I read a story recently in which writer/show creator Aaron Sorkin described himself as an 'aspirational' writer. I would use the word 'idealist' but we both mean the same thing: when Sorkin writes he creates the world he'd like to see, the people we could be. Flawed, but trying to be our best.
He did that most famously in "The West Wing" but you could see it also in "Sports Night" too. And that characteristic is prominent in "The Newsroom" (10 p.m. Sunday, HBO), his latest series, a workplace show about a cable news program.
It's signature Sorkin, full of big ideas, smart talky people, grand gestures, and neurotic love affairs. And I really really liked it.
I might be picking a fight; some critics have weighed in and really really hate 'The Newsroom." Sorkin is in a tricky spot; his show takes on journalism and faces criticism by journalists. Let me let you in on something: No one is harder on journalism than a journalist (and often, we get real defensive when someone other than a journalist is hard on the field). And, journalists, trained to be skeptical, sometimes move toward its cousin, cynical. Idealism doesn't sit well with cynical folks.
That's not to say "The Newsroom" doesn't have missteps. At the center of the show is Will McAvoy (an energized Jeff Daniels), a news anchor -- he has the wry and dry Midwestern mien of Tom Brokaw--for the ACN network. Will is old school; he doesn't share his opinions publicly, preferring to keep his moderate Republican views to himself. But at a public forum, what seems a hallucinatory moment, sparks the kind of honest outburst that gets the old school newsman suspended for a while.
When Will returns to work, untested associate producer Margaret (Alison Pill) is still around, but just about everyone else has jumped ship to another show, including Margaret's beau Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will's executive producer. Turns out Charlie (Sam Waterston), the president of the news division, liked what Will said and wants to build a new show inspired by the anchor's forthrightness. He brings in Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer), a respected news producer; Mackenzie brings in Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.), as senior producer. Mackenzie used to date Will. And Jim quickly develops a crush on Margaret.
The show "News Night" aims to be is what Sorkin wishes all journalism would become: sensible. He discusses the notion of balance, the rigid idea that there's two sides to every issue, when sometimes there isn't (his example is the birther agenda). He highlights having reasonable discussions with reasonable, informed people. (In one episode of the four I screened, he shows what happens when his staff falls down on the job and can only provide pinheads for an on-air segment.) He doesn't shy away from an anchor offering an opinion or two because everyone knows the anchor has one.
Sorkin makes a choice I thought was smart: "The Newsroom" is set in the recent past, 2010; news events viewers are familiar with (the BP oil spill, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords) are explored, so we can see what would have happened had these stories been handled differently. It reinforces the point that media creates perception, and that once that perception is created, it can almost never be undone.
For sure these are not new ideas or observations, but Sorkin brings his usual thoughtfulness and formidable writing skills to bring them to life. I'm less interested in the relationship stuff -- the Triangle between Jim, Maggie and Don and the 'will they or won't they' between Will and Mackenzie. The relationship I do love is between Will and Charlie. I'll fess up: Sam Waterston is Happiness approved (as are Jeff Goldblum, Allison Janney and Regina King); we feel compelled to strike you if you say anything bad about him. Even so, Waterston seems unleashed by this role. In a bow tie and with an impish grin, he gets to say words and act in ways we never saw from Jack McCoy, Waterston's character for 16 seasons on "Law & Order." I've met his type before; a man's man who doesn't isn't afraid of much, who feels younger than he is.
I don't think Sorkin has as good a grip on Neal (Dev Patel), who writes Will's blog and who represents the new journalism of the Internet, the camera phone. There's this too-long joke of Neal's fascination with Bigfoot that just doesn't go anywhere. (Maybe that's reflective of modern journalism which has no idea what to do with the Internet either.)
But, again, there's much to like and I'm curious to see where Sorkin takes us. There's a herd mentality in media, which the show also highlights, one fueled by ratings, and now, clicks. The cost for not following the herd can be your job.
But Sorkin, the idealist, believes things can change if we want it to; viewers, in a sense, can be weaned off of the journalism that's been served and learn to ingest something better. Great journalism is created in that space. In an entertainingly messy way, "The Newsroom" tries to show us what that would look like.