In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I am predisposed to love The Newsroom. When The West Wing went off the air, I was lost, a wandering lamb without a shepherd. I had been so engrossed in that series that it was hard to believe that the characters didn’t miss me back. It’s been a long, Aaron Sorkin-free existence for me, with only The Social Network and Moneyball to offer brief respite. But a film is to a series as a quick fling is to an LTR. Fun, but fleeting. I’m looking for a show that I can love long term.
Enter The Newsroom, a show set in the recent past involving an ensemble cast working on a news program with a simple moral obligation: to tell the truth. And before we get any further, I will admit that yes, this is a liberal media onslaught against Fox News and the Tea Party, cemented by casting Jane Fonda in the role of network president. In typical Sorkin fashion, he is recreating a portion of the world the way we wish it could be, with only a passing flirtation with reality. Yet, by basing it on recent events (it starts with the Gulf Oil spill 2010 and, by Episode 4, gets to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011), it grounds the show in a fact-based world. Like The West Wing, which imagined a values-based presidential administration (real values, like the common good, not “family-values,” like gay-bashing) with characters who peppered their conversations with intelligence and humor, The Newsroom imagines what it would be like if the news came to us with a backdrop of decency and responsibility.
Nah, that sounds boring. It’s the background of a news show where the anchor is a loudmouth, belligerent scholar who knows more than you do and refuses to dumb it down for one more second. He makes you want to catch up.
Consider the first scene of the pilot. Addressing a college student who lobs the question, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” at a panel of a liberal, a conservative, and Jeff Daniels’s Will McAvoy, whom we understand that, up to this point, has been a middle-of-the-road ratings hound, he rattles off a list of statistics that no human with a normal capacity of intelligence could know:
“We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.”
Herein lies the premise of the show: how far we’ve devolved and how to make our way back to the greatness that once defined us. In lesser hands, this could degenerate into boring blather, yet the writing and the cast bring it to life. We have Will McAvoy, played by Daniels in a role miles away from Dumb and Dumber. He’s the cynic to Emily Mortimer’s optimist, though he would classify himself a realist. Mortimer plays MacKenzie McHale, his executive producer and ex-lover. From the opening of the show, the audience knows that we are supposed to want them to get back together, just as we are supposed to root for supporting cast members Jim Harper and Maggie Jordan to consummate their office crushiness. At least, this is what I thought until Episode 4, when we see that what Maggie loves about Jim is his adoration of her. She doesn’t want Jim, she wants to bask in his attention, while keeping her on-again/off-again relationship with Don, whom we have been set up to hate. This is a complicated nuance, and a welcome one.
Yet the character who brings it all together is Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston. Skinner is the network head, a seemingly dim-witted alcoholic who is past his prime. He contrasts perfectly with the sharp-tongued, self-proclaimed media elite who are in love with their own intelligence. Yet, Skinner is the puppet master, pulling the strings of the entire story arc of the show. He has a deep loyalty for McAvoy shown out of the gate when he threatens Don: “I’m a Marine, Don, I will beat the shit out of you no matter how many protein bars you ate!”
The fictional newsroom anticipates the ridiculousness of the story break: the rush by the networks to be the first to report something–anything–first. In an age where tweets are immediate and the past is three seconds ago, this is problematic, as we saw a couple of weeks ago when we watched the mistaken reporting of Justice Roberts’s decision on the health care mandate. Sorkin addresses this in what may already be a classic piece of television, when he shows Fox and MSNBC report the death of Gabby Giffords. The audience gets to sit back and watch McAvoy sweat it out as he is pressured to declare her dead in order to keep his show relevant. Sorkin has the audience at an advantage of knowing that Gabby lives, when McAvoy does not. When the information comes through that she is indeed alive, heading in for surgery, Don announces: “She’s a human being. The coroner reports her dead, not the news.” This seems to be news to newspeople, which encapsulates the entire crux of the show.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Sorkin love piece if I didn’t talk about the dialogue. Here are some gems from the Episode 4:
Will: “I’m a registered Republican. I seem liberal because I believe hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.”
Charlie: “Have you read the New York Post?”
Will: No. My eyes are connected to my brain.
Will (to a gossip columnist): “I’m not putting you down; I’m just saying that what you do is a really bad form of pollution that makes us dumb and is destroying civilization. I’m saying, with all possible respect, that I would have more respect for you if you were a heroin dealer.”
Will (referring to reality television): ”The chocolate soufflé on this menu is a guilty pleasure. The Archies singing ‘Sugar Sugar’ is a guilty pleasure. Human cockfighting makes us mean and desensitizes us.”
Sorkin says everything in The Newsroom that I wish I had ever thought to say myself. He creates a fictional world I want to live in, with depth and truth and honor and humor. In short, I want to marry it. I’m in for the long haul.