It's in some ways appropriate that the legendary film critic Andrew Sarris passed away just as the chatter about "The Newsroom," Aaron Sorkin's new show about cable news, reached a fever pitch. Sarris was most famous for bringing the auteur theory -- which said that the director and the director's vision is the true creative centerpiece of a film-- to a wide American audience. It's largely thanks to the endurance of that theory that we're often willing to see a movie solely because of who is directing it.
Television has become a wildly auteurist medium as well. Viewers obsess over showrunners and creators (witness the recent frenzy over whether or not "Community" will ever be the same without Dan Harmon) in the same way that they do over film directors.
Sorkin, whose iron and obsessive fist over his shows is well known, is a television auteur if ever there was one. He can get an audience to follow him, for the very good reason that he's been the primary creative force behind some fantastic television in the past.
A pity, then, that the pilot of "The Newsroom" (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO) is such a letdown -- a case of auteurism gone awry.
Last week, I saw Wes Anderson's new "Moonrise Kingdom." Anderson is an auteurist's dream, someone who has a distinct world that he wants to return to over and over again. His movies aren't set in any recognizable place -- they're all in an off-kilter corner of his mind, with their own mannerisms and environments.
But it's tough when you're so unerringly committed to a particular kind of vision. Get it right and your uniqueness is thrilling. Get it wrong and you've descended into insufferable self-parody. "Moonrise Kingdom" happened to be the first Anderson film in a great while where I thought his personal tics hadn't gotten the better of him.
I cannot say the same of Sorkin with "The Newsroom." All of his dangerous creative lines have been crossed in the first episode. He's most famous for his writing, that dense, quick-fire patter that he's likened rightfully to music. Here, his characters get woefully off-key, bogged down by interminable speechifying. Sorkin always likes to throw a large helping of screwball comedy into the mix; in "The Newsroom," the attempts at comedy mostly fall flat. Mostly though, his sanctimony, always in danger of boiling over, seems to have exploded out of control. The audience drowns in it.
As the episode starts, it's the spring of 2010, and Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is speaking before a bunch of college kids on a panel. A famous TV journalist, he's supposed to be the sober, impartial centrist, sandwiched between a conservative and a liberal. Will makes a point of never revealing his political leanings, so he gives evasive answers to policy questions. Then, a young woman gets up and asks the panelists to say why America is "the greatest country in the world." (Which is totally something someone would ask, ever.)
Will's answer doesn't satisfy the panelist, who says he won't let him leave until he gives him a "human moment." (Which is totally something that would happen.) Then Will launches into a tirade about how, since America is "seventh in literacy" and several other statistics, he doesn't know "what the fuck [the girl is] talking about -- Yosemite?" (Which is also something that would happen, though it's a good line.)
Now, I cover the media for a living, so it's possible that I'm not willing to cut Sorkin as much slack as others. First of all: We all remember that time that Brian Williams was speaking at a college campus and some interviewer pinned him to his chair and refused to let him leave until he talked about how much he loves America, right? And then he flipped out? Yeah, I don't remember that either.
Yes, this is a TV show, and it's not supposed to reflect reality perfectly. In an earlier interview I did with Sorkin, he made this point very nicely. "At the risk of sounding too cute, it's not important to me that something be real, but it's very important to me that it feels real," he said.
He's got a problem, though: "The Newsroom" doesn't feel real. Instead, it's trapped in some weird alternate universe. The very retro opening credits show pictures of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and Dan Rather -- giving off the impression of someone with a view of the media determinedly preserved in amber.
When Will goes into his big rant, he eulogizes a time when the nation was "informed by great men -- men who were revered." Oh boy. Five minutes in, and this already?
The fallout is swift. Blaming vertigo medication, Will leaves the country (we're meant to believe he brings Erin Andrews with him). When he gets back, the staff of his show, "News Night," has all fled to another show and his boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, very shouty, but quite a loveable rogue here), has brought back his ex-producer and ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) to run his program. This is a Very Big Deal, as is immediately made clear by Will's total freakout. We get a lot of "over my dead body" kind of back-and-forths, and hints of some ugly fallout between MacKenzie and Will.
We also meet her producing partner Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.). He immediately gets shoved into a love triangle with Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill, wasted in this episode), an assistant who gets bumped up to associate producer, and Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will's former executive producer. This last plot point is especially tedious; MacKenzie almost literally tells Jim, "go flirt with Maggie," and then he does. It's a transparently lazy method on Sorkin's part.
As MacKenzie, Mortimer falls victim to what The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum has correctly identified as the show's bad habit of failing the "show don't tell" test. She comes onto the scene fresh from a rough tour as a foreign correspondent, so we get repeated references to the "two Peabodys and the scar from covering a Shiite protest in Islamabad" that she picked up along the way. "She's been to way too many funerals for a girl her age," we're told.
Mortimer also gets stuck with some of the more excruciating monologues. MacKenzie has returned with the intention of veering away from Will's flavorless pandering and making a hard-hitting news show -- a sort of hour-long version of Anderson Cooper's "Keeping Them Honest" segment -- instead. In her efforts to convince Will of this, she actually says things like, "There's nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate!" Spare me, please.
Mortimer and Daniels have decent chemistry, though they don't crackle together yet. Daniels is energetic in the role, but Will's a perpetual crank ("I'm affable!" he shouts at one point, one of the funnier lines in the episode). He's bogged down --well, everyone is, but him most of all -- by Sorkin's penchant for self-righteousness and self-pity in his characters.
MacKenzie is cast firmly in the kooky-klutzy-scatterbrained mold that almost all high-powered, seemingly brilliant female characters seem to get shoved into. Mortimer is charming, but I fear the path MacKenzie is on, and Sorkin hasn't made me care about her relationship with Will yet.
Will also sits down with Charlie to fret about this supposedly pathbreaking new turn the show might take. It's another chat that shows the bubble Sorkin appears to be living in. Anchors getting aggressive and calling people out? You must be joking!
"Anchors having an opinion isn't a new phenomenon," Charlie tells him. "Murrow had one and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one and that was the end of Vietnam."
Putting aside the dubiousness of those claims, a more relevant line would have said something like "Keith Olbermann had one..." But Sorkin seems to go back and forth on whether or not he wants to try to connect with the way the media world actually works these days. It's here where we also find out that Will is a registered --but moderate!--Republican. We'll see how that goes.
Then the show shifts. An oil rig has exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, and Don, who's still the nominal EP, doesn't want to give it much thought. But Jim senses a bigger story and, over Don's objections, the team pursues it. Of course, this is the right thing to do, as the BP scandal winds up spiraling out of control. Will suddenly morphs into a dogged, incisive questioner, flexing muscles that have supposedly long been dormant as he tangles with Halliburton representatives. The power of journalism is laid bare for all to see, etc.
Leaving aside the fact that hard-hitting investigative journalism barely ever originates from a cable news show, this part of the episode is more pleasant to watch. Sorkin's decision to use real-life events as a backdrop is risky, but the pursuit of the story does at least make the pace of the episode pick up, and I'm a sucker for reportorial zeal. There are a lot of triumphant violins, and then a few really quite stupid plot twists between Will and MacKenzie, and the pilot wraps up. Whew!
Now, I'm making it seem like this show might be irredeemable. It's not irredeemable. Sorkin is a frequently great writer. He's got a really, really good cast. It's foolish to write any of them off after one or two episodes. But, so far, I'm very worried. Nine more episodes of this? Let's hope not.
"The Newsroom" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.
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