Somewhere around the second episode of HBO's newest drama, The Newsroom, from creator Aaron Sorkin, viewers might ask why this show is on HBO. There's no nudity, there's some swearing but nothing that couldn't be toned down for broadcast television or replaced by words that wouldn't change the intent of the script. So, why?
Well, outside of the obvious -- that HBO wants to be in business with creators like Sorkin, whose résumé is well known -- Newsroom is one of those shows that can't be screened in the big tent of broadcast television because it's political at its core, and this country is so partisan that a political series wouldn't get sustainable ratings and might be more trouble than it's worth to the parent company of said broadcast network.
Interestingly enough, that's kind of what Sorkin is getting at in the heart of Newsroom, where he's trying to talk about journalism, truth, ignorance and politics in much the same way he did with The West Wing, a series that would never see the light of day -- or primetime -- on a broadcast network in 2012.
And so Newsroom comes to HBO, which isn't worried about advertiser backlash or lack of ratings. What the channel gets is pure Sorkin -- take that any way you want, depending on how you feel about Sorkin. Are the characters exceptionally quick-witted, and do they dabble in fast-paced repartee? Yes. Do characters often talk in what could best be described as elaborate, heartfelt and intellectual monologues? They do. Sorkin has historically been prone to what's called monologueing, but perhaps it should be called soap-boxing in his case because there's always that nagging feeling that you're listening to a lecture. And finally, is Newsroom earnest? Yes, because pretty much everything Sorkin does is earnest -- and if you didn't know that before, you'll know it when you hear the swelling orchestration in the introduction and at the end of some, well, earnest scenes.
If you're not put off by those Sorkin traits, then Newsroom might be a drama that hooks you. It stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, anchor and managing editor of the News Night newscast on the fictional ACN cable news channel, who is both described and derided as "Jay Leno" because he's afraid to alienate anyone, preferring to live in the ratings-friendly middle ground. The conceit of Newsroom is that Will wasn't always that vanilla, that back in the day he was more devoted to real news and facts, not worrying about how these might offend anyone in either political party. That was when he was dating Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), his smart, respected producer. He's never really recovered from the break-up.
Will doesn't snap out of his Leno-ness until he's trapped at a debate between someone on the far left and another on the far right and he's forced to answer a question about whether America is the greatest country on earth. Under mounting pressure to not answer like Switzerland, he starts to panic and believes he sees Mackenzie in the crowd urging him to speak his mind.
Which he does, necessitating a three-week vacation and forever changing News Night.
That's because Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the old-school journalist who runs the ACN news division, decides to hire Mackenzie while Will is off. She'd been away covering Iraq and Afghanistan, and Will of course blows up when he returns. He also has to face the fact that the people he works with don't like him and most have opted to join Will's former executive producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) and move to the show that will be hosted by Elliot Hirsch (David Harbour) airing right after News Night.
Among the staff that's left for Will and Mackenzie to kick-start a radical new News Night are Margaret (Alison Pill), an intern promoted by accident, and Neal (Dev Patel), who writes Will's blog, even though Will doesn't know he has a blog. (Newsroom has an enormous cast, including people like Jane Fonda and Olivia Munn who get introduced slowly in future episodes.)
So what Sorkin has on his chessboard with these people are precisely the targets he's most interested in nailing or beatifying. He can skewer modern journalism as a product more interested in ratings than actual news and, in the same process, dismiss Americans who choose the news they want to hear from "news" outlets that have become increasingly subjective.
And he can do it by making ACN one of the guilty parties, as News Night is the only show buying into Mackenzie and Will's new blueprint while the show that follows, run by Don, is covering "human interest" stories.
It allows Sorkin to use Daniels' character to theoretically skewer both Democrats and Republicans since the reformed anchor is making decisions based on the theory that there aren't two sides to every story, only facts.
"Who are we? We are the media elite," Will says in his editorial comment announcing the new direction of News Night. And by elite, Sorkin is taking a word used to denigrate journalism and turning it into an affirmation of logic, of intelligence.
It's a given that Sorkin would like to take on the plague of anti-intellectualism that runs amok in political circles (and thus the country at large), but the question for Newsroom is whether that's actually interesting or dramatic, particularly over the long haul.
"We don't do good television, we do the news," Will tells a numbers-cruncher at ACN who's concerned about declining ratings. Newsroom could be good television -- maybe even very good television -- if it can keep that sense of lecturing (or some might say smugness) at bay.
On the plus side, you have to applaud Sorkin's ability to milk emotion whenever he wants. He can make the politically jaded feel patriotic and the cynical see hope. The man can write. And cue the orchestra and set up the soap box -- Sorkin is always true to himself.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Sunday, June 24 (HBO)