal relative to the profession of journalism. McAvoy and his team, led by new executive producer MacKenzie McHale, still somehow embody Sorkin’s beloved concept that the highest quality product will eventually lead to the most lucrative revenue accrual as well. Given that Sorkin does not work for free, he is not blind to the idea that people need to get paid. He simply does not envision money as a driving force. The desire to be the best should be motive enough.
McAvoy the news anchor and McHale the show-runner lead a high-minded group of journalists attempting to redeem News Night’s reputation. For years, McAvoy has been perceived as the Jay Leno of anchormen. Reese has been a corrupting influence on McAvoy for years, handing him the detailed ratings information for News Night. Reese’s onslaught of data drives home the idea that bland news coverage delivers ratings due to its inoffensive nature. And ratings mean profit. Reese is not the devil on Will’s shoulder but instead the embodiment of evil wearing a custom made suit.
The “twist” with News Night is that the story is set roughly two years ago and has quickly accelerated to a point in the first quarter of 2011. This has allowed Sorkin to provide his viewpoint on the news coverage that actual news organizations lacked at the time. In the process, the character of Reese represents all of the money-grubbing soulless corporate bastards who could care less about the truth. All that matters to them is that ratings, particularly in the demographic, impact revenue.
Ergo, Reese is the most one-dimensional character possible. He shows up, he complains about ratings and money, and then he leaves. While Don has demonstrated at least a modicum of potential, particularly in the most recent episode when he comes to terms with the fact that Maggie may be falling for someone else, Reese has provided no value whatsoever other than conflict. Frankly, I expect more from Aaron Sorkin than that.
This frustration caused me to research old episodes of Sports Night in order to determine whether the previous iteration of Reese, J.J., offered similar depth. Given that Sports Night is sacrosanct to me, I was surprised to discover that J.J. was similarly devoid of personality. I liked Robert Mailhouse, the actor who portrayed J.J., a great deal. This caused me to wonder if his talent was such that I minded less. Instead, I have since discovered that Mailhouse is a drummer by trade who acts to pay the bills. So, I must conclude that one dimensional conflict used to bother me less than it does now. Sorkin has spoiled me to the point that I no longer ignore his flaws.
In having this debate about Reese and J.J., I ascertained the tangible issue I have with The Newsroom thus far. Every aspect of the show smacks of familiarity. Perhaps this was unavoidable for someone who has watched every episode of Sports Night as many times as I have. Character studies involving the reporting of sports and the reporting of news are too similar to differentiate the subject matter a great deal. At least, this had been the surface level evaluation I possessed prior to watching the show.
The reality is somewhat different. Experiencing a first viewing of an episode of The Newsroom is an exhilarating but confusing process for me. All of the jokes about Sorkin’s dedication to cribbing off the prior works of Sorkin are apt. As I watch Dev Patel as Neal Sampat, the comparisons to Joshua Malina’s Jeremy Goodwin are unmistakable. A recent episode wherein Neal fixated upon Bigfoot easily could have had the name Jeremy crossed out in the margin because the diatribe was so clearly written in that voice.
Similarly, Sorkin has always cast venerable actors in key roles on his programs. Martin Sheen played this role on The West Wing while Ed Asner was similarly cast for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The analog for Sam Waterston’s Charlie Skinner is Sports Night’s Robert Guillaume as Isaac Jaffe. The character of Jaffe was a proven newsman who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of NASA. Skinner is that same character, only as a mannered drunk. While Waterston has forced a laugh out of me on several occasions, he feels like an inferior copy of Jaffe, and this is sacrilege to me.
The most recent episode, Bullies, also featured one of Sorkin’s favorite premises. A reticent but damaged soul seeks to unearth the root cause of his pain. An impossibly clever therapist knows all within moments of first introduction yet drags out the discussion for hours on end. Dan Rydell was aided in this manner during the second season of Sports Night, Jed Bartlet and Josh Lyman received wise counsel on The West Wing and Matt Albie learned from an unexpectedly wise journalist on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
The plot of Bullies followed this model almost religiously as McAvoy claimed he needed sleeping pills but in reality was seeking absolution for recent transgressions. I quite liked the storyline, and I was pleased to see David Krumholtz aka Mr. Universe in a role other than comic relief. Still, my takeaway was a pervading sense of déjà vu because I had in fact seen this story before. This is my lingering displeasure with The Newsroom. Despite the broad scope of available stories, Sorkin is still on a recycling kick.
Given the criticisms above, I sound like someone who is not a fan of The Newsroom. This is not the case at all. Most of what is broken that I list above is more than counterbalanced by the presence of some great characters as well as the one major change I stated as a necessity in the prior column. For all of the criticism Sorkin receives regarding his portrayals of his female characters, I have always considered this aspect of his writing his true strength. The Newsroom gives credence to this thought process.
While Jeff Daniels is definitely the star, Alison Pill as Maggie is the heart of the series thus far. Through her eyes, the viewer appreciates all the positive changes in the previously toxic atmosphere of News Night. I referenced previously that she is heading toward an inevitable office romance with Jim Harper while she maintains a relationship with ineffectual Don.
