Nickel and Dimed: Two Cents on HBO’s The Newsroom [Review]

“We Just Decided To”

June 24th, 2012

I saw all of the tweets about The Newsroom leading up to its debut. I saw them build with excitement around its beginnings, and then I saw them increase in volume while splintering off into numerous factions in the months leading up to its premiere. With some shows, screeners go out and very little is said about them within the critical community, with any chatter confined to backchannels. With The Newsroom, though, the conversation couldn’t help but spill out into public, and it became almost a rite of passage for critics to announce their opinion of the show so as to line up into certain camps.

This isn’t abnormal, precisely: whenever critics write a review, they are stating their opinion and implicitly entering into a particular group of critics who felt a particular way about a particular series. However, everything about the critical discourse around The Newsroom has been explicit, at least following it on Twitter: this is partly because of the show itself (which is divisive), and partly because of creator Aaron Sorkin (who has a divisive history), and partly because of the show’s would-be relationship to the sociopolitical. Without suggesting that Aaron Sorkin has actually made a television show that will change the news media and those who bear witness to it (which he has not, just so we’re entirely clear), the fact that he wants to renders critical evaluations into sociopolitical evaluations for some, with the rejection or acceptance of Sorkin’s worldview becoming a reflection of the critic’s own.

I don’t believe this to be true, of course, and have not read into—or read, actually—any of those critics’ reviews. When I realized that I would be going into The Newsroom tonight with the rest of the viewing public, I chose not to read the various intelligent, well-reasoned, divisive reviews of the series in advance; I knew I was going to watch it, and Twitter had already told me that the show is a case of “Your Mileage May Vary,” and part of me wanted to escape the discourse of Sorkin, and the media, and worldviews in favor of a more simple question.

Is The Newsroom an effective television pilot? A recent Facebook thread featuringprofessors/grad students discussing potential pilots to screen for students in a Television class got me thinking about this. On one level, you want to show students something great, something that grabs their attention and potentially sends them off to watch the rest of the series: we had a number of students do this with Friday Night Lights this past semester, for example. However, you could also show them a failed pilot (like David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman, which I know the folks at the Good TVeets Con recently watched) and ask them where they think it went wrong.

While both strategies have merit, and are probably easier ways to communicate how pilots are intended to work, part of me wants to show them The Newsroom, which manages to succeed and fail in the same moments. Everything that works about The Newsroom is also everything that doesn’t, as Sorkin’s powerful use of momentum means we never have time to stop and connect to something more than a feeling that may not last as long as the show might like. I am aware that too much ink has probably been spent on the show already, and I’m likely repeating things many others have said, but I can’t deny that answering even this simply question left me plenty to say about The Newsroom.

Aaron Sorkin is not one known for his moments of quiet contemplation, but The Newsroom desperately needs them. For me, there is no moment where “We Just Decided To” falls off the rails, no breaking point where my opinion turned against the show. The problem, instead, was the feeling at the end of the pilot that Sorkin believed it was sufficient plot development to create a crisis (in this case the breaking news regarding what would become the BP Oil Spill) and have it turn into a tornado that forced everyone to stop their lives and focus on something bigger than themselves. In that moment, Sorkin argues, the people at News Night were not focused on personal struggles or pending changes or budding love triangles: instead, they were focused on the fucking news, man.

I am aware this sounds facetious, and I did find it worthy of a few eye rolls, but I’ll admit that I was equally wrapped up in it. I wasn’t exactly shocked when the date popped up on the screen which confirmed the “alternate recent history” part of the series given that Twitter conversation had alluded to it, but it did provide that moment of excitement. By using what we know becomes an important moment in recent American history, and by focusing on how this media organization responded, Sorkin got to make his statement about the state of the news media, wrapping up each character in the ideologies embedded therein. And because things happen so quickly, and because Emily Mortimer is charismatic, and Alison Pill is difficult to resist, I was right there with them: the News Night broadcast that we see constructed is a masterpiece, with every story falling into place and every detail positioned to reward the hard (team)work of the people involved.

However, the broadcast is a masterpiece that can never be recaptured. The Newsroom cannot tell the story of how a ragtag group of dysfunctional co-workers scrambles to pull together a newscast and stumbles into a defining moment every week, which means that “We Just Decided To” can never truly be replicated in terms of its formal structure. On the one hand, this makes the pilot seem immediately exceptional: it is very quickly apparent that these events are the product of an elaborate set of circumstances (Will’s meltdown, MacKenzie’s arrival, etc.) which enabled something special to happen. It provides an immediacy, a “behind-the-scenes” chaos that gets you hooked and makes you more likely to grab the remote and program a season pass when the episode ends (which my father did, having known nothing about the series before I sat down to watch it with him while home on vacation).

And yet—and I will admit this is a slightly cynical point—this moment can never come again. The problem with an exceptional pilot is that the show is about to settle into circumstances that are the precise opposite of exceptional. If the show runs for multiple seasons, we’re going to see dozens of News Night broadcasts, and then we face the problem: while I suppose it’s possible that every episode will feature a stirring response to a pending crisis (which would be an entirely different problem), The Newsroom will in time become a show that covers people delivering news that isn’t quite so exceptional. “We Just Decided To” successfully sells me on the idea that The Newsroom is able to compellingly render the chaos and uncertainty of covering a major breaking news event, but that tells me very little about what the show will look like when it tells different kind of stories.

