Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, I know the Internet does not need another post or story or tweet about “The Newsroom.” I recognize that the world seems to have reached peak “Newsroom” (or peak Sorkin, depending on your particular druthers). At the same time, I finally watched the show and now I am filled with this inescapable desire to discuss many of the reasons why “The Newsroom” is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad and bad.
SO, I am saying this to demonstrate that if you don’t want to read about “The Newsroom,” that is totally fine, I get it, I really do, and so I release you from any obligation to potentially just take a look and see how I felt about the show. I have tucked my entire review behind the jump, so you are free to move along and enjoy yourself. Okay? Okay. Glad we had this talk.
Another preface, because people love prefaces before reviews. (All reviews should start with two prefaces, one of which encourages people not to read the review. I think Pauline Kael said that.) I am, and have long been, a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work. I have gone into detail about this in the past, but I wanted to say that again at the outset because this is going to be a very negative review. There are lots of people who simply dislike Aaron Sorkin — perhaps due to his work, or perhaps due to his history of publicly saying loads of asinine things — and so therefore I feel that with a writer like Sorkin, it is important to say up front how one feels about him. Readers deserve to know where you are coming from, if you are discussing something that happens to be polarizing, and so this is from whence I am coming: Big fan of Sorkin’s work. Okay, now that we’ve dealt with that…
My first reaction to “The Newsroom”: Ughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I felt this way a few minutes into the pilot episode and by god that feeling worsened and deepened and calcified and eventually overtook me, becoming the inexorable, undeniable entirety of my being for the duration of this show’s first episode. Someone called me about two-thirds of the way through the show, and I answered the phone with an audible sigh, not because someone was interrupting the show but because I knew when that brief respite was over I still had one-third of the show left to endure.
I should also point out that my review is coming out several days after the show’s actual premiere. Even before the show debuted, the reviews were pouring in, and they were not pretty. I say this because you might be wondering to yourself, “Hey, there has been a visceral backlash against this show, so you’re probably just going along with the herd, or at the very least your opinion of the show was skewed before you sat down and watched the thing.” (I’m spending a lot of time explaining things here. This is Television Reviewing 101. People hate hearing about the actual show; they love hearing about why you are saying something about saying something about the show.)
My only real response to that is to say that I tried my very, very best to watch with an open mind. If anything, the critical assault drastically lowered my expectations for the show, so even if the show was merely passable I would have probably thought it was surprisingly decent. (Like how I felt after “Men in Black 3.”) Sorkin shows tend to start very, very strong before developing problems (more on this in a bit), so I did initially expect at least the pilot to be great. I initially hoped it was great but prepared myself for the fact that it might not be good. So, basically, I had a lot of feelings about the show before watching it, which might mean you will dismiss my opinions. If that’s the case, so be it.
Also, many of the critics who ripped into the show actually said it started well before going calamitously downhill, because they were able to see the first four episodes. So we have something to look forward to.
Okay, so let’s discuss — finally — the show. Why is the show bad? The show is bad because it is a poorly-written, poorly-thought-out, poorly-directed hour of television. Sorkin might be able to write flowery, glowing prose, but that means absolutely nothing when said prose is spouted from characters who are one-dimensional and badly-drawn. The prose means nothing when it is seemingly the only thing that exists on a weird, rudderless episode of television that has the outline of a plot, multiple contrived/aggravating situations and at least two truly inexplicable creative decisions.
Let’s start with some of the initial problems. Jeff Daniels stars as Will McAvoy, a newscaster who is so infamously vanilla people compare him to Leno. While we are currently living in the era of shouty bloviators dominating cable news, they are not the only game in town, and anyone who has ever watched television news knows this. There are lots of newscasters (and other journalists) who manage to do their jobs and not seem vanilla while also not espousing a particular opinion or point of view. Is McAvoy supposed to be Wolf Blitzer? Is he supposed to be Jake Tapper? Is he supposed to be Brian Williams? Is he supposed to be Katie Couric? Is he supposed to be Scott Pelley? Are these people who have been hounded throughout their careers for their temerity in not publicly taking a side in any given debate? Is this a thing? What year is it? Why is there blood pouring out of my eyes?
Anyway, so Daniels plays Will McAvoy, who has apparently had it with not being able to express his opinions. When a college sophomore asks him something, he yells at her for a while, because she is dumb and he is smart and we’re less than five minutes in and Sorkin’s male lead is already verbally belittling a young woman. Great, solid start, Sorkin definitely has no problems with women, there’s no sexism to see here, let’s just keep moving.
