Extra! Extra! EXTRA!!!!!!
Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom takes just two episodes to go awesomely over the top.
The show keeps on gusting thusly as Will and Mackenzie get together a gang to do the news with honor. Yes, McAvoy returns to the office to find that his boss, Charlie Skinner, has set him up with his perfect ex.
I rather adore the Newsroom pilot, directed by Greg Mottola, who designs the news-chase pratfalls, interpersonal investigations, and tugs-of-war very cleanly. Much of the pilot unfolds in the fishbowl of the newsroom of Atlantis Cable News, which is to say that the show’s set imitates those cubicle set-ups you see in the background of live updates, sometimes, with producers and assistants going about their business. Everyone is being watched and watching. Large reproductions of Will's puppy-dog newshound eyes peek in from posters.
This is a good set for high-speed screwball. Alison Pill deserves special mention for playing Margaret Jordan, an intern mistaken for an assistant and abruptly promoted to associate producer. She’s cute when she’s frantic, which is always; dashing around the office, she rebounds off of a swivel chair like a pinball off a flipper. Mackenzie, “Mack,” played by Emily Mortimer, is a delightful fast-talking dame. As Charlie, Sam Waterston vivaciously portrays the Last of the Old School Journos, preserved in whiskey and wrapped with a bow tie.
For my money, the series' first awesome over-the-top tonal misfire comes at the end of the second episode, after McAvoy has devoted a (botched) episode of his show to debating immigration issues with himself. In this scene, the hero stands on the terrace of his apartment, scanning the city from high above—kind of like Batman, but with Radiohead's "High and Dry" on the soundtrack. McAvoy had been tough on illegal immigrants on air, tough but principled. On the terrace, McAvoy whips out his phone and performs an anonymous act of charity for an immigrant via the kid who runs his official blog. (The blogger is huddled with the other young’uns on the team at their regular after-work karaoke place.) Then there's a shot of the Statue of Liberty, and from his terrace Will McAvoy twinkles right back at 'er.
The many references to big old musicals—Man of La Mancha, Brigadoon—indicate both Sorkin’s commercial sensibility and his artistic ambitions for achieving music with dialogue. Because of this musical quality—and because The Newsroom's focus is on putting on a show, and because its weak points are howlers and it will be a hoot to laugh not with but at them—I've come to think, four episodes in, that Newsroom is basically Smash adapted for David Carr's Twitter feed.
Sparring intimately, she with her voice in his earpiece, Mack and Will go at it like Holly Hunter and William Hurt in Broadcast News or Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare. But as a study of TV journalism, they offer much ado about not much. The Newsroom presents an elementary and elemental critique of television news as a thing disfigured by corporate pressures and heedless races for sensation, a point on which everyone who has cable will agree. The analysis ends there, or it ought to, so that we can get on with the business of romancing ideals and idealizing office romances. But such lusty adventures are tangled up with didactic excesses. The mirror Sorkin holds up to the television has a funhouse warp that limits The Newsroom’s potential for serious reflection—and yet week after week come the sonorous debates about truth and justice. The show offers a lot of great talking, but to whom does it wish to speak?
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.