It seems a long time ago that Aaron Sorkin was last on our TV screens. After the success of The West Wing, everyone expected Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to be the next step towards greatness for the burgeoning screenwriter. Unfortunately, the show flopped within the first few episodes and was cancelled after one series. Sorkin disappeared off the radar and many thought that his best work was already behind him.
Then in 2010, The Social Network premiered to unanimously positive reviews. A film that in theory sounded such a ridiculous concept made stars of Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and even made people take Mickey Mouse Club graduate Justin Timberlake seriously (I’d say as an actor, but we might as well leave it there). At the heart of this success was Sorkin’s writing, with his dialogue, the verbal equivalent of a supercharged tennis match, making the film a triumph of style as much as substance.
His return to television then has arrived just at the point where he could truly begin to sketch his star on Hollywood’s boulevards. With a Steve Jobs biopic in the works, he’s on the brink of becoming the go-to guy for any big production, but the question is, will the public’s reaction to The Newsroom threaten to derail his charge just as it’s about to hit top-speed?
The pilot episode of the new HBO drama premiered in the UK last night on Sky Atlantic. On the surface, it takes about 10 seconds for the hallmarks of Sorkin’s style to rise to the surface. The dialogue begins at a hundred miles an hour before there’s even a picture on the screen and when the visuals do appear, it becomes clear that the high production values associated with his work have only been raised even further. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it’s the first drama he’s had that’s been produced on HBO, but the quality of lighting and camera work hits you immediately and generally doesn’t let up for the rest of the show.
Style though has never been what’s let Sorkin down, and many of the criticisms leveled at Studio 60 was that the story and characters never matched the gloss they were polished with. It’s been a problem that’s plagued Sorkin’s entire television career and what is admirable is that it looks like it’s a problem he’s determined to face head on, without betraying his earlier works. For unlike his only success on the medium, The West Wing, The Newsroom returns to the network broadcasting setting that has arguably been the backdrop to two of his least successful dramas. The result of this makes for a pilot that bears many hallmarks of its predecessors, but with an attitude that just seems a bit more determined and a whole lot more angry.
Take the opening scene. On the surface it’s almost a carbon copy of Studio 60’s own pilot, with Sorkin using a slightly unstable character as a mouthpiece that allows him to lash out at everything he sees as wrong in modern America. None of his previous rants have gone through Will McAvoy though, ‘the Jay Leno of anchormen’, who’s quite prepared to swear like a Yankee-skinned Malcolm Tucker. It’s a small point perhaps, but the fact that The Newsroom seems so comfortable with such profanity is a remarkable departure from anything Sorkin’s ever done before and makes it seem like this is his breaking point with television. It’s now or never and he’s going for it like a Rottweiler.
The problem is many of the other characters don’t seem to hold the same depth of character afforded to McAvoy. Jeff Daniel’s protagonist is at once the worst of modern media, ratings hungry and happy to compromise his values, but he’s also compelling in the way he is shown to still have standards buried underneath the ego. As long as he holds that edge and duality, he has a chance of being one of Sorkin’s best creations, but no one else stands out as this point. MacKenzie McHale, McAvoy’s challenging producer, is just an amalgamation of the other strong women Sorkin’s depicted over the years, and the team below them continues that theme of sticking to stock types from Studio 60 and Sports Night, his first show. What struck me most though was the oddly familiar character of Jim Harper. As an avid fan of the US version of The Office, the reporter seemed an absolute mirror image of Jim Halpert (the US version's equivalent of Tim from The Office UK). Their appearance, personality and even names seem so similar, and that’s before you even consider the awkward love triangle with Harper’s coworker, Margaret, and her boyfriend. The whole thing seems so surreally plagiarized and it gives the impression that Sorkin is just setting up comfortably familiar romantic subplots out of a forced obligation to keep viewers invested. The same could be said of the relationship between McAvoy and McHale, and indeed it’s a problem that’s been at the root of every Sorkin show that has failed. He always seems more concerned with the wider social issues, but if The Newsroom is to avoid the same fate as those before it, you can’t help but feel he needs to give the characters and their relationships the same level of care and attention.
Fortunately the wider social issues are ultimately what might prove to save the show and make it such an intriguing proposition. Presumably because it was written two years ago, the pilot focuses on the real life situation that occurred when BP’s oil was leaked all over the gulf of Mexico. Returning to such recent history automatically gives the show a stamp of authenticity and relatability, but the most fun part of this is that it allows us to watch with a privileged sense of hindsight. We know how the story turns out, so we can just sit back and wait to see if the characters figure it all out in time, or whether they get the complete wrong end of the stick. It also makes us root for certain characters like Harper when we know they’re getting it right and others are standing in their way.
In an age when we’re treated to nostalgia television like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, there’s a gap in the market for something that confronts the present as boldly as The Newsroom. What those other shows have though are the characters that underpin the social issues, and Sorkin has to realize that this is the formula for a great show and that it can’t work the other way round. He’s got it right before with The West Wing and if he can bring the supporting cast up to the same level as McAvoy, we’ll have a real show on our hands. It’s a production that wears its heart on its sleeve and in today’s world of generally cynical dramas, that’s a rare thing. Sorkin’s sense of morality has always been, along with his style, his greatest asset. If he can just, once more, find that rare balance with characterization, he might finally be able to truly showcase his talent in full HBO glory and get the plaudits his vision undeniably deserves. With a second series already confirmed, let’s hope he’s up for the task.
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