The opening lecture is not a new thing for Sorkin. His “Studio 60″ pilot began with a lecture from Judd Hirsch, an infinitely better lecture for many reasons, not the least of which was that it had an actual point. It’s not just that that speech was better-constructed, although it was; the speech here sort of discusses reasons why America isn’t the best country in the world, then mentions how we used to do great things, then ends with some vague mention of how the country used to be great because we were informed by great people, and that’s it, the third-to-last sentence in the entire rant is the only one that even approaches being some sort of mission statement for the show. The “Studio 60″ rant was the starter’s pistol for that entire series, setting off the main action while also serving as an expertly-crafted explanation of the show’s purpose and goals. So Sorkin, no stranger to borrowing his own tics and shpiel, decided to copy that framework and do the same thing here, only he failed to write a particularly good speech and he failed to in any way outline what the show would be or should be about.
This opening rant — which we are clearly meant to think is a stirring call-to-arms, because characters within the show say as much — is a bad opening speech, a rambling lecture that tells us only that McAvoy (i.e. Sorkin) is upset, but doesn’t tell us anything about what might fix that. Later in the show, the female lead gives her own speech better explicating that theme, but even that is muddled.
My point is that when Aaron Sorkin’s rants — typically his strongest writing, rants are where Aaron Sorkin eats lunch — aren’t working, that is an incredibly bad omen for the rest of the show.
So, it continues! The show cuts forward a few weeks, but in a weird storytelling choice, we’re later told that he apparently worked on his show for some of that time before taking a vacation. Which is odd. If his blowup was such a big deal — and we’re told that it is, we’re told in ominous tones as he arrives at work — wouldn’t it have made more sense for the network to force him to take a vacation so his return here is presented as his first show after the meltdown, rather than he went to work, spent a week vacationing with Erin Andrews, and then came back and retooled his show? (I’m not even sure if it’s realistic or not, so I can’t batter the realism here.) If he was forced to go on vacation and came back and found that most of his staff was leaving and his show being retooled, and if he then decided to revamp how he did the news, that would tell us that his opening monologue was the start of this whole thing, and it guided him to this realization about how he should do the news. Instead, we’re told that his monologue happened, people reacted, then he went on vacation with Erin Andrews, and so Erin Andrews is presented as the catalyst in his change. But not really, because he actually comes back intending to make no changes whatsoever, only making changes when (a) his staff leaves, (b) a new executive producer is hired against his wishes and explains her desire to make a smart news show, and (c) he decides to do what she says.
Instead of giving us a protagonist who has done some things wrong and decided to right the ship, ratings be damned, Sorkin gives us a passive central character who is content to yell at people and then sits around for a while doing nothing (aside from yelling at people who quit, yelling at women coming to work for him, and restructuring his and said female character’s contracts, because a pilot is where you get to introduce characters to viewers, forming our opinions of them and establishing who these characters are, so obviously Sorkin can’t waste much time before showing us a main character who runs off to renegotiate his contract off-screen). This is also bad writing.
So now that Daniels is back at his show, let’s tackle some of the immensely contrived or aggravating situations that make up this pilot episode. There are a lot of them.
Take, for instance, the moment where Daniels first walks into the newsroom and spots Emily Mortimer’s Mackenzie MacHale, because Sorkin is not even remotely bothering at this point with these names. (Say that out loud: MACKENZIE MACHALE. Chew that over in your mouth and mind. And now think about how of course people on the show call her Mac, for the same reason there was a “C.J.” on “The West Wing” and a “Jordan” on “Studio 60″ and a “Jo” in “A Few Good Men.”)
The basic main thrust of the pilot, insomuch as there is one, is that Daniels yelled at this college student and so I guess his show is in danger (even though no mention is made of declining ratings or advertisers pulling out, I think?), and so his boss brings in Emily Mortimer’s MACKENZIE MACHALE to run the show over Daniels’s objections. And she has some thoughts about improving the show by, I don’t know, telling the truth and expressing opinions. Whatever, that’s not the point right now.
We are told that Mac and Will McAvoy (MAC AND MAC, courtesy of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) have A History. Fine! Great! That’s actually a solid creative decision, because giving them a past imbues their interactions with deeper meaning than if they met for the first time in this episode. And when they finally see each other again, after she is brought in by Daniels’s boss without Daniels knowing about it, I bet there will be fireworks! Not literally, of course, because that would be hackish.
