06/28/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2012

The Newsroom Is a Loaded Fantasy, But It Should Get Us Talking

Quite a few critiques of The Newsroom have shown up in this space, both before and after Sunday's premiere. If one were to believe the critical establishment, Aaron Sorkin's latest is overly earnest and a bare rehash of much of his previous work, and creates a severely problematic revisionist history. But if you browsed your Facebook or Twitter feed on Sunday night, you probably witnessed an entirely different response. Sorkin's pacing has a way of capturing the public imagination, and the heart-on-his-sleeve politicking he engages in on The Newsroom will resonate with a lot of people. Having seen only the pilot (many critics screened the first four episodes), it seems like neither side is especially wrong. What's clear is that Sorkin is going to provoke (however ham-fistedly) some conversations worth having. And, at least on a narrative level, The Newsroom is not that bad.

Now, that's the very definition of a backhanded compliment, but it's appropriate. Most of The Newsroom's problems show up in the first five minutes, during a college panel discussion where we meet Jeff Daniels's jaded news anchor Will McAvoy. In response to the (more than a little loaded) question, "What makes America the greatest country in the world?" Will offers a damning, conspicuously statistical assessment of why America isn't, why it used to be, and how it should be again. It's meant to be a rhetorical bombshell, but it doesn't quite fly, for a couple of reasons. For one, it's an overwrought, angry stump speech presented as an epiphany. And second, we're never really given a motivation for why the normally inoffensive "Jay Leno of news anchors" (seriously, he's described this way) would break from sacrosanct journalistic objectivity, a standard which, throughout the hour, Sorkin appears simultaneously in love with and contemptuous of (particularly the latter when it suits his agenda).

This opening salvo is a pretty clear, though confusing, liberal fantasy (not that I have anything against liberal fantasies). And there's nothing necessarily wrong with creators placing their belief systems onto their characters; it's something that Sorkin himself has done often, and it's a tradition as old as art itself. There's just something so disturbingly plain about how the device operates here, and so devoid of context, that The Newsroom has to spend the remainder of the hour clawing out from the crater it left. And during the remainder of the premiere, once the very strong ensemble gets on its feet, The Newsroom has a lot going for it.

The extended sequence, in particular, where the hastily assembled News Night crew reacts to the breaking story of the Deepwater Horizon explosion is quite engaging, with Sorkin and director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) making great use of the entire cast and multiple settings. While not as exhilarating as it wants to be, the sequence is Aaron Sorkin near his best (even absent an actual walk-and-talk, so far as I can tell). It's Sports Night with stakes.

Much has been made of the decision to set The Newsroom in the recent past in order to make the news coverage seem more realistic and recognizable. Some have argued quite persuasively that this episode's focus on the BP spill, and News Night's ability to recognize the environmental impact of that spill before any other outlets did makes for an uncomfortable twisting of the realities of that breaking story. If we take a cue from the episode's opening moments, however, and read the whole affair as a fantasy (and I suppose the inevitable comparison to Network will hold up here), it's much easier to take. Don't we all wish our journalists would be so on the ball, relentlessly hunting down the real story, even if it requires a little bit of luck? Sorkin has the luxury here of avoiding some practicalities, and I won't begrudge him that.

It's possible that the big picture problem with The Newsroom is a mistaken ordering of its priorities. It's presented as, "Come for the political polemic, stay for the high-stakes workplace drama," rather than the other way around. Even if you believe in the righteousness of Sorkin's views, there's a certain tone-deaf quality to the way they are delivered. By placing all of his political philosophies in Jeff Daniels's mouth, Sorkin is skipping straight to an easy answer without ever once showing his work. Perhaps the most provocative statement (to my ears) in Will's monologue is that current college-age Americans represent the worst generation we've ever had. It's a statement that never once during the hour is really contested, and that generation is further attacked by proxy, through barbs at "youthful" communication technologies like blogs, Twitter, and YouTube. This has the effect of reducing Sorkin's impassioned plea for American civility and ingenuity into the rantings of a disillusioned old fart.

However this fantasy plays out (and I can see the seeds of many of the problems others have noted in the first part of the season), The Newsroom is one of the most interesting series of the summer. Even just within the first episode, the supporting characters are fairly well-drawn, and their backstories are beginning to come into focus. As we get to know those characters better, the inner workings of News Night could make for some very engaging entertainment. But the series is also fascinating for all the things it's gotten wrong so far. Sorkin is unafraid to ask questions, even if they're the wrong ones, and he's unafraid to suggest answers, even if he's just jumping to conclusions. He's shouting at the back row of the theater, hoping everyone in between pays him some attention. I say it's worth hearing him out, even just to shout right back.