My first encounter with Aaron Sorkin came at the tender age of 14. I was a freshman in high school and my government teacher required that we watch The West Wing every week and write a review as an assignment. The show was far outside my realm of understanding and its subject matter was so far removed from my life at the time as to render my viewing counterproductive – I was more turned off by government, rather than excited by and engaged in it. An Aaron Sorkin fan I was most definitely not.
Next, I saw The Social Network, a movie I enjoyed while watching but had little desire to watch again. It was well crafted and revealed the interesting backstory to an internet forum that was a taken-for-granted element of my day to day life, but the film did little to move me and proved to have little staying power in my mind.
Then my husband tried Sports Night on me, a late 90’s Sorkin television show that covered the working and personal lives of newscasters, producers, and crew members on a fictional nightly sports news show. Though it was enjoyable enough, the show felt dated to me and I was never enamored enough with any of the characters to stick this one out in the long term.
The Newsroom, however, was an entirely different story. I didn’t watch the show when it originally aired on HBO, but I did catch much of the hype generated by the premiere at that time, including reviews in print, on radio, and from my husband, as well as an interview with Jeff Daniels on the radio show Fresh Air. I was immediately smitten with Will McAvoy, a cable news channel anchor portrayed by Jeff Daniels, after hearing a rant he delivers in the first few minutes of the pilot episode. During a panel discussion at Northwest, an undergrad asks McAvoy and his two cohorts what makes America the greatest country in the world. I can’t give his response much justice, so I’ve posted this clip from the episode below. With this monologue, Sorkin gave powerful voice to so many of the things that I was consumed with as a student of sociology and a frustrated American. Needless to say, I knew this show was different and important and probably worth watching. It just took some time for me to get around to watching it.
The Newsroom is a show is about journalistic integrity, and though Sorkin may hit viewers over the head with this notion, I enjoy immersing myself in the highly idealistic world of news coverage that Sorkin has created. I don’t watch much TV, but if I’m going to allow myself to be consumed by a carefully-crafted, serialized fictional world, I think this is one of the best ones I could choose.
So there’s Will McAvoy, the solo anchor for News Night on Atlantis Cable News (ACN). In the pilot, Will returns from a two week vacation to learn that Mackenzie McHale is taking over as his new executive producer. Though undeniably talented, Mackenzie, portrayed by Emily Mortimer) also happens to be Will’s ex and, as expected, he does not take easily to the idea of working with her again. Mac was brought on by ACN’s incredibly likable news division president, Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston. The cast is rounded out by John Gallagher as Jim, a producer brought to ACN by Mac; Alison Pill as Maggie, an intern who Mac quickly promotes to Associate Producer but also finds herself enveloped in a love triangle at work; Thomas Sadoski as Don Keefer, Will’s previous Executive Producer who is dating Maggie and, though working for a different anchor, is conveniently pulled back to News Night for plot purposes; Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbath, the attractive economist featured on Will’s show; and Dev Patel as Neal Sampat, the writer of Will’s blog and a loyal proponent of Big Foot feature stories.
Sure, the relationship between McAvoy and McHale is quite convenient, but it also makes for compelling and entertaining television. McHale is fiercely idealistic and unwavering in her commitment to produce a news show that holds up to the highest standards of journalistic excellence. Her return to Will’s life induces a change in the news anchor as he not only starts to develop more substantial relationships with his staff but also commits himself to more serious and unbiased news coverage. Their romantic past is a constant stress upon their current working relationship, but Mac’s presence also brings out the best in Will. Meanwhile Maggie and Don’s obviously doomed relationship is threatened when Mackenzie shows up with Jim in tow. As if there isn’t already enough sexual tension between Maggie and Jim from the start, Mac unapologetically encourages him to pursue Maggie, leaving viewers with little to no doubt that a love triangle is in the works.
Apart from workplace romances, erecting a new framework for News Night is also much of what The Newsroom’s about and Sorkin’s use of real events makes for a compelling argument for Mac’s kind of news. As an audience member, I find myself remembering these news stories from when they occurred just a few years past (the show takes place largely in 2011) but also learning more about them than what other news media outlets were providing at the time. By using these historical events as content, Sorkin forces his audience to evaluate the information provided by their news sources of choice – which may well serve to further reinforce his heavy-handed advocacy of News Night-style journalistic integrity.
When I mentioned to a friend that I had quickly fallen for Sorkin’s latest show, she was surprised to know I was a fan given claims that The Newsroom is wildly sexist. I did a little investigating to see what these accusations were all about and was dismayed at what I found. Reviewers’ claims that Sorkin’s female characters are silent servants to the needs of his male protagonists are both surprising and gross distortions of the central relationships on the show. True, Mackenzie did cheat on Will, a fact which further compromises the stability of their working relationship and places her in the wrong regarding their relationship’s demise. But allegations that she is throwing herself at Will, completely torn up by his presence, and spinelessly catering to his needs could not be further from the truth. In fact, I would argue that Mackenzie is much more stable in the presence of Will, while he is shaken up by her unexpected return to his life. And it is the strength of Mac that both stabilizes and fuels Will to put on a better news show. After all, her arrival at ACN heralds News Night’s heightened commitment to journalistic principles. Mackenzie’s tirade from the control room just minutes before their first episode together leaves no question as to who holds the power in their working relationship.
Though the playing field is leveled over time, Mackenzie’s vision for News Night is the central premise holding Sorkin’s show together. The most heartwarming moments on The Newsroom are those when the crew puts on a great news show, when they stick to their guns about journalistic excellence, when their staunch integrity proves right while other networks with lower standards report erroneous information, when their commitment to News Night provides Will’s viewers with the power and information necessary to make America the greatest country in the world that he knows it can be. It may not be the most realistic portrayal of news casting, nor the most universally appealing, but I find myself completely refreshed by the ideals of Sorkin and his characters. If television is meant to be a joyful and entertaining outlet from our real lives, I’d gladly take Sorkin’s world in The Newsroom over many of the others, both “real” and fictional, that I come across on TV these days. Season Two will be coming out in June of this year and I truly can’t remember the last time I found myself feeling such a sense of excitement and anticipation about anything on TV.