June 22, 2012

Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’: Fixing the news as it breaks

“The Newsroom,” which begins its 10-episode first season Sunday, succeeds at a heck of a lot, but the show shoots itself in the foot by portraying its hero’s most enthusiastic devotee as naive, foolish and frequently in need of rescue. It’s just one of the reasons it’s hard to feel loyal to “The Newsroom.”

As we meet the hero of “The Newsroom,” he makes a college sophomore burst into tears by publicly unleashing his real opinions about America in her direction.

A ratings hound whose popularity was built on aw-shucks political neutrality, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) turned his world upside down in that moment of unplanned honesty. HBO’s new drama, created and written by “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, doles out equal parts reward and punishment to Will for his outburst.

Most of the worker bees on Will’s “News Night” cable show abandon ship, including his executive producer. The new producer is, of course, the most talented, daring journalist on the market. MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is a gorgeous brunette who also happens to be Will’s ex-girlfriend.

She’s baggage with a British accent, but with her comes a blank check from the boss at the network, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston of “Law & Order”). Will has carte blanche to set a bold, idealistic agenda with “News Night.” He just has to do it with MacKenzie. Too bad her name still makes his nostrils flare.

One of the tenets — and there are many — of what Mackenzie calls the “News Night 2.0” regime at the fictional ACN network is that they will make every effort to present both sides of an issue. Fair enough.

“The Newsroom,” which begins its 10-episode first season Sunday, succeeds at a heck of a lot, including capturing classic journalistic personalities through dialogue and execution. You have the overconfident jerk who rose too fast. The talented kid everyone should listen to more. The poker-playing, grizzled suit getting a little reckless as retirement approaches: “Young lady! Get on your Twitter account!”

I’d gladly curl up with a show that followed the younger “News Night” crew around the bars after work. As two young producers whose jobs set them up to butt heads, Don (Thomas Sadoski) and newbie Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) tensely circle and pace. Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) is Neal, who writes Will’s blog and digs up dirt online. Neal doesn’t join the exodus to a safer time slot, and neither does timid, in-over-her-head assistant Margaret (Allison Pill).

Where “The Newsroom” really shines, though, is when a date flashes up on the screen, marking a big breaking news moment. April 20, 2010 is the first night Will and MacKenzie run the show together. It’s also the day BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Watching the excitement of a newsroom team coalescing around a story will appeal to journalists, but it should appeal to newshounds, too — the same audience that watched the oil spill nightmare unfold on real cable news. It’s a fascinating peek behind the camera, before, during and after the nightly broadcast.

It’s also part of the problem with “The Newsroom.” Sorkin, by shadowing two-year-old news events, gets the chance to suggest — with the benefit of hindsight — how the journalism could have been better. That’s not a surprise from the guy who made “The West Wing” into a giant success by dramatizing how the White House could be better. It’s a Sorkin trait that doesn’t grate everyone equally.

Will shares his populist revelations on the air after he and MacKenzie crystallize their crusade: “You may ask, who are we to make these decisions? We’re the media elite.” And boy, does MacKenzie have plans to match that attitude.

But not all the journalists MacKenzie adds to the payroll make sense as people. Olivia Munn (“The Daily Show”) shows up as Sloan Sabbith, a perfect-10 economist turning down lucrative job offers to report instead. MacKenzie wants 5 minutes a night on the economy, with long legs on display.

“You want me to do pole-dancing while explaining subprime mortgages?” Sloan asks.

“If you’re up for it.”

During the immediate bonding MacKenzie insists on with all her new hires, Sloan shares some gossip. (How else would two women at the top of the news food chain finish off a job negotiation?) But the juicy details shift the focus further into the murky romantic past and away from all the fun newsgathering.

And there’s precious little time for reporting, too, what with the pathological need for the verbal self-aggrandizing that almost everyone on “News Night” displays. The level of speechifying in the first four episodes may prompt sighing, eye-rolling and popcorn-throwing.

Someone finally says the words “Careful with the lectures,” and it’s Jane Fonda, of all people. As the shadowy Leona Lansing, CEO of ACN’s parent company, Fonda tries to reel Charlie Skinner back from the left during a come-to-Jesus meeting in an ominously dark room, complete with a PowerPoint on how much Will is ticking off the bean counters.

When these journalists pontificate, they wave their arms around and curse with skill, their voices rising as drinks are downed. The first few times it happens, the snappy writing carries it, as do the actors, especially Daniels and Waterston. A few tirades deep, it becomes apparent that nothing has happened for 20 minutes except a seminar on media ethics at Sorkin University.

Most of this could be forgiven, though, if Daniels’ Will were not always dancing the knife edge of likability. If his efforts to treat people with respect are supposed to be redemptive, they’ll have to be stepped up considerably. MacKenzie, too, is such a flake in her personal life that it’s easy to forget how skilled she is.

Because she used to sleep with him, MacKenzie can see Will’s ooey-gooey do-gooder center. But when she brings it out (you can tell because he starts haranguing interviewees who deserve it), Will doesn’t come off better in his “mission to civilize.” He’s either detached and dismissive or engaged and smug.

Four women make their presence felt in “The Newsroom,” and only Fonda’s Leona is written to merit our respect. Sloan can’t resist playing matchmaker. MacKenzie, who survived Iraq and Afghanistan, comes unglued after she copies the entire company on a compromising email. Pesky smartphones.

Margaret cries on the phone while lying to her dad about why her boyfriend won’t come to dinner. She’s thrilled to be promoted into the position of doing thankless grunt work. She beams when Will remembers her name and reads his manifesto in bed.

The show shoots itself in the foot by portraying its hero’s most enthusiastic devotee as naive, foolish and frequently in need of rescue. It’s just one of the reasons it’s hard to feel loyal to “The Newsroom.”

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