Between Maggie’s interactions with Don, Jim and Will McAvoy, Pill has received more screen time than her more storied co-star, Emily Mortimer. This decision has paid dividends as Pill has already mastered the precise comedic timing Sorkin demands of his actors. Maggie is also the most fragile of the characters, which allows Pill to project a winning vulnerability that engages the viewer. Particularly noteworthy was the actress’ decision to shed tears over the breaking story that Giffords had been shot. That simple touch of humanity enhanced the proceedings.
The true surprise has been Olivia Munn. I should state that as a viewer of G4 back when the channel was a far superior version known as Tech TV, I always bristled at Munn’s presence. She was the pretty face who lacked the industry knowledge of the prior hosts of The Screensavers. This was acknowledged when G4 dumped that title for Attack of the Show. For many of you, this has been the way you have always known the program. For me, she is a cheap knockoff of Morgan Webb.
Considering my innate dislike of Munn, the character of Sloan Sabbith should be nails on a chalkboard for me. A personal failing of mine is that once I have developed a dislike of an actor, I rarely reconsider my opinion. I would gleefully punch Ed Norton in the face or spit in Parker Posey’s general direction, yet I quite enjoy Munn on The Newsroom.
The character of Sloan Sabbith is a Duke University super-genius whose multiple degrees in the field of economics make her something of a wunderkind. She is not, however, polished socially. This has led to several uncomfortable moments with her bosses, McHale and McAvoy. In fact, Sloan played matchmaker for McAvoy with one of her friends. The woman, a gun-toting southern liberal, eventually pulled a gun on McAvoy then bristled with aggravation when he politely declined a second date. Munn’s delivery of the dialogue in this episode was impeccable. She too has distinguished herself as a natural at rapid-fire Sorkin delivery.
I am not quite as big a fan of Mortimer’s character, MacKenzie McHale, quite yet. Mortimer is one of my favorite actresses in the world, so I unfairly expect more of her than others. Still, the stubborn optimism of McHale feels forced and maybe even a bit oppressive at times. All of this changes in two situations, though. Mortimer is in complete command of the control room in a believable capacity. And she has phenomenal chemistry with Jeff Daniels.
The storyline is that McAvoy and McHale were the dating Macs a few years ago. McHale impulsively slept with an ex-boyfriend for whom she had vacillating feelings. During the act of infidelity, McHale experienced an epiphany that she was in love with McAvoy. Once she confessed her perfidy, Will dumped her. Both of them have lived a half-life since then, with Kenzie endangering herself repeatedly in search of the big stories while Will grew less willing to take chances in life.
Forced back together, the two of them are the basis of an intended 1930s screwball comedy-flavored relationship. When I reviewed the pilot, I mentioned that this concept seemed doomed to fail. The stated reason was the character of Will, who was a complete jerk in the pilot. This is a specific instance wherein I should have had faith in Sorkin as well as Jeff Daniels.
The constant irritability of Will McAvoy is the finest aspect of character development in The Newsroom thus far. In the pilot, he berated a coed for having the audacity to love her country of origin. He also demonstrated criminal neglect of his staff to the point that he failed to notice most of them had quit. A lot of this strained credulity at the time. I no longer feel that way.
This far into season one I appreciate how McAvoy devolved into a person consumed with self-loathing. I also have a deep and abiding appreciation for the manner in which he has accepted this aspect of his life and attempted to improve. This aspect of his character runs concurrently with the state of News Night. Will McAvoy is the program he anchors and vice versa.
The unmistakable implication is that Will is incomplete without Kenzie in his life. The moment she returns, Will takes stock of his situation and resolves to improve. We are witnessing this path to redemption as Will loses some of his anger. I now understand why he was so far out of control in the pilot and I love the journey that has brought him to a confession in Bullies.
This dual level storytelling is something I would discourage inferior writers from attempting. In Sorkin’s hands, the combination is seamless, profound. And this is just the character aspect.
As much as I love Jeff Daniels, the true star of The Newsroom is the breaking story. Thus far, the impacting news events retold with a fact-based narrative of truth include the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the afore-mentioned shooting of Gabby Giffords, the Koch Brothers-funded rise of the Tea Party, Arab Spring and the Fukushima Meltdown. No words I use could describe the flurry of emotions I experience as Sorkin deftly recreates those early moments as journalists come face to face with unimaginable circumstances.
While there is an obvious political slant to the direction, Sorkin strives for more fairness than I had honestly expected of him. He has glove-slapped Obama for lackluster gun policies every bit as hard as he has demolished the Koch Brothers for their cynical manipulation of well-intended voters. In doing so, Sorkin has a distinct point of view and the strongest voice he has ever demonstrated in any of his shows. Ardent supporters of The West Wing may cry foul, yet the statement is true.
Sorkin’s fury with modern journalism is tangible. This rage is the driving force of The Newsroom, the inspiration for the world’s finest poet to direct all his focus. The end result is a tenacious obsession with Sorkin’s favorite subject, the better world we are close to living in if only we would take more time to take stock of our current situations. At his core, Sorkin at least desires to be every bit the optimist that MacKenzie McHale is. The Newsroom is his attempt to reconcile this hope with our reality. Faults and all, the show largely accomplishes this and when it is hitting on all cylinders, The Newsroom is better than anything else on television today. Hopefully, there will be more consistency in later seasons.