The Newsroom Recap: Episode 1.1 “We Just Decided To”
Pilot episodes are notoriously hard to pull off. The writer must introduce characters, themes, and settings, all while telling a very specific type of “jumping off” story likely bearing little resemblance to the episodes that will follow. Such is the case with “We Just Decided To,” the first episode of super-creator Aaron Sorkin’s new show The Newsroom. It’s been five years since he’s helmed a television show, and though he spent that time penning Broadway plays and winning Oscars, it feels like Sorkin spends much of this pilot knocking out the cobwebs and finding his TV footing again. While the cable newsroom setting offers promise and the pilot ultimately gets the job done, many of the characters and beats feel recycled from Sorkin’s past TV efforts, and the episode suffers from being over-long in many parts.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Aaron Sorkin’s new series opens with a veteran media figure forced into a situation where he must once again bite his tongue and compromise his beliefs in a bid to remain popular and not make waves. However, he is finally pushed too far, and unleashes a devastating social and media critique that becomes an online sensation and places his job into jeopardy.
Just as Studio 60’s pilot opened with Judd Hirsch’s Network-esque on-air meltdown, so does the pilot of HBO’s The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s latest series about the behind-the-scenes world of live television. This time the tirade belongs to Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale, Dumb & Dumber) as he sits on a Northwestern University panel between shrill, smug Democrat and Republican talking head/straw man. As the host needles Will to deviate from his long-practiced role as the unchallenging “Jay Leno of news” and finally state an opinion, Will seethes. He catches glimpses of a woman in the crowd who holds up signs urging him to go on, but she is revealed to be a figment of his imagination when the woman is replaced by another, much frownier woman. Finally, a young female student asks Will point blank what makes America the greatest country in the world and he snaps. In the clip you’ve likely seen from the trailer, Will angrily rattles off endless statistics about why America is not the greatest country in the world. Then he waxes poetic about how great America could be, and before long (well, fairly long) we’re headlong into the opening credits.
Next we catch up to Will as he returns from a three week “sabbatical,” only to discover that most of his team has jumped ship for another show. Among those staying behind are eager assistant Maggie Jordan, played winningly by Allison Pill (Milk, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). Though she spends the pilot as little more than a Sorkin archetype (the bright young female staffer who doubts herself and has relationship issues) Pill fleshes the character out with a winning depth that I can’t wait to see expanded upon in future episodes. Also staying behind is Neal (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel), who spends the pilot as little more than a a trademark Sorkin exposition/statistics machine.
We meet Maggie as she argues with her boyfriend Don, the departing News Night executive producer who practically spends the entire episode holding a sign above his head reading “The Heel.” His one-dimensional antagonism goes into overdrive once he clashes with the incoming replacement EP (more on her in a moment) and regular producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.). This sweet and likeable character’s name-similarity with “Jim Halpert” hardly seems like an accident, as he is immediately (and blatantly) positioned as the inevitable love interest for Maggie. It’s almost as if on Sports Night someone had literally told Jeremy, “See that girl Natalie? In six episodes you and she will be in love. Set your watch.”
Back to that executive producer, she is Mackenzie MacHale, played by British actress Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island, 30 Rock). She represents a formidable foe for McAvoy, given her decades of journalistic experience, her composed yet lofty idealism… and the secret romantic past the two refuse to discuss. This is all laid out in a fairly ham-fisted manner – again, pilots are hard – but Mackenzie’s ability to slowly draw out the best in McAvoy is mirrored by Mortimer and Daniel’s easy rapport and command of the rich dialogue.
Rounding out the cast is Law & Order veteran Sam Waterston as Charlie Skinner, the head of fictional cable news network ACN as well as Will’s boss and longtime friend. Waterston may well be the series’ secret weapon: he stick-handles Sorkin’s dialogue ably, but with a rascally, gleeful energy that suggests he may fly apart at the seams anytime his character gets excited. He is without a doubt the person on screen having the most fun.
(Note: Though she receives series regular billing, Olivia Munn’s financial anchor Sloan Sabbath appears only in the background of the pilot. Based on the second ep, this may be the first show where I’ve really seen Munn used to good effect, but I’ll let Thomas Drance pass judgment in his review next week).
So with all our players assembled, the Newsroom’s pilot commences setting up Mackenzie and Will’s clash of ideals versus ratings, and Don and Jim’s clash of everything… for an interminable amount of time. This middle section of the episode stretches on well past where it should, as characters repeatedly (and sometimes painfully) spell out the themes of the series. Admittedly, the HBO screener I watched was 72 minutes long, and I’m not certain if this represents the episode as it will air, or if the episode will be edited down closer to an hour. I would admittedly prefer the latter, as one could easily cut 10-15 minutes from this episode and leave it tighter and crisper. Specifically, one might look at trimming down the opening teaser at the Northwestern panel (once Will gets to the “rousing call” part of his speech, it feels almost like a parody of vintage Sorkin). Or perhaps the central Will/Mackenzie argument (once Mackenzie is literally quoting whole passages from Man of La Mancha… well, you get the idea).
