The Newsroom: Sorkin's One Trick Still Pushes All The Right Buttons

Aaron Sorkin's new drama The Newsroom has been criticized for being "more of the same" from him, but what's wrong with being a one trick pony when your trick is this damn good?
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Aaron Sorkin's new drama The Newsroom has been criticized for being "more of the same" from him, but what's wrong with being a one trick pony when your trick is this damn good?

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Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama, The Newsroom, has hit our shores. You may be aware of Sorkin’s oeuvre: the academy award winning scribe of The Social Network, The West Wing, and one of the most quoted speeches in cinematic history clearly, a stylized writer with the sort of dramatic and layered narrative ability that all writers aspire to achieve, a preternatural disposition with dialogue and polemic to entice audiences and critics the world over. Naturally, then, The Newsroom has a lot to live up to. Spoiler: it does.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Sorkin, (hell, I haven’t even watched The West Wing yet, but it’s just hit the top spot on my ‘things-I-should-have-watched-but-got-drunk-instead’ list, something to wile away those cold, rainy summer months), but I’ve watched and enjoyed so many of his other efforts and from what I can see, this show has not been not too warmly received by critics. This, therefore, is my defence/love letter to this show. Four episodes in. Okay, I’m a bit keen. Sue me.

The Newsroom, then,focuses on Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), ‘the Jay Leno of news anchors’, so described because he doesn’t bother anyone. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a clever, witty man that knows when to speak and to show his opinion and when not to.

And then he loses it.

The Newsroom has a lot to live up to. Spoiler: it does.

A college panel discussion quickly devolves into a damning speech from McAvoy over the state of the USA - it is no longer the greatest country in the world. This moment of tension, as he is pushed to eventually make this statement, is just a superb piece of television, the palpable tension pushing a revered man to breaking point. Stepping over the wrecks of the egos of the questioner and fellow panelists, his fact laden diatribe conveys the intelligence and burning inner voracity of this character, clearly so well hidden up to this point from the general public that it threatens to end his career. It also commands a superb polemic to begin the show; a bold statement of intent that has started many a discussion in itself. As opening gambits go, its a powerful one.

So here we have the new Will McAvoy; news anchor, hard-ass, intelligent to the point of condescending, an ego-centric popularity whore and a registered Republican that only ‘seems liberal because he believes that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage’. He is both everything one would despise yet with a humanity that defies his demeanor, a flawed neurotic on a new found quest of righteousness. You can’t help but like him. ‘I’m affable!’ He cries as his terrified team try to reign in this revived force of nature into a new TV broadcast.

Here then begins a new chapter, a new team drafted in to push him to the sort of news presenting that he is capable of, beyond the ‘safe’ position he was known for. The team includes executive producer/ex-girlfriend Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), chief amongst a similarly branded bunch of archetypal neurotics charged with making the news better. It is at this point that it could very easily slip into being a bit too predictable, too by the numbers (what!? The new producer is also his ex?! Well just HOW is that going to work? And I mean, gosh, that sexual tension is just too much). There are a few too many lazy set ups for the progression of the narrative - one particular instance that springs to mind is Neal (our very own Dev Patel, hasn’t he come a long way from Skins), the resident IT nerd that tries to set up the email system for ease of use, whilst simultaneously making it more complex... unsurprisingly, it leads to hilarious/disastrous/awkward consequences. I mean, who saw that one coming? For such lithe tongued individuals whose job is to convey the news, they do tend to struggle with communication.

This seems petty though, when compared to the characters themselves. Archetypal as they may have been argued to be, the fact is they work. They work very well. The interaction between all of the characters is nothing short of poetry, the fast paced delivery, witty comebacks and pithy putdowns almost Shakespearean in tone. The performances too portray the natural elements of the script, each actor filing the quirks of each character without being hammy or unrealistic, the verbose speeches falling effortlessly out of their mouths.

This is story telling that doesn’t pander to its audience, nor does it condescend to them for not understanding; it happily applies the lingo and dialogue of television studio practice without explaining it, and it doesn’t need to be. He utilizes the sort of layered, non chronological narrative structures that was prominent in The Social Network. Sorkin appreciates that the people watching have half a brain, and if they don’t, he doesn’t care.

So, while he has been criticized for recycling archetypes and dialogue within new contexts (something that I don’t think is necessarily something to be entirely damned; I mean, look at artists in any medium and you’ll find repeating tropes and styles, it’s all part of their charm as an individual), what is refreshing about this show is exactly that: the context. The show is impressively set within the very recent history of 2010-2011, grounding itself within a reality that centers itself around news stories that are still fresh within a public conscious, e.g. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Tea Party, Gabrielle Giffords. So yes, he may have re-used some words that he has also used in the past. But this is a man that uses a lot of words, and generally to very good effect. I think he can be forgiven.

The interaction between all of the characters is nothing short of poetry, the fast paced delivery, witty comebacks and pithy putdowns almost Shakespearean in tone

This reality, whilst it can be attributed to a manner in which the news SHOULD be portrayed, although far from actuality, is all part of Sorkin’s rather inspiring polemic. It also acts as his very own soapbox, his medium to spout his own particular (and quite bold) rhetoric on current affairs. McAvoy is Sorkin’s persona, a vehicle in which to display his own ‘mission of civilization’ on the despicable nature of celebrity culture and gossip. He rallies against commercialization within the market of television, the constant pandering to higher financial identities, corporate backing and the inability to report the news without upsetting the big wigs on floor 44. Presumably, something that Sorkin himself has faced, and, as idealist as the portrayal of the reportage within The Newsroom is so far (McAvoy’s boss Charlie, the beautifully good natured Sam Waterson, essentially says ‘fuck’em’), it takes some balls to make that sort of statement on American television.

Sorkin has filled a corporate domain full of loquacious characters, each with their own chip on their shoulder of various size and weight. The speeches are heavy, and the politics are thinly veiled. Sound familiar? Irrelevant. If this is what he does all the time, he does it really well, and I’ll keep watching it. As for Sorkin’s own mission of civilization, in McAvoy’s words, ‘progress is slow, but he’s in it for the long haul’.

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