Making Sense of HBO’s The Newsroom

HBO’s newest series, The Newsroom, debuted last Sunday. Slammed by critics in the pilot’s run-up, viewers were in one of three mindsets before watching: a) I’m going to exaggerate every hateful feeling towards this show because it can’t possibly be good after all of the awful reviews, b) I liked The Social Network, or c) Game of Thrones isn’t on anymore, it’s a Sunday night, and I’m bored.

Aaron Sorkin, who has been riding a screenplay hot-streak (Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball) since The West Wing ended, is The Newsroom’s creator, executive producer, writer, costume designer, key grip, and set caterer. (The last three aren’t true, but seriously, every piece of HBO promo for this show has Sorkin’s name and/or face attached to it. Also, Sorkin apparently made everyone involved with the show sign a contract vowing that they won’t change a word of his script. No improv allowed. Talk about an ego trip.) Sorkin has become a household name for movie goers for his snappy writing, dramatic overtures, and complex characters.

With the first episode of The Newsroom, everything that Sorkin has become known for displayed itself. The show began with news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) participating in a panel at Northwestern University. Flanked by two of his news anchor peers—a stereotypical condescending liberal know-it-all to his right, and a flag-waving, pompous conservative to his left—McAvoy snaps after a student’s question causes him to break from his introverted character. The question, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” brought McAvoy over the edge (he had previously responded with “the New York Jets,” but the moderator wouldn’t let him get off that easily), starting a long diatribe of UN rankings pointing to why the United States isn’t the greatest country in the world. McAvoy lists about ten different statistics, each building momentum to, “So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Within that first scene, all three of Sorkin’s calling cards popped up: a head-turning monologue, a stunning climax to a moment, and the introduction to a complex character who has kept his feelings to himself his entire career.

It was a stunning start. But when every single scene seemed to repeat that same formula, the episode became annoying. About half-way through, Mackenzie MacHale (played by Emily Mortimer), gives a speech to McAvoy in an effort to convince him to hire her as executive producer for his news show, in turn letting her the change the direction of the program. She uses America as the crux of her argument, spewing an idealistic, cliché-filled rant capped off by this mushy-gushy line: “America is the only country on the planet that since it’s birth that’s said over, and over, and over, that we can do better. It’s part of our DNA.” Ironic that a woman with a distinct British accent was chosen to deliver that line. At that point I turned the episode off, only to return to finish it a day later. I’m sure even the U-S-A chanting Americans with Reagan-Bush bumperstickers on the back of their Ford F-150s wanted to throw-up at the corniness of that entire spiel.

In Charlie Wilson’s War, Tom Hanks played the charming Senator Wilson. In The Social Network, portrayals of Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker handled most of the dialectic quips. Moneyball had the baseball version of Charlie Wilson in Brad Pitt’s iteration of Billy Beane. All three of Sorkin’s recent screenplays had one or two characters dishing out verbal mayhem—in The Newsroom, someone in every scene is fighting for some sort of public speaking/debate award. It’s enjoyable, but overwhelming. Is overwritten the right word?

The Newsroom isn’t a show that should be left for dead after one episode though. The strength of the series is it’s historical setting. It’s based a few years in the past, allowing Sorkin to write around major news events. The first episode dealt with the BP Oil Spill, and commercials for future episodes drop hints that the Bin Laden death will be covered. Insight into how a busy newsroom would handle year-defining stories will undoubtedly make for great drama.

Despite the reviews, The Newsroom’s first episode has got to be considered a success. I hated some parts and loved others, and because it was the first episode, I can’t place a definitive judgement on the series yet. In short, I’ll be tuning in again. Sorkin has won this week. Good thing I have a clause in my viewing contract that allows me to fire The Newsroom next week.

In a related note, GQ editor Sean Fennessey lost 3,700 followers on Twitter for a pro-Newsroom tweet. C’mon folks, it’s not THAT bad.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

2 thoughts on “Making Sense of HBO’s The Newsroom”

  1. I disagree about the strength of the show being its historical setting. That’s precisely the weakness. How can I believe a single second of the show when it’s at odds with everything we know about how the oil spill. The interesting thing from a journalism perspective was how difficult and time-consuming it was to tease out the facts. “The Newsroom” turns the story into a weird, not particularly interesting fantasy — a fantasy in which a couple of nerds in a newsroom can figure out everything in the span of ten minutes without doing any hard work.

  2. I hope you’ve been keeping up with The Newsroom, because it has only gotten better! Episode three blew me away. I know that Sorkin gets a lot of criticism for his unrealistic dialog, but I have to give him credit for the passionate way he strung together the opening speech delivered by Jeff Daniels about our flawed media systems; it certainly left me with something to talk about around the office at Dish the next day! I think it’s bold for HBO to produce a series that goes beyond character plots, like superficial love interests, to delve deeper into the faults of the society in which we, the audience, occupy. The show has some fallbacks, I’ll admit. It outwardly favors a liberal stance, and the preachy scripting can be very condescending. Nevertheless, I’m very curious to see how the show plays out, and already have it set to record each week. Luckily, I have the Hopper DVR box that comes with loads of recording space, so if The Newsroom does turn out to be disappointing, at least I didn’t waste precious memory on it. However, I think the series has great potential!

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