And then, the bomb drops. Though he hasn’t officially started work yet (and may not even have a job, if Will manages to fire Mackenzie) Jim is the first in the office to notice a breaking news alert. Despite being instantly dismissed by Don, Jim and Neal piece together that the explosion described in the Gulf of Mexico must have come from an oil rig… and a brief subtitle reveals that all of the action we are watching has been taking place in April of 2010. I found this one of the most effective moments of the episode, since the viewer, with our two plus years of knowledge, are all too aware of the impending ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
This “ripped from yesterday’s headlines” approach has been wisely kept out of any pre-press for the show, and I predict that this conceit will be what ultimately makes or breaks The Newsroom. On one hand, Sorkin is able to tackle current events head-on without attempting to guess months ahead what will happen in the world to fit his show’s production schedule, or having to create a fictional West Wing-style parallel universe. Also, with the added hindsight of two years Sorkin can examine his stories in a broader context, truly serving his characters’ mandate of fact-based news coverage.
On the other hand, this two years removed device could just as easily prove a trap for Sorkin. By pledging to adhere to recent history exactly as it played out, Sorkin cannot have any of his characters affect the world at large in any significant way (unless he blurs the line slightly, which he very well may). Also, I could very easily envision Sorkin falling victim to his worst soapbox, wish-fulfillment tendencies. I picture him literally wagging his finger at cable news gloating, “Ah ah ah, this is how you should have covered the news!” For example, as the characters in the pilot react to the breaking Deepwater Horizon disaster they piece together the role of both negligent government inspectors AND Halliburton contractors with ludicrous speed – a series of revelations that, in 2010, took the media days (if not weeks) to fully comprehend and report. It also doesn’t help that discovering these facts is made possible by Jim having not one, but TWO highly-placed sources from his past tipping him off within the hour. Admittedly, the show calls out the unlikeliness of this coincidence, but I still found it unsettling. We’ll see if these easy conveniences are an ongoing trend.
In the end, Will agrees to present the news head-on, righteously calling out BP, the government, and Halliburton’s negligence on the air while risking the legal wrath of both. He does this as a result of his trust in his new team, ending this episode on a strong, if somewhat rote, “the band coming together” vibe. In true Sorkin fashion Charlie and Will wax nostalgic about the glorious “Murrow and Kronkite” history of American news, Maggie and Don reconcile just enough to push her and Jim’s inevitable union down the line a few episodes, and Mackenzie shares a tender moment with Will.
And then, for no reason, Sorkin pulls perhaps one of his most WTF moments ever. Once alone, MacKenzie pulls out her notepad and reveals herself to have actually been the woman Will saw in the audience in the opening scene. So… Will imagined the frowny woman? Mackenzie was a shapeshifter all along? Who knows? It’s not a moment that ruins the preceding episode, but it’s a sloppy and unnecessary storytelling gambit that only serves to confuse as opposed to illuminate.
So yes, I fully realize the irony of decrying this episode as over-long in a review that has stretched on literally for pages. In the future, with no need to lay out the characters and situations of the show, I promise to keep my reviews more concise. Or maybe I’ll fall so completely head over heels in love with this show that I’ll write an essay every time. It could happen. As it stands I’m willing to look at “We Just Decided To” as a flawed but ultimately promising pilot, which borrows heavily from Sorkin’s past series and could go off in a lot of potential directions. Much of this will depend on whether Sorkin decides to stop reaching into his old bag of tricks, and trust that he can create something truly different. Just look at The Social Network for a perfect example of a script that bears all of his hallmarks (dialogue, pacing, detail, super-capable characters who are a mess outside of their chosen fields), but breaks new narrative ground to genuinely surprise. I like to think he’s got it in him, and we’ve got nine more episodes this season to find out… In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you thought of the pilot in the comments below. Sound off, Dork Shelf readers!
FINAL THOUGHT: As you’ve probably guessed I’m an old-school Sorkin nerd. So for those who understand where I’m coming from, The Newsroom’s cast basically breaks down as:
- Will McAvoy – Sports Night’s Casey McCall meets The West Wing’s President Bartlett, with a dash of Studio 60’s Matt Albie at his most humourless.
- Mackenzie MacHale – SN’s Dana Whitaker meets S60’s Jordan McDeere.
- Charlie Skinner – SN’s Isaac Jaffe meets WW’s Leo McGarry.
- Maggie Jordan – a female version of SN’s Jeremy Goodwin.
- Jim Harper – a male version of SN’s Natalie Hurley.
- Don Keefer – umm… SN’s network hack JJ combined with every one-ep badguy Republican from WW. Seriously, this character needs some depth, stat.