I’m going to level with you all: I love Aaron Sorkin, but I’m not a die-hard Aaron Sorkin fan. I enjoy Studio 60 because it’s about television, and I objectively understand and appreciate The West Wing for its contributions to dramatic television, but it is not (and probably never will be) my favorite TV show. I’ve seen… oh, maybe the first two seasons in entirety, and I’m sure someday my best friend Elspeth (who adores The West Wing with the kind of love I myself reserve for Firefly) will sit me down and encourage me to watch all seven seasons, which will be great, because I love Sorkin.
I love the way he writes, I love the walk-and-talk, I love his intelligent characters and the way you can find pieces of Sorkin himself–subtly and unsubtly–planted in everything he creates. He is, in my mind, a true artist and auteur, and he is one of the most talented American screenwriters of our time. So it is with unabashed enthusiasm that I anticipated the premier of his new HBO show The Newsroom, and it is with unabashed enthusiasm that I can say… I loved it. Most of it. 90% of it.
In light of this, I want to try a new way of reviewing television (and possibly books, but I kind of like my the good/the bad/the verdict system): “Love It” and “Leave It.” I’ll give a brief low-down of the plot, then jump right into what worked and what didn’t: in short, what I loved and what I could have done without.
Famously impartial news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) effectively shoots himself in the foot when he loses his cool and rants to a crowd of fresh-faced, 20-something college students that no, America isn’t the greatest country in the world because this is the worst generation in the world and all the babies are dying and everyone is in debt and life just generally sucks. After a three week vacation to calm down from the scandal, Will returns to his office to learn that, well, one of his reporters is moving to a 10:00 anchor slot, and he’s taking Will’s Executive Producer, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), who is, in turn, taking half of Will’s staff… with the exception of his (kind of secret) girlfriend, Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), who is Will’s assistant, and opts to stay with her boss (even though he insists on calling her Ellen!) out of loyalty.
Will’s awesome, drunk boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the president of the news division, hires MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a brilliant EP who has spent the last three years reporting in a war zone. MacKenzie is Will’s ex-girlfriend, so Will fights this tooth and nail. Mac brings along Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr) as a senior producer.
Bing, bang, boom, the BP Oil Spill off the Gulf Coast hits and everyone scrambles to get statements from BP and Halliburton and report the news that the spill is actually a very serious environmental concern and everyone is temporarily distracted from their personal issues for a moment while they focus on doing their jobs, and doing them well.
1) The Sorkin-isms
I wish I could describe how good it felt to watch two people walk briskly down a hallway while carrying on a vigorous discussion about whether poaching EPs (and thus poaching a news staff) is a gentlemanly thing to do. I think the closest I can come to describing my feeling is to use the same phrase I used when I heard the score of Bunheads–the score that so closely resembles the score of Gilmore Girls that I could have closed my eyes and believed I was in Stars Hollow. It felt like coming home.
There’s also Sorkin’s trademark quick dialogue, his more-than-occasionally sanctimonious monologues, and, oh yeah, a boss who is incredibly difficult to work with despite the affable public face he shows the world. In short, if Will McAvoy was a recovering drug addict, he would essentially be Aaron Sorkin himself.
Specifically MacKenzie. Oh Lord do I adore MacKenzie. The moment she told Jim that Maggie is her “before I grew into myself and got hotter with age,” is the moment I knew that Mac and I were destined to be homegirls for life. I also love Maggie, because she’s a spaz, and Jim, because he sticks to his guns. Will is going to take a bit of warming up, and I’m like 90% sure I will never like Don because he may be a well-crafted character, but he’s still a jackass.
Here’s the thing. With the exception of Charlie (President Bartlett’s aid in The West Wing) and Zoey (Bartlett’s daughter), there are very few Sorkin characters in their early to mid 20s. And even those characters aren’t part of my generation. Sports Night aired from 1998 to 2000. The West Wing from 1999-2006. I was 18 when Studio 60 was cancelled after one season in 2007. In short, I was never able to really, truly, genuinely relate to the young characters in Aaron Sorkin’s shows because I was always younger than them. And I have never been able to relate to the older characters in Sorkin’s shows (the ones in their 30s, 40s and beyond) because I was (and am) far younger than they are. The West Wing didn’t talk about Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. The Newsroom does; in a way that both speaks to and patronizes my generation and my parents generation.
It’s actually pretty genius. “Young lady, get on your Twitter account,” Charlie orders a young researcher while Will McAvoy reads the news. He asks her to tell the Twitterverse that this broadcast is done on the fly, and that the EP is the only person running the news. He wants her to point out that this is an incredible feat of trust between the anchor and the EP. Her response? “I can only use 140 characters.”
For the first time, Aaron Sorkin–the man who hates the internet, whose involvement in the development and production of The Social Network is nothing short of hilarious and ironic–incorporates the internet into a television series. McAvoy called my generation the worst generation ever, but Sorkin doesn’t seem to feel that way–if he did, he wouldn’t have given us characters like Maggie, who is loyal, kind and smart, or Jim, who is tenacious and firm without losing his professional politeness. Sorkin wouldn’t have given us quick-witted Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), who runs McAvoy’s blog (the blog McAvoy didn’t realize he had). If Sorkin truly believed that my generation is a scourge on the earth, he would have populated this show with characters like Don: selfish, driven and mean spirited.
1) The show is set in 2010.
What’s more, the show didn’t inform us that it was set in 2010 until 34 minutes in. This was roughly 20 minutes after Will, Charlie and Don discussed a satellite interview with General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, which left me both confused and rather proud of myself. Confused because McChrystal resigned from his post as Commanding General of the Afghanistan War in July of 2010, and proud of myself because I actually knew that fact.
The reason I’m concerned about the fact that this show is set in 2010 is because… well… everything has already happened. We know how the Gulf oil spill turns out and we know how serious it is because we watched the news two years ago when it occurred. The drama is still there, because the acting and writing are very good, but it loses some of the suspense. The West Wing (and if I’m wrong, please correct me West Wing fans), was set in the present, but it fictionalized common political issues, like presidential pardons or dealing with the religious right. As a show it took hot-button political issues and presented them in a less threatening way because, hey, it’s just fiction, right?
I’m just worried that The Newsroom is shooting itself in the foot by purposefully setting the story two years in the past, but that’s something that only time will tell.
What do you think? Did you love The Newsroom as much as I did? Are you worried about the past setting or are you confident that Sorkin can make it work? Or are you tired of Aaron Sorkin all together and wish he would go back to writing movies about baseball and Facebook? Tell all in the comments!