The title of this piece not withstanding—and it pays to understand that this is written by a man who has himself been tagged with the adjective ‘arrogant’ since his voice broke and he discovered how to talk down to people—I am not jumping on the Aaron Sorkin-bashing bandwagon. Not that I didn’t want to. Since watching Sorkin’s fluid, articulate acceptance speech for the Best Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network, he’s been in the crosshairs of my resentment. When my agent said to me a couple of years ago, “The only writer booking jobs these days is Aaron Sorkin,” I almost broke my BlackBerry in frustration. And when I read that he was under fire in the press recently for purportedly having fired his entire writing team on HBO’s The Newsroom (a story that was untrue), I was positively bilious with schadenfreude.
I’ve only watched a few episodes of Sorkin’s The West Wing, but I liked what I saw; it aired during years I didn’t live in the U.S., which fell in the middle of the twenty-year period I didn’t watch TV at all. But who didn’t like The West Wing? Well, I’m sure people with no engagement in politics or human relationships weren’t interested in it, who might be more inclined towards costume-driven supernatural shows, or sitcoms, but even if your tastes ran to something else, nobody could fault its production, its scripts, its performances.
I may be completely wrong, but having now caught up on all eight episodes of The Newsroom, as I writer I feel this is a more personal show for Sorkin than West Wing. While you can conjure up any number of roles both male and female who have nothing to do with you or your life experience, when it comes to a truly personal project it isn’t unusual to split yourself into two or more characters, which is what I feel Sorkin has done here. He is both the maverick, arrogant, brilliant news anchor, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, and McAvoy’s quirky, talented, stubborn Executive Producer, Mackenzie MacHale (I gather Sorkin is as kinky for Scots-Irish Americans as I am for New York Jews), who is played by Emily Mortimer. They represent the dueling parts of Sorkin’s ego, with McAvoy as the creative-destructive loose canon who still holds the show together, and Mackenzie as the voice of reason and conscience, who is ironically always coming undone. And, just as I have often done with my characters, the two have been in an intense romantic relationship that is now over in practice, but the residual love lingers enough to both fuel and assuage their ongoing discord.
From the very first minutes of the pilot episode, you realize there is something missing from the screen during McAvoy’s stunning speech about how America is no longer the best country in the world and why—a speech you hope Sorkin agonized over for weeks and rewrote two dozen times, but which in reality he probably banged out in seven minutes. What is missing from the frame is a Chyron strip that reads “Jeff Daniels — Most Undervalued Actor in America.”
I’ve noticed that it takes a few episodes, often as many as six, for both the cast and crew to settle into a series properly. This is by no means an original observation, except to someone who has only in recent years immersed himself in TV, after having been so spectacularly betrayed by his first calling, feature films, which have pretty much become junk, especially when compared to what running on premium cable. Jeff Daniels, on the other hand, needed no time at all—he strode right into character, made it his, and has been coasting steadfastly since those first explosive minutes. What a revelation he is. It is hard to believe this man was in Dumb and Dumber with Jim Carrey getting his tongue stuck to a frozen metal pole.
I can’t say the same for Emily Mortimer, who was causing scenes to veer off into territory that Sorkin dialogue is often in danger of veering into if it isn’t directed and performed with great nuance and Sorkin’s own brand of rhythm: Mamet Lite. Her voice is also one of the greatest obstacles for any actor, and a reason people saddled with it overcompensate: it is both shrill and monotone. I buy the character as scripted, and the relationship between MacKenzie and McAvoy as scripted, but not as she performs it in the first few episodes, after which Mortimer seems to have relaxed into the role, and someone made her dial back the screeching histrionics, which combined with the hyper-eloquent dialogue can trigger heart palpitations. (In the first few episodes she was continually pouncing on the end of everyone’s lines as if she either needed to own them or resented them being there in the first place, or as if there were too little time left on air.)
As I said in the beginning of this piece, I tuned in to The Newsroom with every intention of hating it. I even wrote to a reader in a private message on Facebook, who was asking me if I’d see Veep, “I am going to be trashing The Newsroom this week, and then I’ll do Veep the next. I hear it’s great.” Well, I can’t do that. When I became choked up in all the right places in episodes five and seven—and Sorkin even rather smugly tells the viewer at the beginning of episode five that he’s going to play your heartstrings like they’re his very own vintage Stradivarius—I put it on pause, muttered, “Bastard!” and went out for a quick walk.
In Mortimer’s defense, she is being directed to gallop. The first few episodes are as fervent as a new teen romance, just gushing with messianic enthusiasm that we are finally going to talk about issues that matter on cable news. The result is those issues are talked about at blazing speed, volubly, with only enough breaks in the breakneck monologues for one character to correct another’s grammar, or a fact she got wrong. As a result, the interpersonal relationships suffer, especially between the younger staff members, a few of whom, like the adults, are in love with each other, often implausibly, sometimes believably, but more believably as the season progresses.
My two favorite secondary-role actors are Olivia Munn and John Gallagher Jr., who play a young co-anchor and the precocious senior producer respectively. I suppose I like Thomas Sadoski the rival EP, too, but he plays such a dick that it isn’t until you sit back and think about how real his dickness is that you appreciate him as a performer. As for Dev Patel, he is sadly the Anna Paquin of British Indian actors: He starred in a much-loved Oscar-winning film, was catapulted to fame, but he’s just not very nuanced as a performer. Here he plays the stereotypical sweet, geeky IT guy, who also happens to believe in all sorts of weird theories, from UFOs to Bigfoot, a running joke I’m hoping will go away soon, but I’m just hyper-sensitive to stuff like that. I can just see the team in the writer’s room coming up with possible narrative threads for the various characters for the series bible before they shot the pilot, and everyone agreeing to load the Indian geek with every cliché in the book, but make it meta by referencing how cliché those clichés are from time to time. Am I allowed to find that sort of thing a bit lazy? Or am I starting get become spoiled by all of this fantastic content on TV and quibbling?
Not only do I doubt that Sorkin fired his writing staff—I mean, good luck replacing this lot, unless he intends to scribble everything himself—I think this show is going to have legs, that it will start to build its audience soon and creep up in the ratings.
As I promised my friend on Facebook, I’ve already started watching Veep, and I’m laughing! I rarely laugh at American comedy. They did steal the diarrhea scene out of Bridesmaids for an early episode… but let me leave something for a post next week.