So, instead, when they see each other for the first time — when Daniels walks into the room and sees her — we hear, I kid you not, an actual thunderclap (apparently it’s raining outside). Aaron Sorkin has an Oscar, and Aaron Sorkin apparently thought it was vitally necessary to underscore the tension of this scene not through acting or dialogue, but through a thunderclap. Moving on.
And then, okay, there are other characters. There’s Sam Waterston, playing Jeff Daniels’s boss, who basically gets to wander around drunkenly giving advice and guidance to people (Aaron Sorkin definitely knows how to write wizened old white men giving advice to slightly younger white men). Waterston seems fine during the scenes when he is saying things in a normal tone, because he has a goofy, light mien that serves as a nice contrast to The Very Important Work being done all around him. The one problem is that on two different occasions, Waterston’s character raises his voice (once while yelling at a subordinate that he’s going to fight him, duh), and in those moments I felt simultaneously bad for Waterston and thoroughly lost. What was he shouting? Why was he shouting? Why was it unintelligible? I assume because of Twitter.
There are other characters. There’s a blogger played by Dev Patel, who was in “Slumdog Millionaire” and that movie won Best Picture, but then he was in an M. Night Shyamalan movie so now his career is ruined. There’s a black guy, I think, and you can see him if you watch the show in slo-mo. (Actually, all kidding aside here, there is actually at least one black person on this show, and he’s played by Chris Chalk, who just played Tom Walker on “Homeland,” and his character’s name here is Gary Cooper because of course it is, and anyway I sincerely hope he isn’t just given one line each week, because that would waste the steely intensity Chalk displayed during his run on “Homeland.”)
There’s even a love triangle borrowed from “The Office” and the other “Office” and every other show that has ever had a love triangle! Allison Pill plays Maggie, an intern who becomes Jeff Daniels’s assistant, and because she is a young blond woman in an Aaron Sorkin show, you already know she’s flighty and wide-eyed and unable to properly function in the world, right? It’s nice that Sorkin has that kind of shorthand available for viewers, so he can telegraph personality traits merely by his choice of an actor.
Anyway, Pill — so charming as Zelda Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris,” so let’s just call her Zelda from now on because she was so delightful there — is wide-eyed! She’s in a relationship with Don, the hotshot young executive producer about to leave Daniels’s show for a new show airing after it. Don isn’t nice! He doesn’t even want to go to dinner with her parents after a few months of dating! We’re entering new territory here, people. This isn’t TV. This is HBO, Sorkin-style.
Just about the only thing that would make this more innovative — something that would truly launch it into another hemisphere — would be if, say, a new character was introduced, and they turned out to be a nice, capable guy who is clearly a better fit for Zelda. Like on “The Office”! Maybe they could steal the entire character from that show, and nobody would notice? And then they actually do that. The character here is named Jim Harper (rather than Jim Halpert, on “The Office,” a show Sorkin has mentioned watching), and he leads us to the two most aggravating and horrific things about this show:
Jim from “The Office” is played by John Gallagher Jr., and here he’s MACKENZIE MACHALE’s right-hand man, he’s her go-to guy, etc. He comes to “News Night,” Daniels’s fictional show on the fictional Atlantis network, even though MACKENZIE MACHALE has no guarantee of a job for herself or him or anyone else. He arrives and has nothing to do and sits around in the newsroom and then he discovers the Deepwater Horizon disaster before anyone else and figures out every major detail in a matter of minutes.
I’m not exaggerating or in any way misrepresenting this. He’s sitting around and notices a news alert went out, and no one will listen to him (especially not Don, HISSSSS), so he goes to a computer and reads about how an oil rig exploded. Only he and Dev Patel, who once starred in a Best Picture winner and is now the seventh lead on an HBO series, know that this will lead to the BP oil spill. And then Jim from “The Office” basically goes from zero to 9,000 and figures out that the oil rig explosion will lead to an oil spill which will lead to the worst environmental disaster in history, and he also figures out the Halliburton connection, and he basically figures out a lot of things that it took days and weeks to really emerge.
OH, and this leads me to:
Right, so this pilot episode is set on April 20, 2010. This doesn’t become immediately apparent until midway through the episode, when Jim from “The Office” discovers the oil spill, and then the date pops up on the screen. Because apparently this show will be set in the recent past, so that instead of coming up with his own news stories and having the team tackle them, Sorkin will just have them retroactively report on/investigate things where we already know the outcome.
