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25 June, 2012

The Newsroom

A few thoughts on HBO's new show, The Newsroom  

  "It's Not. But it can be."

   I am a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin's work. The West Wing is my favorite TV show of all time. So when I heard Aaron Sorkin was working on a show for HBO about life in a newsroom, I was giddy.
   My biggest fear for the show was that as an "insider" on life in a newsroom ( I worked local news in Orlando as a producer for four years before moving on to ESPN in 1994. So, while every experience is different, I certainly have a good sense of what life in a newsroom is like), I would spend too much time saying "That would never happen," and not find the show enjoyable. I've been here before. Remember the gawd awful film Up Close and Personal, with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfieffer?
In that movie, Pfieffer is a reporter taping interviews inside a prison cell when a riot breaks out. When news of the riot reaches her tv station, they ask her to go live from inside the prison. Never mind that you can't just flip a switch on a camera and be live. You actually have to run cables, power up your live truck, etc., so you would think in a movie about broadcast news, that wouldn't happen, yet it did. Imagine you were watching an episode of ER and the doctor didn't have a scalpel so he said "Tire iron!" and performed surgery with a tire iron. Same thing. So I was prepared to watch episode one of Sorkin's latest work with a skeptical yet hopeful eye.

   One of the thing's I love most about Sorkin is what I call his stamp speech. It's the speech in an episode when a character says "Here I am, in a nutshell, this is all you need to know about me." It grabs your attention, tickles your senses and makes you say "Damn, I am all in on that guy." The character is putting his stamp on the show.  Sorkin didn't wait long on this show, giving Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) a stamp speech in the opening scene. McAvoy drops a CM Punk-style pipe bomb on his his college crowd audience, grabbing the viewer by the collar and telling us what is at his core.
Mission accomplished.

   I saw a headline the other day that read "Will McAvoy is not Olbermann." I didn't read the story because I didn't want to learn anything about the show without having seen it, but having seen it now, there is a lot of Keith Olbermann in Will McAvoy. I produced the 11pm SportsCenter for a few years at the end of Keith's tenure. My experience with Keith was this; he is a brilliant writer, a really smart guy, extremely passionate about his job and incredibly loyal to those he cares for. He also struck me as a guy who wasn't happy unless he was unhappy, overly concerned about things that were out of his control and capable of being difficult to work with. The hours in the day leading up to the show could be difficult, but the hour on the air was almost always memorable and enjoyable. It was hard for me to watch Will McAvoy and not think "that's Olbermann!" By the way, Keith had an inner-ear problem stemming from an accident and couldn't drive a car, so when McAvoy claims "Vertigo medicine!" for the reason for his rant, I couldn't help but think of Keith.

   My friend Pete hated The West Wing because "no one ever talks that way." That was one of the reasons that I loved it. I like to think that there are people who talk that way. Occasionally, I talk that way and my friends talk that way, only when I do it, people think I'm a smartass. When it's done properly on TV, it's elevated dialogue. Episode one of The Newsroom had more than it's fair share of those conversations, none of which lessened my appreciation of the show. It's a Sorkin staple and something I miss from my TV viewing experience. Welcome back, elevated dialogue.

    I liked the way the show captured the "buzz" of the newsroom when a story breaks. Everyone does get a little excited, your heart rate does kick up a bit, we do run around trying to figure out who is doing what and what the next steps are going to be. It's fun, it's exhilarating and one of the reasons working in a news room can be very rewarding. Tip of the cap to Sorkin for capturing that.
   I also noted the way the show was edited. The West Wing had it's staple, never-ending stedi cam shot, where many scenes were shot with the perpetually moving single camera look. The Newsroom featured quick cuts, occasional rack focus shots and had a rougher feel to it. Certainly different from The West Wing but it felt right.

   Sorkin has always been about political messages. I've never been one to get worked up about that. Frankly, most of that discussion is over my head anyway, so while people might feel like this show was too message heavy or too politically driven, it's not a lane I drive in. One of the reasons I don't care is that Sorkin always does a good job of picking the right person to deliver his message. Besides Daniels (who is excellent) the best conduit for Sorkin may be Sam Waterston. Waterson is a hoot in his role of  Charlie Skinner, McAvoy's boss. A little drunk, a little fatigued and perhaps a few pixels short of an HD picture, Waterston may end up being the voice of Josh, Toby and Leo all rolled into one.

    So was it true to life? Was it an accurate depiction of a news room? Yes and no. Obviously things need to be enhanced or glamorized to make it entertaining TV. If you go into your local ER, it's not going to look or feel a lot like the ER we've seen on TV. So yes, the dialogue is at a higher level, the pace and substance of what happened in this episode within the news room was stretched beyond what you might normally see, even on a busy day. Would an assistant be promoted to Associate Producer by accident? Unlikely. The biggest stretch was easily the new executive producer and her senior producer basically taking over the newsroom and producing the nightly news on their first day. That was the tire iron equivalent in this episode. Some of the control room stuff (like the producer giving the graphics operator phoner panels to build, or the statement from BP) was very accurate. In the end, the "enhancements" didn't diminish my enjoyment of the show, but they did raise an eyebrow.

   There are a few red flags for me after one episode.  
   They gave us six characters of substance to get to know. McAvoy and Skinner are the only two I'm in on right from the start. The fact that two of the story lines presented have romantic implications is discouraging. They weren't needed in The West Wing and hopefully they won't be needed here.
Also, given that this show is on HBO, there wasn't much differentiating it from a network show, save for a few F-bombs.
   In the opening scene of the show, McAvoy is going to bite his tongue when asked "Why is America the greatest country in the world?" but he thinks he sees his former producer/girl friend in the crowd holding up signs that say "It's not, but it can be." This prompts McAvoy to unleash his stamp speech.
After watching the first episode that answer also applies to this question, "Is this a great TV show?"
   It's not, but it can be.                

(if you like Sorkin, you'll enjoy this

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