I reviewed the first four episodes of "The Newsroom" as a whole on Wednesday, and now that the first episode has aired, I have some specific thoughts on it, coming up just as soon as I take medicine for vertigo...
As I noted in that review, "We Just Decided To" was easily the best of the batch of episodes I've seen. (It was also the only one I had seen when I interviewed Aaron Sorkin, Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer.) Many of the flaws that take over the series in later episodes are here at the start, but they're not that bothersome yet, and the newscast sequence itself represents so many of the things Sorkin does well in showing talented people working together in high-pressure jobs.
The pilot also feels simultaneously like Sorkin's Greatest Hits and like a new thing.
On the one hand, so many of the characters, their relationships to each other, and the things they do echo moments from the three previous Sorkin shows. You have the inevitable reciting of the resume (as Jim lists Mackenzie's credentials in an attempt to shut up Don), which is among Sorkin's favorite devices to quickly establish a character's credibility. Will's rant at the Medill Q&A about all that's gone wrong with American is very much akin to the one Judd Hirsch delivers early in the "Studio 60" pilot. You've got the frosty ex-lovers forced to work together again (see also Josh and Mandy on "West Wing," or Matt and Harriet on "Studio 60"), the wise old authority figure who's seen too much nonsense to put up with any more (first Isaac, then Leo, now Charlie), Jim and Maggie as a kind of gender-flipped Natalie and Jeremy, etc. Like a lot of idiosyncratic TV creators (see also David Milch, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Shonda Rhimes, to name a few), Sorkin has certain tricks in his bag that he enjoys pulling out over and over from one series to the next.
On the other hand, this is Sorkin working without broadcast network content restrictions, without having to design his show for commercial breaks, and without his longtime directing partner Tommy Schlamme. Greg Mottola is an excellent director in his own right, but there's definitely a different look to this show than I imagine we'd have seen in a Schlamme version. What's particularly interesting is how much of the pilot's middle section (post-Medill, pre-Deepwater Horizon) seems more theatrical than anything Sorkin ever did on the previous shows. The newsroom feels like a giant stage set, and characters wander on and off stage to have arguments in a variety of long scenes, usually done with fewer edits than we're used to in TV drama circa 2012. Events aren't quite playing out in real time, but they feel like they could be.
There's a point to that, in that it then primes us to react very differently once the "News Night"(*) team shifts into high gear to cover the oil spill story. Suddenly, the scenes are very short, the cuts very quick, the pace sped up exponentially. I think the newscast sequence is plenty strong on its own — particularly in the scene where Will keeps puncturing the Halliburton flack's phony platitudes ("I don't have subpoena power" or "Nobody’s thoughts and prayers are with the fire") — but structuring the long lead-up to it in that way only gives it more juice.
(*) I want to thank Sorkin for not giving the real show and the show-within-the-show the same title, since that always made writing about "Sports Night" more difficult than it should have been.
Sorkin's skill as a wordsmith hasn't failed him — whether you agree with all of what Will says to the Medill audience, or what Mackenzie says about reclaiming the fourth estate, they're strong bits of oratory — and it's a treat to hear his banter delivered by actors as talented as Daniels, Mortimer, Sam Waterston and Alison Pill. I particularly enjoy Mortimer's delivery of "Alright, you're gonna see some things here" as Mackenzie realizes just what a bad situation she's walked into, but all are excellent throughout. Gallagher's an actor I've seen little of, but he fits into Sorkin-world just as seamlessly as Waterston, whom I know well from a very different context. (Charlie's threat to beat up Don, in spite of all the protein bars Don eats, was another good laugh line.)
All that having been said, there are still problems, not least of which is Sorkin's decision to set the show in the recent past and deal with famous news stories. When I interviewed Sorkin about the show, he said:
"There’s been so much added value to it, it turns out, because I get to have the audience be ahead of the characters at certain times. If I want to, I get to have our guys be smarter than some of the real guys were, since now we know all the facts. I’ve got all the benefits of hindsight."
As it turns out, they have the benefit of too much hindsight, as they're magically — through the incredible coincidence of Jim having a sister in upper management at Halliburton and a college roommate at BP, plus a bit of Neal having made a volcano as a school project — able to do in a few minutes what it took reporters in the real world (notably the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune) weeks to pull together. It's one thing to say that perhaps the real news media should have devoted more airtime on that first night to the spill and less to the iPhone prototype that got left in the bar, but "We Just Decided To" gives the impression that Anderson Cooper and company were also foolish for not calling out BP, Halliburton, the government, etc. on that very first night for all the mismanagement that led to the explosion.
"The Newsroom" is set up as a piece of media criticism at least as much as it is as a drama — if anything, the scale tips even more towards the former in the next few episodes — but criticisms made purely out of 20/20 hindsight are unfair and lazy. Most reporters actually have to, you know, report. And that takes time. They don't get the entire story handed to them by friends and relatives in under five minutes. Even though Jim acknowledges that this is an incredible streak of luck, the show still sniffs its nose at how the other newscasts covered the early hours of the spill.
On top of that, because we know so much about what really happened, it makes it easy for Sorkin to let us know whom we should be rooting for (Jim, whose Spidey-sense tells him instantly that this is a huge deal) and against (Don, who keeps trying to get Jim to shut up long past the point where it's clear that there's a big story here). And given that we've already been introduced to Don as the guy who doesn't want to meet Maggie's parents because four months is just "too soon," we're set up to disregard anything he has to say on any subject. (Even his complaints about Will being a jerk, which are corroborated by more reliable characters like Charlie, begin to sound suspect from this source.) He's not a reasonable dissenting opinion; he's a strawman the more righteous characters can easily knock down.
On the whole, though, I found more that was promising than that which wasn't in this pilot, and my hope is that Sorkin will be able to approach this level (if not surpass it) later in the season. But if I'd only seen "We Just Decided To," my initial review would have been much more positive than it turned out to be. And we can talk about my issues with later episodes as we get there.
Some other thoughts:
* Though Mottola gives the show a different look from the Sorkin/Schlamme collaborations, it's interesting to see just how reminiscent the main title sequence was to "The West Wing" opening credits. In fact, I'm not sure I can remember the last HBO show where the title sequence featured images of the actors as their names appeared on screen. (A few of the early HBO shows did, like "1st & Ten," and you will want to watch those credits for several reasons that will become obvious as they go along.) It's much more a traditional broadcast network kind of sequence (and I mean from the days when the networks would devote a minute-plus to opening credits); not bad (I liked the montage of classic TV news moments), but different.
* I wonder how Erin Andrews feels about being name-checked as Will's date on his post-rant vacation. New York Times TV reporter Bill Carter comes off better in this regard, though even in 2010, Brian Stelter is the more likely Times reporter to be obsessing on doings in TV news.
* I had heard that Jesse Eisenberg was doing some kind of obscure cameo in this pilot even before I saw it, but even without that hint, his voice on the phone — as the nervous Minerals Management Service official who was responsible for inspecting Deepwater Horizon — would have unmistakable.
* Poor Dev Patel. He's cast as Will's blogger, and given Sorkin's frequently-expressed opinions on the blogosphere, that's a tough gig to shine in on this show. And on top of that, we have to establish both Will's lack of investment in the staff and his willingness to say outrageous things by having him call Neal "Punjab."
* I wonder what the casting notes looked like for the woman Will convinces himself he's seeing in the Medill audience in place of Mackenzie. "Must look a bit like Emily Mortimer, but not so much that anyone would really be confused"?
Keeping in mind the blog commenting rules, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org