This is a bizarre conceit that other reviewers have touched upon but that I have to mention. This weird thing where he insists on having the news stories be actual news stories, rather than fake ones (a la “The West Wing”), is perhaps the dumbest element of the entire show, and it leads to what is the most offensive element of the entire show.
The notion of writing with the benefit of hindsight doesn’t just smack of laziness, although it is definitely and indisputably lazy, because instead of deigning to come up with his own environmental disaster and having the show’s news team investigate it, he just says Deepwater Horizon and moves on because his work was already done for him. (He could even create a clearly inspired-by-Deepwater-Horizon storyline. What I’m saying right now is that Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” is less creative than “Law & Order.”) More than the laziness, it smacks of a wonton disregard for the actual act of reporting news, the importance of which is supposedly this show’s heart and soul.
There are people, real human people with reporters and recorders and laptops and journalism degrees and personal lives and everything, who were actually doing the real reporting on the Deepwater Horizon story. So the notion that within minutes of finding out what happened, a television producer happens to get phone calls from a college roommate (who works at BP) and his sister (who works for Halliburton) and knows exactly what is happening, how bad it is, how bad it will get and that it will be the worst environmental disaster in history — the notion that he finds this out with two quick phone calls taken off-camera, because let’s not waste any time showing the actual act of gathering news — is offensive to me as a journalist and as a viewer. Real people had to piece together a real story here, and instead Sorkin presents it as something that smart (and lucky) (but mostly smart) people could see instantly, if only other smart people would let them present that to the public.
And so yes, Jim from “The Office” basically figures out the entire BP oil spill because he sees the alert and nobody cares (Dev Patel cares a little), and then Jim from “The Office” calls his college roommate (who is sitting on meetings at BP where he is privy to the information about how much oil will leak) and his sister (who works at Halliburton in the Cement Sold To Oil Rigs division, because she already knows about Halliburton’s role), and he pieces it together in like milliseconds. This is how the show presents the process of gathering news.
Jim presents this information to Jeff Daniels, who — over the obligatory objections of Don (HISSSS) — courageously, heroically, Sorkinishly decides to devote his entire newscast to this major news story, armed only with direct information coming from sources inside two key companies involved and also armed with the benefit of foresight that comes from writing this script a year after the actual oil spill. It’d be one thing for Daniels to devote his entire show to the oil spill if he only knew what every other news show within the “Newsroom” universe knew, but Aaron Sorkin can look at months of stories written in the wake of the oil spill, so Daniels is so ahead of the curve that he manages to interview — at the end of his show, occurring on the same day as the spill — the inspector from the Minerals Management Service who visited Deepwater Horizon three weeks before the disaster.
Also, apropos of really nothing but I had to mention it somewhere, there is a point late in the show where Daniels is yelling or threatening something (it truly, absolutely does not matter what), and Emily Mortimer’s MACKENZIE MACHALE actually yells out from the background “He’ll do it, too!”. I just had to mention this because when it happened, I rolled my eyes so hard I think I pulled a hamstring.
What else? Oh, the direction is also a problem. This is the first pilot Sorkin made without Thomas Schlamme (Tommy Schlamme, pronounced exactly as you would hope), who helped perfect the walk-and-talk that became Sorkin’s trademark but is really Schlamme’s greatest gift to Sorkin’s works (because this movement makes the shows seem active and alive, rather than just depicting people sitting in a room nattering on). Schlamme, a veteran television director, helped give Sorkin’s various pilots a visual energy that would define them for the rest of their respective runs. He knew how to capture Sorkin’s characters, and he knew when to close in and when to pull back and let the actors move throughout the set.
This pilot is directed by Greg Mottola, who made the movies “Superbad” and “Adventureland.” He has also directed episodes of TV shows like “Arrested Development” and “Undeclared,” but never an hourlong drama that is supposed to look reasonably cinematic, because this isn’t TV, it’s HBO (TM 1999). Mottola does not seem like he was the right man for the job. He comes in awkwardly close during scenes that really don’t require it, frames some shots oddly and generally seems to think using a frantic, shifting camera will convey the frenetic tension of a situation, when in reality it just means the damn camera is moving too much. He does have one nice shot circling through the newsroom when the news team is at work gathering the news Sorkin-style, replacing what could have been a montage, so at least that was nice.