In other words, “We Just Decided To” so privileges the thrilling potential of cable news when filtered through the right ideology that it never stops to sell us on the people it’s being filtered through. It’s repeated multiple times in the script that Will is hard on his employees, but so is Aaron Sorkin’s script. Although Will gets a big showy moment to open the episodes, every other character is defined more through what we’re told about them. There’s no more egregious case than Don and Maggie’s first conversation, in which Sorkin ever so eloquently—read: the opposite of eloquently—drops in a line for Maggie where she sums up their respective identities and career trajectories. The line is clunky and unnecessary, exposition for the sake of expediency, and it proves a microcosm of a pilot that’s so caught up in the thrill of the moment that the characters are left to fight for an identity beyond the one prescribed to them.

On the surface, “We Just Decided To” feels like your typical “Assemble the Team” narrative, as we see characters like Jim (a very likeable John Gallagher Jr.), Neal (a likeable Dev Patel), and Maggie (the aforementioned Alison Pill) all play a key role in transitioning the explosion in the gulf from a basic search-and-rescue story into a piece of hard-hitting breaking news reporting, coming together alongside Will and MacKenzie to form the group of people we will follow in the rest of the series. However, Sorkin’s script fails when it explains their success based less on individual talent or ability, and more on the result of what happens when people simply believe in the idea of reporting hard news. Jim just happens to have two sources at the center of the conflict: he calls himself lucky, but what he is is contrived. I like the character, based primarily on Gallagher Jr.’s performance, but the idea of him is so tied into the idea of the series (which, being a Sorkin show, is so tied into the monologues of its two leads) that his individuality is largely lost. The same goes for Neal and Maggie, other characters who feel like they were more for, and made by, this moment as opposed to feeling like people who existed beforehand.

I will admit upfront that there will be time for more character development in the future, and that the reductive and in some cases non-existent characterizations here will not stay this way forever. However, origins matter, and you will forgive me if I have my doubts that Sorkin’s balance between ideas and characters won’t be changing anytime soon. “We Just Decided To” sold me on the power of Sorkin’s central idea to pull together a compelling 65-minute story about how the power of journalism can bring people together to do what they know best: inform the people on issues that should be important to them. However, the pilot failed to sell me on the power of Sorkin’s central idea to sustain an entire series without more well-drawn characters to deliver it, or challenge it, or simply to live within it. I do not outright reject Sorkin’s ideas, some of which I empathize with, but I see very little evidence for their ability to interact with nuanced characters. Everyone we see here is so defined by them, or against them, that the excitement felt by episode’s end only served to emphasize the sinking feeling that any optimism about the show’s future would be short-sighted (and short-lived).

It is impossible to suggest this isn’t colored by the critical response to the first four episodes, which many critics argue get worse as they go along; I’ve heard this, and therefore perhaps saw the alarm bells where perhaps I might not have seen them before. I am not writing the series off, and will watch further episodes even if I’m not going to have time to write about them. However, taken as a pilot, “We Just Decided To” is perfectly captured by the show’s title sequence: a glossy idea, wistfully depicted, into which characters vaguely resembling human beings are dropped in order to be swept away in the romance of it all.

I was swept away about fifteen minutes; I’m less convinced that I’ll be swept away for an entire season.

Cultural Observations

  • I know it’s a fun little cameo, and complaining about being pulled out of the reality of a show with such a low bar for “reality” is silly, but I got really distracted by Jesse Eisenberg’s voice cameo as the MMS inspector.
  • Speaking of characters, I have a hard time reconciling Sam Waterston in the early scenes with Sam Waterston in the final scenes. I get that Will’s understanding of the situation has changed, but why in the world didn’t that character explain his brilliant plan to bring MacKenzie in to help Will regain his focus except to allow the pilot to be transformative rather than aspirational?
  • I could write an entire post comparing the Friday Night Lights pilot with The Newsroom pilot, but I’ll leave that for another day. I would contend, though, that pilots built around tragedy are almost always more successful than those built around triumph (a theory that Bunheads is currently testing as well), but I’d like to hear more thoughts on this.
  • Related: Are there any other “Assemble the Team” pilots we can think of? I wonder if these episodes work better once a show has been established (see: Mad Men’s “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”) and the burden of character development vs. plot/theme has a better balance. Just an idea.
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5 Comments

Filed under The Newsroom

5 responses to “Nickel and Dimed: Two Cents on HBO’s The Newsroom [Review]

  1. Liz

    On the last question, Fringe and Chuck? And while it’s not a traditional pilot, I think there’s an element of “Assemble the Team” in the way the Battlestar Galactica miniseries introduces its characters in the context of the transition from peace to war.

  2. I’ve been spending some of my summer catching up on/starting great tv shows that I’ve missed and the first one that came to mind for an “Assemble the Team” pilot is The Wire. In fact it kind of assembles two teams since we meet the team of police officers as well as the Barksdale organization.

    • marsha

      I’ve been doing the same thing with my summer so I’m on the prowl for good shows to start watching. I haven’t gotten a chance to check out The Wire. I’ll have to give that one a shot. My schedule at my job for Dish is so hectic that I usually can’t keep up with programs these days. Hopefully I’m not starting too late to catch up! Do you know when it comes on so I can DVR it? Also, do you have any other show recommendations for me? I just upgraded my DVR to the Hopper so I have tons of recording space I am looking to fill up! I’m sick of watching reruns of the same stuff on TV so let me know what else to check out!

  3. Pingback: The Newsroom — “We Just Decided To” « Wayward Television

  4. Where would you place the Veronica Mars pilot on the tragedy/triumph metric? On one hand, she gets a small victory against Sheriff Lamb. On the other, her backstory is so incredibly horrific.

    I can see your point about tragedy being a better drive of action though – Alias’ pilot is a masterstroke of pacing and it is 100% tragedy.

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