Aaron Sorkin Creates the News
Who the fuck knows where Keith Olbermann will be when the Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom debuts on HBO on June 24. The ill-tempered leftist demagogue may yet find another sucker network from which he can become spectacularly estranged. Most likely he’ll smolder until, bereft of a public outlet for his anger, his wrath turns to garden-variety bitterness. There’s no doubt, however, that he’ll enjoy his Sunday nights, when he can see himself immortalized by the doughy Jeff Daniels in Aaron Sorkin’s newest show, The Newsroom: a paean to broadcast news. Daniels plays Will McAvoy, an anchor who begins the series known as “the Jay Leno of news anchors” for his anodyne views. That quickly changes and the Olbermannization begins.
The precipitating crisis is McAvoy’s brief moment of public peripeteia. “America is not the greatest country in the world,” he blurts out to an audience of naïve college kids during a panel discussion. Then, obviously, all hell breaks loose because, duh, it is. The show concerns itself with McAvoy’s second act as teller of truth to power. From Leno to late-period Jon Stewart in a flash.
True to any Sorkin project, there is a great deal of talking in this show. If all the kids in Moonrise Kingdom (see page 19) grew up and went to UPenn, they would become characters in The Newsroom. For those who enjoy Sorkin’s verbosity, this rapid-fire dialogue and witty repartée is like a shiatsu showerhead right to the brain. Those who find Sorkin’s trademark logorrhea infuriating would be well advised to watch something else. There’s a new Charlie Sheen show on FX called Anger Management that debuts June 28 and, of course, there’s the nightly news. Neither will be very witty.
But even if you aren’t a fan of Sorkin’s dialogue or even his archetypes (brilliant yet loathsome men nursing a hidden wound; practical no-nonsense women nursing a hidden crush), it’s the relationships between the archetypes that animate the show. After McAvoy goes renegade, it falls on his executive producer (and old flame) MacKenzie McHale, played by the wonderfully wee sleekit beastie Emily Mortimer, to rein in his more self-destructive tendencies. Though wee, Mortimer isn’t tim’rous. When McAvoy yells a lot, McHale yells back. When he throws a Blackberry, she stomps on one. They’re both driven by morally righteous ambition. “My character is very concerned with just putting on the best news program possible and doing it with grace and integrity,” explains Mortimer during a break in filming. This is hard since the network craves ratings, and ratings come more quickly to programs with neither integrity nor grace (at least in the Sorkinian universe). “You have to be entertaining on some level to be on television,” admits Mortimer, “unless you’re PBS.”
Is this set-up a sly reference to Sorkin’s own too-smart-for-television projects, like the short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? Is it a trenchant indictment of philistine America? Is it simply wishful thinking? It’s probably all those things. But the real question is whether one can make good television about how hard it is to make good television without seeming self-satisfied. Executing that will take all of Sorkin’s talents, while it is incumbent upon Daniels, Mortimer, and the supporting cast to imbue these industry folk with more than a passing humanity. To them I say, good night and good luck.