When it was announced that the forthcoming Aaron Sorkin series on HBO was to be called “The Newsroom” James Wolcott suggested in his ‘Vanity Fair’ blog that the title should have a copyright of some kind, as it was already taken by a hilarious Canadian show from the nineties and aughts. Well, JW has rarely steered me wrong, so the earlier series quickly found itself at the top of my Netflix queue. It is indeed a gem. Dealing with the life, loves and work of a callous, petty, selfish, venal and occasionally sleazy TV news producer named George Findlay (played by series creator Ken Finkleman), the show anticipates “The Office” by several years with its proto-David Brent of a main character and handheld-documentary visual style.
But titles can’t be copyrighted and Finkleman has said he’s fine with Sorkin’s use of the title. There is, frankly, little danger of the two shows ever being seriously confused, this being Aaron Sorkin we’re talking about. Far more venerable and articulate critics than I have already ripped “The Newsroom” apart in the New York Times, the New Yorker and elsewhere, and let’s face it, piling on Aaron Sorkin for being smug, sanctimonious and self-congratulatory is like shooting fish in a barrel. But those fish have to get put on the dinner table somehow, and since Sorkin takes not one, but two cheap shots at Jay Leno in the “Newsroom” pilot, I feel like I’ve received a certain measure of pre-emptive absolution.
Aaron Sorkin’s work tends show us the world as Aaron Sorkin thinks it could be through a window constructed out of the panes, sashes, or casements of the world as Aaron Sorkin thinks it should be. In “The American President” our nation’s wrongs were righted by a good, firm talking-to by a charismatic liberal chief executive. “The West Wing” ended with an awesome liberal Democrat’s electoral triumph over an only slightly less awesome (and only slightly less liberal) Republican. “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” gave us a fictional sketch comedy show that we were frequently told (though never convincingly shown) was a hard-edged diamond glistening in the turd of contemporary culture. But I guess such a singular place in the fecal firmament is inevitable when the purported star comedienne of your show-within-a-show does impressions of such white-hot A-listers as Juliette Lewis and Holly Hunter. Sorkin’s earlier “Sports Night” had, in retrospect, a lot of the flaws I’ve come to associate with his stuff, but they were a lot less glaring, though I defy you to think of another comedy show that ever took itself so seriously.
When Sorkin returned to the big screen with “The Social Network,” it looked like he’d made a breakthrough. He achieved the prohibitively difficult feat of making litigation over internet proprietorship not only entertaining, but actually riveting. Not only was Sorkin’s Mark Zuckerberg an obnoxious twerp, he was clearly intended to come across that way! Aaron Sorkin was projecting his grand, ambitious strokes and flourishes onto a worthy subject; Facebook, an invention that has actually changed the way billions of people live. He won an Oscar for his screenplay, and I say he deserved all the golden statues he could eat.
Too bad, then, that “The Newsroom” is a full-throated return to form. The first episode opens with a montage backed by stirring music and including images of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Things sure were great once, weren’t they?
The first scene shows popular, “safe” news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) taking part in a panel with cookie-cutter conservative and liberal pundits at some sort of higher learning institute. When asked what makes the United States the best country in the world, Will tries to dodge the question, until he sees (or, apparently, hallucinates) an attractive woman in the audience holding up two sheets of paper in succession; the first says, in large capitals, “IT’S NOT,” the second “BUT IT CAN BE.” Wisdom from the pens of babes.
This magic-marker pronouncement sends will into a tirade in which he explains that America is not the best country in the world, and that simple exclamations about “freedom” just won’t cut it. “Canada has freedom,” he tells us, “Japan has freedom, the U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, BELGIUM has freedom!” A quick statistical rundown by Mr. McAvoy informs us further:
We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe in angels, and defense spending…so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!
Hold on, you say, that sounded like pretty stirring and galvanic stuff. It is, and it plays even better than it reads, but just you wait. Sorkin has no sooner stiffened our sinews and summoned up our blood than he has Will follow up with an idealized view of our country’s apparently irreproachable past. “[America] sure used to be [the Greatest Country on Earth],” he reminisces. “We stood up for what was right, fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, we struck down laws for moral reasons.” Yes, even Sorkin’s rearview mirror is rose-tinted.
