Much has been said over the last two days about Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom, and it’s not all wrong. It’s true that Sorkin’s writing is sometimes preachy—hell, one character even uses the word “sermon” in reference to the pilot’s opening scene. It’s true that not all of the characters here pop with excitement or believability—Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy seems more caricature than human (but if he’s playing “the Jay Leno of news anchors,” maybe it works).
The Newsroom is nothing groundbreaking, that’s for sure. We’ve seen this stuff before, most obviously in 1975′s Network, reflected in the opening scenes with McAvoy proclaiming the “truth” to an unwilling audience. Though not entirely similar in character trajectories, the scene will have “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” ringing in your ears.
We’ve also seen this stuff before in Sorkin’s own work. You’ve probably seen the new YouTube sensation “Sorkinisms: A Supercut,” a brilliant distillation of the writer’s (presumably) unintentional self-plagiarism. In many ways, The Newsroom is perhaps the biggest of Sorkinisms, not in bite size moments of dialogue (though you can bet we’ll find some by season’s end), but in the kinetic energy of the fast-paced newsroom interspersed with moments of soapy drama. Of course I’m talking about Sports Night, Sorkin’s other newsroom. The 1998 ABC series is felt all over here. There is nothing wrong with that exactly—Sportsnight was fun television and The Newsroom has plenty of engrossing moments, if fewer funny ones.
The biggest problem I have with The Newsroom so far—and this is of course a premature problem, as we are but only 72 minutes into the series—is that it doesn’t seem to be saying anything new about the newsroom. This is kind of funny considering how different real life newsrooms are from the Sports Night days. Journalism is a struggling industry, and sure, this is about a guy who can fork up $1 million just to get the firing rights for his newly hired ex (again, the believability thing), but a lot more has happened since the late 90s than is given credit to here.
One of these things is social media. The presence of news on the Internet has been the death knell for many publications, and the way that news is disseminated in constantly changing. If The Newsroom manages to get through its entire first season with only the measly few mentions of social media in this pilot episode, then Sorkin might as well have set the show in the 90s with Sports Night where blogging was a new sensation and Twitter wasn’t a word. So far, blogging and Twitter have made the cut (though blogging is pushing it for relevancy now). Fortunately, Twitter’s 22-second cameo is enjoyable enough, featuring Sam Waterston’s network boss ordering a young staffer to tweet a message that exceeds the 140-character limit.
But for all its many flaws, The Newsroom stands on its one-episode perch as a show that makes its audience think. OK, you don’t really have to think too much in The Newsroom—most of the thinking is verging on the obvious—and it could do with some original ideas that haven’t been rehashed since before Sports Night. But at least it’s a program that asks you to do a little bit more than sit and stew and watch your retinas shrivel in the gleam of orange-skinned reality stars.
Watch the pilot for free on HBO’s YouTube channel HERE.