Monday, June 25, 2012

Sorkin's The Newsroom: More Hard News, Less Human Interest, Please

I am an unrepentant Sorkinista. I love his wit, I love his wonkishness, I love the rapidity with which actors must deliver his dialog. If Aaron Sorkin needed someone to carry his bags or his cocaine or whatever, I would be first in line. So when, in eternal thanks to partner-in-crime and frequent guest blogger Natalie, I was able to sit down this morning with last night's premiere of The Newsroom via HBO Go, [which I now think of as HBO Go(d)], I was a happy girl. Seventy-three minutes later, I'm still happy, but a little more cautious.

Sorkin feasts on fast-paced workplaces that attract obsessive and idealistic people--we have his masterpiece The West Wing, but also Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and even A Few Good Men, which he adapted from his play. Newsroom, which takes place in the, um, newsroom of a cable television show hosted by Jeff Daniels's publicly bland but privately feisty Will McAvoy. So far so good. McAvoy has the cool jazz version of a Howard Beale meltdown during a public speaking appearance, and returns from a mandated vacation to find his executive producer, a dick named Don, has bolted along with most of his staff, and has been replaced, over his head and without his knowledge, by the drunken patriarch of the news division (a puckish Sam Waterston, looking like he'd been waiting all those years on Law & Order for the opportunity to say "fuck" this much). The new EP is Mackenzie McHale (I don't get the name either), a woman who Will used to date and who he now hates, for reasons the show isn't revealing yet.

And that's about the only element of the personal lives of the major characters the show chooses to withhold. Which was my main problem with it. We've got the timid but smart and capable new associate producer Maggie ("It's Margaret. But Maggie's fine"), who is semi-dating dickish Don (who I suspect might not be going anywhere after all). Within, literally, minutes of arriving in the newsroom, Mackenzie is dispensing dating advice and trying to set up her senior producer Jim (who has the affability and floppy hair of his The Office namesake) with her. Like, hardcore. It all felt like too much too soon, and not at all what someone like Mackenzie would be spending her time on, at least before her job was even a sure thing. But I don't so much blame Sorkin for that as much as the "you must get an audience right now" mentality that assumes people, even those who watch 73-minute long premieres on HBO, lack the patience to get to know characters over the span of multiple episodes, or even seasons. Remember how long it took before we even knew Toby had a congresswoman ex-wife?*

But where the show really takes off, and takes a gamble that could either pay off huge or blow up in its collective face, is when, in the midst of personal posturing and squabbling, the Deepwater Horizon blows up. Yeah, that one. As opposed to The West Wing, which would riff on real news obliquely, Law & Order style, Newsroom is apparently taking place in the actual America of two years ago. This means that the show gets the chance to comment on and explore real stories and their cultural impact with the benefit of hindsight (the pay off huge option). It also runs the risk of a smug self-righteousness about identifying about what "really matters" in the news, with, well, the benefit of hindsight (the blow up option). The premiere contained a lot of "mission statement" speeches that indicate the need for and difficulty of sustaining news programming that is both intellectually serious and popular. The same can definitely be said for hour-long dramas, and I hope that Newsroom dials back the date-a-palooza, and instead focuses on dissecting recent history. I think that's where Sorkin's strengths lie anyway, and I have The Bachelorette if I'm interested in who's sharing the fantasy suite with whom.

*Twenty episodes

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