We now get our first look at the titular newsroom. Workplace couple Don (Thomas Sadoski) and Maggie (Alison Pill) are having a fight. Don, you see, is the executive producer of Will’s show and Maggie is Will’s personal assistant. Don is leaving to work at another news program on the network, while Maggie is staying put. “I’m making a dumb decision out of loyalty, you’re making a smart one out of ambition,” she tells her paramour. But what’s really eating Maggie is that Don won’t meet her parents because they’ve only been dating for three months (Don & Maggie, not her parents) and have therefore not yet reached that “level.” Other reviewers have already mentioned Sorkin’s debt to 1930s screwball comedies, so don’t let’s delay.
Will now arrives, back from three weeks in the tropics (with Erin Andrews… hope they drew the curtains) to find that most of his staff are leaving with Don. Will goes to see Charlie, the news division president (Sam Waterston) to find out what’s up. Charlie gives Will some kind of character-establishing spiel about his time in Vietnam “embedded with the 144th Artillery for UPI,” and they’re both off to confront Don.
There follows a heated encounter in which Don tells Will that he’s “a smart, talented guy who isn’t very nice,” because we need to know that. When this contretemps comes to boiling point, Charlie yells “I’m a Marine, Don, and I will beat the shit out of you! I don’t care how many protein bars you eat!” just in case the Vietnam anecdote didn’t clue us in on what a badass this graying, bowtied gent truly is.
Charlie’s also a Machiavellian chessmaster with a benign touch of cupidity, who has artfully harnessed this situation toward his inevitable endgame. He wanted Don to quit so he could hire MacKenzie McHale (does anyone have names like this besides Aaron Sorkin characters?) as Will’s new executive producer. But steady on, MacKenzie is also Will’s ex-girlfriend, and there just ain’t no way he’s ever gonna work with her. It’s like “His Girl Friday” in a universe of anti-matter. Charlie has also borrowed and memorized Sorkin’s notes on the Mackenzie character, which we and Will are now privileged to receive:
She was in Peshawar for four months. Green Zone for a year before that. Guys were filing stories from caves. She comes home, she wants to be an EP again, have a normal life, and there’s nothing for her at CNN!?! Nothing for her at ABC!?! She’s exhausted, not like at the end of a long day-she is mentally and physically exhausted. She hasn’t had four hours sleep in two years. She’s been shot at in three different countries and she’s been to way too many funerals for a girl her age!
Wow…how’d Will let this one get away?
Enter the mysterious MacKenzie herself (Emily Mortimer). In case Charlie’s pleading didn’t make it clear, she’s a tough, street-smart broad who carries her own luggage slung over both shoulders. Sure, it’s Louis Vuitton luggage, but in the Sorkinverse even the most self-reliant, independent women are basically soft and girly at their core. Hey…wait a minute…wasn’t that the woman who held up the sheets of paper at Will’s panel? (Actually, we’re kind of meant to think it wasn’t, really, but more on that later.)
The first thing MacKenzie observes with her superhuman powers of deduction is that Don and Maggie are clearly a couple. Since she’s a blunt, hard-hitting journalist, she wastes no time in asking Maggie whether Don wants her to do things in the bedroom she’s uncomfortable with. Sorry, Mac, that’s a strike, but because all the other inferences she draws about Don/Maggie are so uncannily dead-on, Maggie is suitably awed. “You put all that together really fast,” she gasps. If there’s one thing Sorkin’s characters have that the man himself lacks, it’s the omnipresence of other Sorkin characters to point out their effortlessly quick-witted brilliance on a regular basis.
Sorkin characters also do things like trip over the aforementioned Louis Vuitton luggage the first time they appear, which is how we are introduced to Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) Now we know how awkward, yet endearing he is! But, taking no chances, Sorkin also gives him a tousled, unkempt $200 haircut.
Jim is an under-producer who has been to hell and back with MacKenzie, yet Will’s misgivings may mean that neither of them has a job at the network. Never mind, though, MacKenzie’s got Jim taken care of; “Tell me where you want to work and I’ll make the call,” she breezily reassures him. Hey…wait a minute… If she’s got that kind of influence, why’s she so unemployable herself?
MacKenzie’s also got Jim’s love life well in hand. Since she learned all there is to know about Maggie a couple minutes back, we could hardly have expected her to miss that Maggie is mismatched with Don and really belongs with Jim. I mean, c’mon, the MacKenzie McHales of the world can knock off those kind of insights a couple times before breakfast.
