By John Keegan and Edmund Boys
From Clinton Administration officials in “The West Wing” to SNL staffers in “Studio 60”, Aaron Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes dramas have long inspired parlor games about who his characters are based on. I’ve never found the game particularly relevant, given the alternate Sorkin-verse he creates around them. However, the show that cleaved closest to our reality, and the most relevant predecessor to “The Newsroom”, was “Sports Night,” with Casey McCall and Dan Rydell seen as stand-ins for SportsCenter’s Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann.
Naturally, once promos of news anchor Will McAvoy’s public meltdown came out, speculation was rife that “The Newsroom” would mirror Mr. Olbermann’s transition to cable news. But, given this is a rant from Sorkin’s pen, what leaked was only part of the story. Far from being fiercely opinionated, McAvoy has been treading the middle of the road so long, he can barely see out of the rut he’s dug himself.
When a student’s simplistic question knocks him out of his evasive comfort zone, he first demolishes the notion that America is the best at just about anything…any more. That’s what made the trailers. What didn’t was his wrap-up, when he delivers an ode to how personal and journalistic pride and responsibility have gone begging. It is a nod to the legacy of Murrow, Cronkite, and Brinkley that, yes, could come from Olbermann or George Clooney. But here, it signals cracks in McAvoy's cynical defensive shell. As do his flashes of a cue-card-holding Emily Mortimer in the audience.
Sorkin's previous shows all had the advantage of jumping into the middle of the story, avoiding some of the standard pilot pitfalls. The audience has some mysteries to puzzle out as they connected the dots between the characters and events already well underway. Of necessity, “The Newsroom” is forced to start at the beginning. After the opening fireworks, Will's return from an vacation to a near-deserted newsroom introduces some exposition a bit clunkier than we're used to. His current EP (executive producer, the TV-isms will fly fast and furious around this set) has moved to another show, taking most of the staff.
Into that newsroom walks Emily Mortimer, who turns out to be MacKensie MacHale, Will's new EP. She also broke up with Will three years ago, which, according to Will's boss, the perpetually soused Charlie Skinner (a delightful Sam Waterston), is the last time Will was nice to anybody. Some elements are constants to Sorkin's shows, and a main character haunted by a bad breakup is one of them. The wrinkle here is having that ex return as the catalyst for the show.
I'm not yet sold on MacKenzie as a character. The intent is to have her come off as raw and rough around the edges from her war reporting. Her attempts to convince Will she deserves a chance do not inspire a lot of confidence. Her people skills are off-putting. Workplace romances and triangles are another Sorkin staple, but the bald-faced way she shoves her producer, Jim Harper, at Maggie, the assistant she'd just field promoted was unsubtle in the extreme. By the end of the episode, we learn hiring her was a Hail Mary pass by Charlie, a decision based on conviction. Presumably, some polish will be applied to those rough edges as she grows into her new role.
The show doesn't really pick up again until a minor alert about a Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion flashes across a monitor. This is the other shift from previous shows. Rather than existing in the Sorkin-verse, “The Newsroom” will be following real events from two years ago. This makes for an uneasy dynamic with the audience. Since we already know what happened, we know who's making the right call. In this case, it's the new team that realizes the BP oil spill, not the casualties from the explosion, is the big story. This doesn't allow for a nuanced exploration of the issues. As with MacKenzie, the hope is that the framing will gain some depth down the road.
I also had a bit of a quibble with the attempt to make Jim's leads less compelling. Having both of them come from personal sources, a roommate, then his sister, was way too convenient and coincidental. One would have sufficed, without diminishing his qualifications and worth to the team.
Once they commit to the story, the rush to the broadcast was an exhilarating ride. Taking him off the teleprompter gives Jeff Daniels the chance to infuse McAvoy with great aplomb and gravitas. You finally see the anchor MacKenzie and Charlie were hoping to bring back. Once Charlie decides to share his scotch, and deliver the episode's title, that the news got done right “because we decided to,” the sentiment feels well-earned.
The pilot winds up mirroring Will's journey. Initial storm and fury, some awkward moments inbetween, then a return to form with a promise of better things to come. As the resurfacing of MacKenzie's cue cards suggests, sometimes you delude yourself to maintain mediocrity, rather than take it on. In the end, Will's shell has cracked and something new has emerged. I think it's going to be fun watching it grow.John Keegan is Editor-in-Chief for Critical Myth, a partner site of SciFi Vision. Edmund Boys is Critical Myth's reviewer for The Newsroom.