You know you’re watching an Aaron Sorkin drama when a character in The Newsroom launches into a monologue that covers the history of American journalism, the basis of a democratic society, and the major themes of Don Quixote. Cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is angry about the state of his profession, and like so many of Sorkin’s characters, he makes this clear in hyper-articulate fashion.
The Newsroom’s pilot focuses on some familiar issues, the value of free speech and the duty of the press to expose corporate and political wrongdoing. Will’s first speech—occasioned by a college panel discussion—makes a broader point too, that the United States is no longer “the best country in the world.” The rest of the episode picks up several weeks later, after the outburst has gone viral. Will returns to work on News Night to find that his boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), has taken Will’s ideas to heart, and has restructured the production team.
Chief among the changes is the new producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who is determined to draw Will and News Night away from bland content towards more investigative reporting. An oil spill in the Atlantic and the culpability of the drilling company involved give the team the opportunity to act on her vision by turning a breaking news story into an insightful exposé.
It’s helpful that Charlie is so supportive this turn, which we know because he speaks nostalgically of the news industry’s glory days during the 1950s and 1960s. It’s also helpful that the team’s collective professional drive is framed by personal tensions. While Will and MacKenzie clash over what appears to be a past relationship, they also push each other to be better journalists. Initial disputes over how to cover the oil spill story give way to mutual respect between young producer Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.) and veteran Don (Thomas Sadowski). The show also provides the requisite newbie’s perspective via production assistant Margaret (Alison Pill), who struggles to prove her worth to her employers while also beginning to question her somewhat one-sided romantic relationship with Don.
As this summary suggests, The Newsroom repeats the Sorkin formula. Here again, the players make elaborate speeches, engage each other in heated debates, and reveal deeply felt principles and investments in their work. In The West Wing, this formula framed struggles to avoid professional compromises and negotiate personal crises. The Newsroom provides a complement to the Bartlett administration in its idealized cable news show, one where the workers are committed to the truth, flawed but ever passionate.
The Newsroom asserts a belief in the potential power of “quality journalism,” but that ambition is repeatedly and necessarily complicated by the compromises that sustain systems of communication based on corporate bottom lines and partisan politics. As MacKenzie points out to Will, trying to balance excellence and the pressures of commercial television ratings and sponsorship may be admirable, but it means chasing a dream with little chance of effecting real change.
The Newsroom’s argument that “quality” television is rooted in this kind of romantic risk makes it a good fit for HBO’s self-branding as a network willing to support the vision of its creators, no matter how far outside of mainstream taste that may be. However, aside from some profanity, there’s nothing in The Newsroom‘s first episode that distinguishes it from Sorkin’s broadcast shows. The Newsroom is Sorkin squared—its ideals more pronounced, its monologues more frequent, its creative indulgences turned into a primary draw for fans of his writing style.
Which creates a problem. If you’re a Sorkin fan, you’ll be a Newsroom fan, and happy to pay HBO for a weekly fix of his writing. But if you’re like me, and enjoy his characters’ complex relationships and ideals but feel put off by the earnestness of their delivery, then The Newsroom will be an amped up version of the previous shows. The Newsroom is timely, well acted, and big-hearted, but offers few surprises.