So it’s probably exactly the right time to take Jim’s mind off the professional oblivion staring him in the face by asking him when his last relationship with a woman was. Okay, fine, what she really asks is “When was the last time you had a passionate relationship with a woman, like Hollywood love, high school love?” Jim answers “Never.” Hey, shut up! Some of my best friends are both seasoned war correspondents AND shy, clumsy virgins…
At any rate, the crossing of the Jim and Maggie stars is a fait accompli as far as MacKenzie is concerned. “Cupid-BAM!” she exclaims, little knowing that she is herself a target of Charlie’s own skilled archery of love. It reminds me of the poster for the original Broadway production of “My Fair Lady” in which Julie Andrews dances on marionette strings held by Rex Harrison, whose own strings are being pulled by George Bernard Shaw.
MacKenzie’s matchmaking designs notwithstanding, Don is not about to go gentle into that good night. He guesses that MacKenzie was “immediately locked in a room and shown Frank Capra movies until she was 21. She’s like a sophomore poly-sci major at Sarah Lawrence.” Fightin’ words, and not ones Jim is gonna take lying down; “Exactly like that, yeah. I guess the only differences are the two Peabodys and the scar on her stomach from the knife would she got covering a Shi’ite protest in Islamabad!” Whoa, Jimbo…at least stop and take a breath during that expository mouthful.
Now things get real, Sorkin-style. There’s a breaking story about an oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and suddenly the screen fades to black, whereupon “April 20, 2010” appears on the screen. Aaaaahhhh…we realize, it’s ‘that’ oil well explosion. This conceit of showing how news stories of the recent past would have been covered by McAvoy & Co. (read: How They Should Have Been Covered) is apparently going to be a standard device on the show. I actually think it works pretty well, or at least it does in this episode, but I may well tire of all the retroactive journalistic wish-fulfillment as the season goes on.
As was the case in real life, the newsroom’s occupants are initially focused on the rescue portion of the disaster story. As was not the case, Sorkin’s intrepid crew cut right to the chase and immediately grasp the incident’s full environmental ramifications.
At least Jim does.
That’s because his old college buddy happens to be a VP at British Petroleum, and as if that were not enough to ask of the poor guy on his first day, his older sister works at Halliburton. Even Sorkin knows he’s kind of pushing it here, so he has Will skeptically ask Jim “You’re telling me you got not one, but two people to roll over on their employers within five minutes?”
“I know,” Jim shrugs, “it’s just lucky.” You’re telling me.
I could be generous here and put this piece of narrative serendipity down as a “Dickensian” coincidence, but instead I’m going to invoke Mark Twain’s essay on the literary offenses of James Fenimore Cooper and call Jim’s pair of aces the equivalent of two dry twigs being stepped on. As for Sorkin’s self-awareness, Cooper’s guilt would not have been mitigated if he’d had Hawkeye observe, “Golly! It sure is convenient that Chingachgook stepped on that particular branch right at this moment!”
In the end, the gang decides to go with the environmental disaster angle, scooping all the other networks and demonstrating in no uncertain terms to all and sundry that Real Journalism is Back. After Will says good night to Mackenzie and concedes that, Yeah, Maybe We Can Work Together After All, Mackenzie looks through her notebook, revealing the IT’S NOT BUT IT CAN BE sheets. So who was that other woman Will kept seeing? How did Mackenzie know what Will was going to be asked? Oh, whatever….
The purpose of the entire storyline, however, like so many others by its author, is to aid in constructing a soapbox for Sorkin’s various mouthpieces to give their two cents on what’s wrong with the world and all of us who live in it. Don’t worry, the human race has put its best man on it.
In a scene that seems in hindsight to be the episode’s centerpiece MacKenzie decides to remind Will of the sacred trust that has been placed in the two of them, as well as everyone else in the building. “There’s nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate,” she tells him, before adding that “When there’s no information or, much worse, wrong information, calamitous decisions and clobber any attempts at vigorous debate. That’s why I produce the news.” Oh, she also says “I’d rather do a good show for a hundred people than a bad one for million.”
This is pretty representative of the kind of stuff that has left us with no alternative but to admit the word “Sorkinese” to our vernacular. Just a couple more:
…America is the only country on the planet that since its birth has said over and over and over that we can do better. It’s part of our DNA!
Reclaiming the Fourth Estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect and a return to what’s important: the death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid! No demographic sweet spot! A place where we all come together!”
When MacKenzie has finished grandstanding , Will tells her “That whole speech did nothing for me.” We should all be so lucky Mr. McAvoy, for some of us it did something unmentionable.