Very quickly, it has become chic to hate on “The Newsroom.” Aaron Sorkin’s new drama has premiered to uncharacteristically mediocre reviews. Variety laments that “the series doesn’t match the lofty crests of Sorkin’s finest work.” The New York Times says that the show “chokes on its own sanctimony.” And the Washington Post finds that “Sorkin’s writing lapses into self-parody.”
Screw them. This is a good show with strong, sympathetic characters, humor, intelligence, and a clear sense of purpose. If it doesn’t measure up to “The West Wing,” well, what does? That show’s first episode was one of the finest pilot episodes in television history. Still, “The Newsroom” and “The West Wing” have much in common. The latter inspired an entire generation of politicos to become politically engaged. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to work on a political campaign or walk into a Senate office these days without meeting someone who thinks they are Josh Lyman or C.J. Gregg (although I was always partial to Toby). At a time when an entire generation of young people were disillusioned and disenchanted (I call them the Tyler Durden generation), “The West Wing” gave them hope in democracy, never portraying it as a perfect system but at least as one worth saving. That optimism was captured by a certain presidential candidate in the 2008 campaign (his campaign began less than a year after the series finale), and one could argue that without Aaron Sorkin, we would never have known Barack Obama.
“The Newsroom” aims to do for journalism what “The West Wing” did for democracy: teach and inspire a young generation. Sorkin’s hypothesis, well-supported by the facts, is that good journalism has been corrupted by TV ratings, partisan pundits, and Q ratings. This culture of superficiality in the news is embodied by Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the lead anchor of a primetime news show on a CNN-like network. He is cynical about the news and contemptuous of the American people, but his new producer and ex-flame MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) disagrees. In a pair of long, idealistic speeches, she tries to bring Will back from the dark side: a difficult task, considering that there seem to be plenty of hurt feelings from their old relationship. These speeches, along with the one in which Will eviscerates a college girl for asking a stupid question about how great America is, are what Sorkin is known for, and it’s easy to see why. The guy gives good speech. He understands its rhythms, plus he’s really freaking smart. But so far at least, the speeches aren’t what makes this show work so damn well.
Putting aside the speeches, fine casting, and witty banter, it is worth noting how well-structured this episode is. Really, this is two shows in one – with a killer act break. After spending the first half of the show getting to know our characters, Sorkin drops a bomb on us: the day the show takes place is the day that the BP oil spill started. After Will and MacKenzie go back and forth on what kind of show they will be producing, this breaking news story forces them to stop talking and start working, and it becomes very clear that MacKenzie has won the argument. Will works with his new staff to take risks with the story that other networks are afraid of. They put the spotlight on Haliburton and BP immediately, and Will challenges the rhetoric of their spokesmen. They get the inspector from the Mineral Management Service on the phone – a major coup that is never fully explained – and Will is respectful but firm with him. During this thrilling, practically real-time look at the operations of a major news show, it slowly becomes clear what familiar territory Sorkin is treading on.
“The West Wing” was, of course, a liberal response to Clinton’s move to the center. Many episodes literally recast his decisions while in office, with President Bartlett doing what liberals wish Clinton had done in that situation. It seems that “The Newsroom” is up to the same tricks. In tonight’s episode, Sorkin replayed the first day of the BP oil spill and showed us the kind of reporting that he wished he had seen. But this is more than liberal wish fulfillment. When Sorkin reveals what news story they are covering, I felt like I had been hit in the gut. I realized that I had not thought about the spill in probably a year. In the midst of a presidential campaign, with its attack ads, surrogate drama, and politically motivated executive orders, it was as if – in my mind – the biggest environmental disaster in American history had not happened just two years ago. This was amazing to me. I consider myself an environmentalist and an animal advocate. And I had forgotten that this occurred.
And that’s exactly Sorkin’s point. By replaying major recent events – and covering them right this time – he is shining a light on the disastrously poor state of journalism today. But he is using the show as a form of journalism, too. It’s bold and ambitious, but it’s also right in Sorkin’s wheelhouse, and although tonight’s pilot was by no means a perfect episode of television, it should be enough for all of us. “The Newsroom” could be a potent combination of a brilliant writer and important material. So let’s all just stop being so cool and gives this show a chance, okay?