On Sunday, 24th of June HBO aired 74 minute pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new drama “The Newsroom”. Similar to last decade “Sports Night” and recent “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” it’s a tv show about tv show, an area of almost speciality for Sorkin, which usually guarantees superbly developed stories and very entertaining viewing. Unfortunately it usually also guarantees that the show will go with a loud “woosh” high over the heads of standard polled US TV audience and their attention span, which in terms means shorter lifespan for TV series then we would like here in Europe (“Sports Night” managed just two season and “Studio 60” survived single season despite both being highly acclaimed, internationally syndicated, incredibly well written shows, if not the best in their broadcast years).
I am happy to confirm that “The Newsroom” is no exception to the rule and lives up to expectations. The pilot focusing solely on introduction of the new production team to an hour long news commentary program at the brink of one of the biggest news stories of 2010, is smart and witty, with bitter punchlines and excellent dialogue full of typical Sorkin machine gun fire banter between characters. Similar to early West Wing, the pilot script is right from the start openly obvious about its political stance and doesn’t wait more than 10 minutes to deliver preachy and condescending faux pass left hook right on the nose of the star spangled flag waving, empty head saluting, middle American red state elephantism, which makes for entertaining viewing to anyone outside of U.S. but is guaranteed to create wave of negative press and slating reviews for the series on its own soil.
Where the pilot script defends itself with musketeerial flair and finesse, things are somewhat different when it comes to casting. It’s no secret that the casting in Sorkin series always ends up with unusual set of female leads and supports. Although Sorkin’s female leads almost never lack the talent, the way characters are usually presented to us, viewers, is quite a different story. Throughout most of his previous series we were treated to one of the two character types – either “looking too old for her age” dry, agressive, almost manly, raging “forever alone” or “easy on the eye, borderline psychotic complete basket case” female leads. And although in nearly all cases the female roles in most of Sorkin’s TV series were delivered brilliantly (who can forget C.J. from West Wing) very often though this pool of repetitive character types appears to be then slightly mis-casted, as if the part was written for someone else and given to another actress at the last minute. The talent is there, but it’s the character that doesn’t fit. As a result, quite often the script later force the characters rather unachievable tasks. Like Felicity Huffman vs Peter Krause in “Sports Night” for example. As Casey’s love interest Dana was out of her depth, out of her league and on top she looked at least a decade his senior. But the script made her behave as if her role was written for Amanda Peet vs Matthew Perry. , it was due to those constraints, that very often supporting female cast of his series are much easier to warm up to than the leads. And “The Newsroom” is no exception.
While Jeff Daniels (“Dumb and Dumber”, “The Answer Man”) as the show’s anchor Will McAvoy is without a doubt brilliant choice, Emily Mortimer (“Leonie”, “Our Idiot Brother”) as his executive producer and ex-flame feels immediately out of place. Once again, it’s not due to lack of talent, as she delivers the part of Mackenzie McHale very well, but believability of her character is undermined by the tasks at hand. It’s only when you discover the part was originally written for and offered to Marisa Tomei (“My Cousin Vinny”, “In the Bedroom”) that the puzzle pieces start sliding into place. Jeff Daniels is 57 this year, he’s looking closer to 50 than 60, but casting 39 year old, “mid thirties” looking actress to replace original 46 year old Marisa Tomei as his love interest proven to be just a bit of a stretch. What’s worse is that the “next in chain of command” character – James “Jim” Harper, the right hand to Tomei-now-Mortimer’s McHale’s character, as portrayed by John Gallagher, Jr ( background role in “Jonah Hex” and few crime dramas ) despite being now casted as a very young male, definitely feels like it was originally written with Mortimer in mind. It doesn’t help that Mr. Gallagher Jr. is actually quite rubbish at it as well. The obligatory “basket case” female role in “The Newsroom” has gone to “forever looking like a student” type cast Canadian actress Allison Pill (“Goon”, “The Pillars of the Earth”, btw. she’s actually 27). Allison does her best with what she was given, but the chances of her becoming the new Donna Moss from West Wing are slim to none without major rewrites to the script. Cast wise, the series is definitely short and in deep need of at least one more large format leading star for Jeff Daniels to bounce his charismatic performance, however, things might pick up just a little in later episodes where script introduces token “easy on the eye” supporting female character played by Olivia Munn (“The Daily Show”, “Perfect Couples”) and casted at literally last minute Jane Fonda (“Barbarella”, aerobics VHS tapes) as a media exec.
With all the above laid on the table, do not worry – the script is good, the pilot is solid and if this is a sign of things to come, if you liked Sports Night, early West Wing and Studio 60, you will immensely enjoy “The Newsroom” as well. In a sea of repetitive bland procedural dramas and product placement can laughter comedies “The Newsroom” is long awaited pice of clever, well written and gripping TV. Season one spans across 10 episodes, on your HBO right now, and for UK viewers it starts on Tuesday 10th of July on Sky Atlantic HD.