Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Newsroom (HBO, Sundays 9 pm)

Devil in the Details

Aaron Sorkin’s new dramatic series Newsroom starts out exactly as one expects any show about television journalism to: by attacking the president’s policies. The darkness lifts over voices contemplating whether Obama is socialist or not while Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) listens while being doped-up and slightly bored. He looks around---so familiar is the routine—and for a few seconds thinks he spots a particular female face in the crowd. The moment is disorientating until the moderator draws him into the discussion.

Because what happens next is Will getting unpatriotic and going H.A.M about the missing past greatness of America, so much so that it leaves everyone stunned to silence. Bridges plays the character in this moment brilliantly, his movements natural within their jaded context, the words espoused with consummate ease. The show ends and while he is being castigated for his behavior, he asks the most disturbing question of the night: ‘what did I say in there?’ Ouch. Right away, we get to realize—same as Will—that this traumatic incident has had repercussions. He’s forced to take a vacation of sorts because news anchors can’t afford to lose screws for long. People get iffy and long-suffering ills resurface. So, Will walks into his office the next time and finds everyone gone—shifted to another program, all by choice.

To Sorkin’s credit, Newsroom does not seek to bite off more than it can chew by remedying all journalistic ills. It seems headed that way once we’re introduced to the supporting cast, a whirl of overstated dialogue and speeches but once McKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) enters the fray then all is saved, literally. It’s a timely intervention because for all of Sorkin’s genius (The West Wing, The Social Network) the first episode swerves unevenly throughout its hour. There is improbability aplenty especially in the shape of Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and his allegiance to Will and the network itself. Sorkin seems to realize this because if episode one (We Just Decided To) was iffy then episode two (News Night 2.0) is astonishingly clever. From the opening banter between Will and McKenzie arguing about the set up for the show to the meeting room discussion, the pace of the repartee is brilliant and biting (‘FOX really hired someone with three Mohammeds in their name?’).

Sorkin’s most salient points here are not aimed at the stories being covered but the people presenting them. We’re viewing their functions in real time and seeing how all those pieces work in tandem for one whole presentation. And it is fascinating, especially how McKenzie runs the show and quips her methods to everyone. Her past relationship with Will frames their current situation but Sorkin has pared it off with their dedication to work. In a weird way, Skinner is Sorkin on film and Will is clearly Keith Olbermman-based. It’s anyone’s guess who McKenzie resembles in real life but Mortimer is a delight to watch as the hassled producer who must inspire her team while earning Will’s trust again.

The show succeeds on these basic levels along with the gripping stories it presents. The final minutes are dedicated to the news itself and Bridges at his best: when a beauty queen arrogantly states that the America she grew up in didn’t allow such rampant immigration, he shuts her up that at twenty that is exactly the type of America she grew up in. When she unwisely proceeds to state not in Oklahoma, he retorts especially in Oklahoma. We even get the ubiquitous Sarah Palin moment (‘the Dutch, they are known in Norwegia…for dykes’). This ambitious stretch of tragic-comedy isn’t unique to Newsroom currently but unlike Veep (hilarious in its own right) all persons in charge have their thinking caps on and buried deeply within their skulls. That is the Sorkin magic.

It figures that a series critical in its assessment of the media wouldn’t exactly find huge amounts of love by the same media now assessing it. Quite a few reviewers (after just the first episode) have called it self-congratulatory and smug, not even aware of how ironic that must seem. Sorkin’s gift has always been to underpin the realness behind official lives…not to present them merely as represented by the viral evidence we the general public go by. He understands the manipulation of such a process and the thin line those in public office tread to maintain the status quo. Newsroom, more than any other show this season so far, puts in context the frustration and awesomeness of news-making, devil in the details and all. It’s a scenario I wonder if our own media entities and personalities even go through any at all.

RATING: 8/10

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