'The Newsroom' Review: Is This Aaron Sorkin's Best Pilot Yet?
'The Newsroom' Review: Is This Aaron Sorkin's Best Pilot Yet?
John Kubicek
John Kubicek
Senior Writer, BuddyTV
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is a master of TV pilots. The Newsroom, his latest series on HBO, is his fourth TV show, and aside from the many similarities in tone and style to his previous ones, it might be the best pilot.

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I'm not about to declare it his best show. That takes time and it's unlikely anything will top The West Wing. But The Newsroom is the kind of fast-paced, uplifting behind-the-scenes show that can only be described as Sorkin-esque.

The Newsroom (which premiered to 2.1 million viewers) centers on Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), an affable newsman whose appeal is that he never takes a political side and appeases everyone. He's insultingly referred as the Jay Leno of nightly news, and at a college forum he's asked by a flight sorority girl why America is the greatest country in the world ("in one sentence or less"). This sets Will off on an epic tirade about how it isn't, but it used to be and it can be again.

Three weeks later he's back from a mandatory vacation and ready to do his show again, although his producer has left and his new producer is Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer), a brilliant woman who has a history with Will.

Halfway through the pilot there's a surprising and somewhat unexpected twist: The Newsroom doesn't take place in the present day, it's a period piece set on April 2010, aka the first day of the BP oil spill. This is where Sorkins' romanticism and idealism come into play. Will's new team sees how big this story is before anyone else and we see them put the broadcast together piece by piece.

It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback about the BP oil spill and show how news channels SHOULD have handled the story when it first broke, but it's almost impossible to believe the characters could've had the foresight when it first happened. It's a lot simpler to cover breaking news after the fact when you see the whole picture.

But it's that absurd romanticism that makes me love The Newsroom as much as I've loved all of Sorkin's work. While the show takes place in the real world, it's not realistic. None of what Sorkin writes is realism. It's romanticism, the same kind of high-minded idealism featured in Don Quixote, which the characters reference. You shouldn't take the show at face value, you need to appreciate it as a flight of fancy, no more realistic than Game of Thrones.

In that sense, The Newsroom is Sorkin's best pilot yet. Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip also centered on idealistic live TV broadcasts, but The Newsroom is more focused. Those earlier shows opened with the broadcasts themselves, dropping us into the deep end of the pool. The Newsroom takes its time and builds up to the broadcast, introducing all of the major characters one or two at a time with big, wonderfully written scenes that establish who they are and what they do.

The flow of The Newsroom pilot is remarkable, making it feel as if we're watching it unfold naturally (it's easy to understand why it was originally titled More as This Story Develops).

But the real hurdle is The West Wing, a show that won four Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series. Only time will tell if The Newsroom can equal that show's longevity or continued strength, unlike Studio 60, which had an excellent pilot and then became exponentially worse as its one and only season progressed.

The West Wing, however, lacked the slight cynicism of The Newsroom. President Jed Bartlet was the ideal commander-in-chief, a man so wonderfully perfect that you couldn't help but wish he was the real president. The Newsroom, however, isn't afraid to make its leading man more cynical and unlikeable. He may be great on camera, saying everything we've ever wanted a newsman to say, but behind-the-scenes he's an unlikeable ass who can't remember his assistant's name and who takes a massive pay cut simply so that he can have the option of firing his producer whenever he wants.

Will McAvoy is one of the most fascinating characters Sorkin has created, an unhinged man who is mad as hell and isn't going to take it any more. His initial outburst is inspired by him seeing Mackenzie in the audience at the college forum, and he believes she was a delusion of his mind. The final moment of the pilot reveals that she really was there and really did orchestrate his entire meltdown, but the fact that he doesn't know this makes him more interesting. He has accepted it as a hallucination and it makes him more damaged than if he knew the truth.

The Newsroom is similar to Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and all of Sorkin's movies. It's high-minded fantasy, escapist romanticism that shows a small group of people trying to make something great, and in doing so, reclaiming America's greatness.

(Image courtesy of HBO)