Difficult birth: Sorkin's new baby is HBO's Newsroom
06/21/12 09:04 AM
And now the news: Jeff Daniels as hot-tempered anchor Will McAvoy. HBO photos
Premiering: Sunday, June 24th at 9 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterston, John Gallagher, Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Dev Patel, Olivia Munn
Produced by: Aaron Sorkin, Scott Rudin, Alan Poul
By ED BARK
Sadly the initial premise is preposterous, or at the very least a long, long stretch.
But in the very fictional world of Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, anchor Will McAvoy somehow is succeeding handsomely with his prime-time cable news show by playing it straight down the middle and avoiding all political partisanship or feather-ruffling. The ratings are rock solid, with the only bumps in the road being Will's back-of-the-hand treatment of his staffers at the ACN network.
Real world realities find CNN diving ever deeper into a prime-time ratings hole by still striving to be a balanced alternative to the respective right-left agenda-pushers at Fox News Channel and MSNBC. McAvoy might fit right in at CNN. But he'd be bombing.
HBO's Newsroom, which begins a 10-episode run on Sunday, June 24th (Episode 1 runs 75 minutes), is the accomplished Sorkin's fourth television series and first for cable. He had limited success with ABC's Sports Night, struck out with NBC's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and succeeded magnificently with NBC's The West Wing. For the big screen he's written the words for A Few Good Men, The American President, The Social Network and Moneyball. So there's no discounting his talent.
On the other hand, Sorkin is a man of many written words, which often requires actors to spout them like busted fire hydrants. And his idealism, while admirable to a point, can sometimes gum up the works. Newsroom hits and misses on both counts.
Daniels is superb when on the air in his anchor garb. He's equally commanding off the air in scenes with his go-get-'em boss, Charlie Skinner (splendid work by a rejuvenated Sam Waterston), or former lover turned executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). She's newly returned to the States after 26 months as a war correspondent. Will doesn't like this at all, and their free-swinging repartee crackles in the early going.
But the series also spends undue time on the young love triangle of McHale import Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), naive, fluttery newcomer Margaret "Maggie" Jordan (Alison Pill) and McAvoy's cynical former executive producer, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski). She's particularly hard to take in some scenes. So are Jim's repeated hangdog expressions whenever Don has her in his embrace.
The nuts and bolts "drama" of putting together a newscast isn't enough to completely carry a scripted entertainment series. Still, the soap opera aspects of Newsroom are prolonged and grating at times. And every lengthy personal conversation between Jim and Maggie seems to be held within easy earshot of their fellow staffers. Cue the reaction shots -- again and again.
Newsroom begins with Will a panelist during a student forum at Northwestern University. He's a non-committal participant, though, prompting the moderator to reference a magazine article that calls him "the Jay Leno of news anchors" because of his determination to go along, get along.
Will finally takes the bait when a student asks him "What makes America the greatest country in the world?"
"I want a human moment from you," the moderator demands. Will gets on a roll, telling a growingly stunned audience that America no longer is the world's greatest country because it's succumbed to partisanship and infighting while letting the greater good go wanting. A piano tinkle kicks in before Will's big finish leads to an opening credit pantheon that includes images of network newsmen Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Don Hewitt and Dan Rather. The latter will be thrilled to be included. The others are all dead.
An enforced off-camera vacation ensues, with Will returning three weeks later to discover mass defections by his fed-up staff and an executive producer palace coup by Waterston's Charlie Skinner. He feels that MacKenzie is the only person who can both rein him in and rejuvenate his 8 p.m. (eastern) News Night hour.
"People will want the news if you give it to them with integrity," she tells Will after first re-branding him "Leno" for good measure. By this she means telling the truth and the whole truth rather than being "biased toward fairness." The first test of this maxim is the April 20, 2010 BP oil well explosion, with News Night emphasizing the resultant spillage while rival networks basically ignore this devastating after-effect during their initial reporting.
HBO has sent the first four episodes of Newsroom for review. It's set in the recent past rather than the present, enabling Sorkin to reference other actual big news events such as the Arizona immigration law, the rise of the Tea Party movement and the near-fatal shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Jan. 8, 2011.
"We don't do 'good television.' We do the news," MacKenzie proclaims near the start of Episode 2.
This is where it gets sticky. And sanctimonious. And inconsistent as well. MacKenzie's edict doesn't deter her from naming a leggy, beauteous ACN economist to do nightly five-minute segments on Will's News Night. Her rationale: you can't have someone who looks like George Bernard Shaw imparting such information to viewers. So much for substance over style and cosmetics.
Will repeatedly balks at the new ways, forcing an "Are you in or are you out?" confrontation with MacKenzie. Well, of course he's going to be in, with Sorkin rather ham-handedly ending Episode 2 with the embattled anchor gazing at the Statue of Liberty from his posh penthouse apartment after declaring his intentions.
Sorkin repeatedly has said that Daniels' character is not modeled after Keith Olbermann, the terminally dissatisfied and acidic cable anchor who's currently out of work again. One can take him at his word after Will makes an on-air declaration of news independence that ends with "I'll make no effort to subdue my personal opinions. I will make every effort to expose you to informed opinions that are different from my own."
Olbermann seldom if ever interviewed or included anyone with an opinion contrary to his own. So there you go.
Episode 3 also includes a guest appearance by Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, the no B.S. CEO of ACN's parent company, Atlantis World Media. She wants Will to "lay off" the Tea Party or face the consequences.
"I have business in front of the Congress, Charlie!" she tells Skinner during a well-played one-on-one showdown.
Unfortunately, the tabloid troubles that dog Will in Episode 4 are not even remotely believable after it's learned how they got started. Viewers also are supposed to believe that the entire News Night staff came in on a Saturday morning to hear more of colleague Neal Sampat's (Dev Patel) riffs on the existence of Big Foot and why it's a big story.
The episode rallies down its homestretch, though, with a galvanizing sequence tied to the Giffords shooting. Let's just note that a number of real-life networks declared her dead. And that ACN in contrast has one of its finest hours. But did they have to cue Coldplay's "Fix You" to further make the sale?
Through the first four episodes, Sorkin teeters between abject fantasy and believable fiction. Strong performances by Daniels, Waterston and Mortimer serve to offset some of Newsroom's excesses and missteps. But they can't negate them.
With six hours to go in Season 1, the old Murrow sign-off seems apt. Good night and good luck. Meanwhile, we'll grade Newsroom on the curve, because the promise is still there.