There’s no two ways around it, I’m a massive Aaron Sorkin fan. I obsess over The West Wing, I loved Sports Night, The Social Network was brilliant and I even really liked the slightly more troubled Studio 60 and recent Moneyball film. So when it was announced that he’ got a new series, well I may have let out a little ‘squee’.
The series is set in the eponymous Newsroom, Jeff Daniels play Will McAvoy, everyone’s favourite news anchor – charming and utterly inoffensive. That is until he has some kind of minor breakdown at a college event and when he’s asked “Why America is the greatest country in the world?” he explains with enthusiastic eloquence why in fact it isn’t that great. From that point things start falling apart for him, he loses his staff and his job is threatened. In walks Mackenzie MacHale as his new Executive Producer challenging him to use his new found reputation to make a better news show, one that challenges, investigates and brings pride back to America and journalism.
If you think that sounds a bit preachy when I type it out as a paragraph, you’ll really struggle with the half dozen or so long speeches on the same subjects. It’s not unreasonable to say that Sorkin has some message which he wants people to hear, fortunately for me I largely agree with him, and fortunately for all of his audiences his speeches are rousing, they’re poetic and they can inform and inspire. But the Newsroom pilot has about 8 passionate monologues and by about half way through I’d just had enough. Mackenzie’s tirade in particular left me shouting at her that I got it already, if a Sorkin speech can’t convince the listener, then the second and third aren’t going to work either! It felt like I’d been bludgeoned round the head with them – I wasn’t so much inspired as I was berated.
The second big problem is that was my nervousness as I watched Sorkin try to introduce troubled romances. In my opinion Studio 60 was killed off by the unconvincing relationships that it forced upon a talented cast. Will-they-won’t-they relationships only really work if the audience actually WANTS the couple to get together, if they’re bad for each other (Matt and Harriet) or just weird and creepy (Danny and Jordan) they don’t work. The only relationship like that Sorkin has ever got right is Josh and Donna, and I suspect the fact that he only ever wrote the ‘won’t-they’ bit of the relationship may have something to do with that.
So as soon as there was the implication of a romantic relationship between Will and Mackenzie, I was immediately on edge and as details were revealed I didn’t feel any better. Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer are fantastic actors and their characters had a lot of spark individually and together – but romance? No. Didn’t feel it at all. (Um… also is there something ongoingly creepy about the age differences of Sorkin’s couples? Mackenzie must be 15 years younger than Will…)
Those two points aside, there’s a lot that’s good. It’s a Sorkin show, so it goes without saying that the dialogue is fast, smart, witty and brilliant and that the characters are intelligent, passionate, quirky and interesting. The concept behind the whole thing is also a strong one playing to Sorkin’s strengths, pretty much the meeting point between The West Wing and Sports Night – political comment plus the exciting work environment of live television. I loved the twist in the middle of the episode where they reveal what the day’s news is going to be and you can watch it develop, I was as engrossed and excited as I have been in any big screen thriller recently.
I so desperately wanted to love this series, and I did love bits of it, but I also hated bits of it, leaving me on balance a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing. In many ways it was just a bit too Sorkin, exaggerating his strengths and his weaknesses. He is an amazing speech writer, but if you have too many they just come across as badgering; and while he’s written some of the most amazing professional partnerships (Jed and Leo, Dan and Casey, Matt and Danny) he clearly has a blind spot for romance.
I’m hoping that the series will settle down a bit, toning down the speeches and lightening up on the troubled romance front. The good news is that being on HBO the series doesn’t need anywhere near the ratings that Studio 60 failed to achieve on NBC. I think this may just be opening night nerves, trying to do too much in a pilot. I really hope so, because y excitement at a new Sorkin show is still there, just a little bit less squealy than before.
The Newsroom will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic, from July
Other reviews – of which there are many and most of whom hated it.
The Guardian’s Michael Wolff is very angry about the inaccurate presentation of how news is produced these days. The Guardian also helpfully compiled lots of other reviews.
CliqueClack: “I’ll roll my eyes but attempt to see the bigger picture.”
TV Fanatic: “It may become grating to some, it may already be grating for others and they won’t be returning to The Newsroom. But if you can focus on the brilliant writing of the messenger over the message, or don’t mind the message being hammered home on a weekly basis, this is one newly-built ship you’ll want to ride on every Sunday night.”
The TV Addict: “if you’re the type viewer that can’t get enough of Aaron Sorkin’s trademark walk-and-talks, adore his attempts to “edutain” and would give an arm and a leg to still see SPORTS NIGHT back on the air (Quo Vadimus FTW!), THE NEWSROOM is the TV Addict equivalent of a wet dream.”
The Huffington Post: “The biggest problem with “The Newsroom” — and it’s one of many, many problems — is that its goals and its narrative strategies are in direct conflict with each other. The result is a dramatically inert, infuriating mess, one that wastes a fine cast to no demonstrable purpose, unless you consider giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight is a worthwhile purpose. “