Aaron Sorkin’s new political drama THE NEWSROOM is look inside the intricate workings of one of the social body’s least understood organs, the mainstream news.
THE NEWSROOM uses the same carbon copy formula seen on the WEST WING, only set in a newsroom instead of the Oval Office. It’s pure Sorkin: a fictional portal into some of the biggest events that have shaped recent American history, with a style distinctly different than anything we’ve witnessed before from the industry heavyweight.
THE NEWSROOM has some bizarre flaws. However, with one the Big Screen’s best screenwriters at the helm, there is just too much good that it outweighs the bad. Let’s take a look.
A Drop of Water in the Desert of the Real
The NEWSROOM opens with what has to be one of the best scenes in television that depicts some form of our current political reality.
Instantly taking hold of the lead role, Jeff Daniels plays heavyweight news anchor Will McAvoy, an ex-lawyer, who delivers a Shakespearean-length soliloquoy of a response to a question posed to him on a talk show that cuts to the very heart of the American experience. I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice it to say, even if you don’t plan on watching anymore of the show, the first scene alone is worth watching.
THE NEWSROOM, while obviously not exactly how the media world plays out, depicts a media world that should seem all too familiar to anyone who has been paying attention. It’s political show, surely, but it makes obvious efforts to be highly entertaining, which is ironic given the message: the news shouldn’t be entertainment.
Contrast this to THE WEST WING. Most critics agree that government doesn’t operate in the neat and tidy format that Sorkin crafted between those clean white walls of 1999-2006. To me, it always played out much more like a thought experiment, drawing from real life elements, but existing somewhat removed.
In short, THE WEST WING showed us how a government might run. THE NEWSROOM shows us how the media should operate.
Emily Mortimer and the Sorkin Methodology
Mortimer plays MacKenzie Morgan “Mac” McHale, the lead producer of Newsnight with Will McAvoy, and also McAvoy’s ex-girlfriend. MacKenzie is maybe the most consistently bewildered character to ever grace television, but when it comes time to actually do her job, she shines. Like a quarterback out there, she commands play-by-play, complete with on-the-fly audibles. The more you watch her, the more you begin to appreciate and cheer for her in this role.
It actually reminds me a lot of NBC’s ER: One of the things that defined that show was the constant motion, dealing-with-disaster screenplay that is, to use another comparison, just short of the chaos witnessed in the “control room” of literally any Michael Bay movie ever written.
It’s the same thing with THE NEWSROOM, and is somewhat of a recurring theme in general for Sorkin Television: a level of competence in these highly intelligent professionals that only really comes together when it really needs to, and so makes you appreciate it even more. If there’s one thing that Sorkin really nails with the show, it’s the “stuff is happening, and people are dealing with it quickly” dynamic.
In fact, if you really watch the dialogue format for pretty much any five-minute Sorkin-written stretch, you’ll see some sort of juxtaposition between the extreme intelligence of the character(s) present, and their inability to deal with the basics of social interaction. This is the Sorkin secret sauce, and really starts to caramelize in Season Two.
Jim Halpert/Jim Harper
This one is weird.
The decision was made to bring in John Gallagher Jr. in to play Jim Harper, someone who both looks like, and has the same (looking) name as Jim Halpert from THE OFFICE. It’s not a coincidence. In fact, it’s so overwhelmingly intentional there are entire websites devoted to this topic.
‘Why would they do that?’ you ask yourself. I asked myself the same question. I even searched around the internet a little bit, but I found nothing in the way of a rationale. Just people like me confused and slightly angry. This is how my experience played out:
• When the first episode of the THE NEWSROOM opens with the on-screen duo of Margaret Jordan (played by Allison Pill) and Jim Harper instantly squaring off in the type of long-winded intellectual discussions that eventually and very subtly endeared the audience to THE WEST WING’s romantic possibilities in Sam and Donna, I took immediate notice.
• When it became clear that the character with the near-identical name as the guy from THE OFFICE would be embroiled in a near-enough love triangle as what we witnessed on THE OFFICE, I got scared.
• When Season One ended with a poorly-conceived reference to Sex and the City that played out more like a literal deleted scene from the show, I sat back, petrified, and I prayed to the Old Gods that Sorkin would simply kill off one or both of those characters in some Red Wedding episode.
More THE WEST WING Comparisons
Most critics tout THE WEST WING as Sorkin’s crowning jewel when it comes to screenplay and dialogue writing. Each episode was a Gilmore Girls-length encyclopedia of human exchange. Be it Sam and Donna, Toby and Josh, C.J. and Danny, or the President and Leo—whatever the dynamic you were looking for, you would find it encased in writing that stands up to the test of time.
THE NEWSROOM, on the other hand, is a little different. It might not hold up to television history as well because it’s so obviously playing to what people want to see, as opposed to what the storyline needs. (Case-in-point: the Jim Harper thing.) That said, however, no one can detract from Sorkin that when he has set out to make a political point or elucidate a particular idea, he hammers it home with the type of visceral clarity that leaves your television shaking afterward. Like when Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston debate the sportsmanship of Jesus and Moses when playing golf, or the famous opening to the fourth episode of Season One, The 112th Congress.
Naturally, the ability to insert explosive, highly creative dialogue comes with a price.
For example, the only real WEST WING-level chemistry between any of the characters is the less-explored relationship between longtime work partners Jim and MacKenzie. They have some great moments. And that’s kind of it for the magical exchanges that usually pollute any Sorkin screenplay. The rest of the dialogue for all of the characters plays out as contrived or over-produced. It’s intelligent, witty, and generally interesting, sure—but still forced.
Oh well. Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston debating the sportsmanship of Jesus and Moses when playing golf is awesome, and I’d trade it for Toby Zeigler’s fashion sense any day.
Season Two: First Impressions
We mostly just set the groundwork for in Season One, and with that plot development now cemented, we can seemingly move onto some real action in Season Two.
As the first episode of Season Two opens, we know that something has happened to the crew of Newsnight with Will McAvoy— something big—but it’s yet to be revealed what, exactly, that is.
What we know for sure is there is already less inane blabbering by Mortimer about backstory details more than established at this point, and more of Mortimer directing everyone else on how to tend to the open wound of some media coverage issue or another. Jim is gone—I couldn’t really care less where, or for how long. And Maggie has gone from being the equivalent of Pam on THE OFFICE to something much, much different. Even the loveable network head Charlie Skinner (played by the even more loveable Sam Waterston) is embroiled in an NSA spying scandal that looks like it could be the most promising of all those story arcs.
THE NEWSROOM has one of the best casts on television, complex plot architecture, and of course among the best-written dialogue you can on any medium. It may not go down as the “best” show Aaron Sorkin has ever produced, but as far as television shows go, it’s still a refreshing, intelligent option that stands out among the plethora of mediocre competitors out there.
Also, if THE WEST WING had never been made, I would probably be praising THE NEWSROOM even more.
Matthew is a writer and content specialist who is addicted to being on the front page of anything. A graduate of Dalhousie University, he specializes in using the em dash too often. Currently, Matthew works in the Gaming Industry. Check out a blatant example of his latest work here.