I suppose at this point I should also mention that this show’s main character — Jeff Daniels’s Will McAvoy — is incredibly poorly defined. This has never really been a problem for Sorkin before. In fact, looking back over Sorkin’s works, it’s a rather glaring issue. The most revered and praised element of his previous shows and movies — his dialogue — has also served the vital function of telling us about the main characters. Think about Tom Cruise’s glib chatter in “A Few Good Men” or Jesse Eisenberg’s twitchy genius in “The Social Network” — these things were established in the first scenes with those characters. He also managed this with his shows. When we first met the leads on “Sports Night” or “The West Wing” (or even “Studio 60″), their dialogue and their interactions told us everything we really needed to know about them. Even if it took a couple of scenes, we truly got those characters right away.
The same thing does not happen here. The only thing we know about Jeff Daniels’s character is that he is a prick. There’s nothing wrong with centering your TV show on a prick. The medium has a long and proud history of shows centered on pricks, right up on through the central characters on the two best shows currently airing (Walter White and Don Draper, both Class-A pricks). But that’s not a character. That’s a characteristic, and only one characteristic, and we never really see any other ones from Daniels’s Will McAvoy. He spends much of the episode either angry, or passive, and other characters spend big parts of the episode talking about him (often to him), and not much of anything really happens. There’s one good joke at the very end about his prickishness, but it is far too little, too late.
Aaron Sorkin annotated this episode’s opening rant for GQ, and buried in there was an incredibly, massively telling detail. At one point in the opening rant, Daniels spouts off a bunch of numbers, because that is what Aaron Sorkin characters always do. That’s not, in and of itself, unusual. What is more noteworthy is that Sorkin writes, for GQ, that spouting off these numbers “reveals him to be exceptional (what normal person has these stats at their fingertips?).” Many Sorkin characters have these kinds of statistics at their fingertips, because many Sorkin characters are meant to be exceptional, and the fact that he keeps relying on this crutch is not terribly shocking because Sorkin is an infamous recycler.
More revealing is the fact that this one moment is what is supposed to tell us that Daniels is exceptional. Did anyone watching the show get that idea? Does anyone watching an Aaron Sorkin show, at this point, think “Wow, that character sure has a lot of information available, he must be smart!”? I doubt it. They probably think, “Yeah, Aaron Sorkin can type ‘Google.’ So what?” This is Sorkin attempting to draw character through dialogue, and it doesn’t succeed, because it doesn’t tell us anything other than that Aaron Sorkin wrote this character.
Most of the characters are bare sketches of actual people, and while it’s most galling with the main character (because, aside from the fact that he’s played by the likable Jeff Daniels, we are given no reason to even have any interest in him), it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. It’s a pilot. Hopefully, he can delve into the characters more in future weeks. Which leads us to…
Based solely on this one episode – which is itself representative of nothing more than the quality of this one particular episode (though that is worrisome in this case because Sorkin’s pilots have been uncommonly strong, followed by an immediate decline in quality that was either soon halted ["The West Wing"] or hastened into a swan dive ["Studio 60"]) — this is not a good television show.
If this show came from anyone other than Aaron Sorkin, I would not be tuning in to watch the second episode. But this is the post-”Girls” era (I know, I know), an era where even the flimsiest of shows can grow on you, and so I want to give it time and give it a second, third, fourth and on through the 10th chance, even though the reviews say it only gets worse and even though Sorkin’s tendency to retrench rather than recalibrate and adjust is troublesome to a huge degree. Because this is an HBO show, the entire first season is already done and locked and in the can. I suppose the direction of the season will tell us more definitively what we have here, once Sorkin has gotten into the rhythms. If, by the season finale (which will probably be titled “What Kind Of Day Has It Been”), the show has found some proper voice and tone, we will know if this is a show that could grow into something worthwhile. If not, not.
Of course, a second season of the show would almost unquestionably deal with the show-within-the-show being critically assailed and feature one of Sorkin’s mouthpieces spouting a long rant about why said criticism is invalid and pointless and so we already know what is coming, because we’ve been down this road before. So why tune in again? Out of some sort of morbid curiosity, sure, but also out of the hope that Sorkin figures it all out. There was a period there (between 1999 and 2001) when Sorkin was writing some of the very best television on the air, and he did it without sacrificing his particular bugaboos and recurring devices and tropes, and he did it without being offensive or pedantic or relentlessly tiresome. Was that a fluke? Or is Sorkin capable of reaching for those heights again, because he very likely fancies himself a great man, and great men reach for the stars? Fortunately or unfortunately, the only way to find out is to watch.
Oh, and then I saw the second episode. It was also a bad episode of television. If Sorkin aspires to create something worthy of hate-watching, he has achieved something here.