America’s not the greatest nation in the world anymore, but it can be, according to Aaron Sorkin Will McAvoy and Mackenzie MacHale. Likewise, The Newsroom doesn’t have the most compelling premiere episode in television history, and it isn’t even the best pilot of a Sorkin series. Yet with an engaging news program grounding the narrative and cast committed to their work, there’s enough promise in the pilot to recommend the series.
Let’s break it down…
Cable is a godsend for most series and for their audiences, with relaxed standards for language and content and fewer commercials breaking up an episode. However, when the writer of a series is known for his dialogue and intellectual flights of fancy, that freedom may be potentially dangerous. While my judgment is solely based on the pilot episode of The Newsroom, it already seems as though cable may not be the ideal home for a Sorkin series. The most controversial choices that Sorkin makes as a writer for an HBO series is not in the content of the episode, since his Network-style opening rant is similar to those found in the pilots of The West Wing and Studio 60, but in the length and pacing of the episode, both of which don’t work in the show’s favor.
The episode clocks in at a staggering 75 minutes, and too many of them are used up by straightforward, expository dialogue meant to introduce the characters. Characters wander in and out of the newsroom, simply talking about recent events and waiting for something to happen. After Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), host of News Night, rants at a college campus on the failure of the American people and government, his cable news show undergoes some major staffing changes. A new executive producer is hired for his show, his ex Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), but the former partners spend most of the episode duking it out in his office over her role on his show and about the state of the news in general. Outside their office, supporting players like newly (and accidentally) promoted assistant Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) discusses her new relationship with her beau and transferring executive producer Don (Thomas Sadoski).
It’s this overemphasis on dialogue and ideals that cause my primary disconnect with the pilot. As someone who loves the sound and tempo of the spitfire that emerges from his characters’ mouths, it needs to be tempered by narrative progression. At least the 41 minute time restraint on NBC series forced Sorkin to use his flights of idealistic fancy appropriately as ways to highlight the importance of a particular event. In the bulk of this episode, the dialogue is the event.
However, the tone shifts for the better once the episode focuses on producing News Night. The audience finally gets to feel the buzzing energy that drove Sorkin’s more engaging endeavors as the characters peel off the layers of corruption to lead to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago. While it does chafe slightly that history is manipulated in favor of our characters, that they get to be the journalistic heroes who reveal Halliburton and BP’s failures, it’s an important win that helps establish the optimistic tone of the series. And as a narrative device, the production is a much more interesting way of introducing the characters. Watching Will tear apart the Halliburton spokesperson who offers his empty platitudes on his own is a much more convincing way of showing the audience the kind of capable, committed journalist Will can be than having him rant against college students about the failure to uphold the founding fathers’ dreams for the nation.
- I wasn’t surprised by the quality of the acting in the first episode, since Daniels, Mortimer, and Sam Waterston are all excellent in whatever they do. What did surprise me was how gleeful they all played their parts. Even as they are about ready to pull each others’ hair out, they all just seemed to be so excited to be there that I couldn’t help but smile as I watched them.
- Waterston’s boozy boss Charlie Skinner is already a favorite of mine, if only because of his fantastic lines. The best of the night was capping a story about a beautiful sunbathing native who tripped over his legs and landed on top of him on a vacation with “This is a story about sometimes things fall into your lap.”
- I don’t want to turn this into a mere Sorkin-production-that-isn’t-The-West-Wing review, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that John Gallagher Jr., who plays Mackenzie’s right hand man Jim Harper, is a West Wing alumnus. He played the hysterically lovelorn teen/”Bartlet for America” intern Tyler in the fourth season premiere “20 Hours in America.”
Now it’s your turn. Has this premiere piqued your interest enough to keep watching? Do you feel overwhelmed or excited by the return of Sorkin’s dialogue to television? Sound off in the comments below!
The Newsroom airs Sundays at 10 EST on HBO. Flashback recaps of the second season of The West Wing are available each Wednesday
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