Open Mic

Figuring Out Aaron Sorkin and HBO's 'Newsroom.' If You Miss Jane Fonda's Debut in 'Newsroom' on Sunday, You'll Likely Be Missing an Emmy-Winning Performance

Chuck Ross Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:15 AM

I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin. Well, let me amend that. I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter. I’ve seen “The Social Network” half a dozen times, and never tire of it. Dazzling screenplay, for which Sorkin justly won the Oscar.

I’ve seen “Moneyball” three times. While I didn’t like it as much as “The Social Network,” I thought the screenplay especially was first-rate. Sorkin co-wrote the screenplay for this movie with Steve Zaillian, and the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, but didn’t win.

Having liked Sorkin’s last two projects so much, I was very much looking forward to “Newsroom,” the Sorkin-created and penned TV series about a cable news show that debuted on HBO three weeks ago.

It was during the middle of watching an advance DVD of the fourth episode of the series that I had my Oprah “ah-ha” moment.

Sorkin is a far better screenwriter than a writer of TV series. There’s not enough time in a single two-hour movie for him to indulge his worst habit -- the soap box preacher in him -- for more than a few minutes. Or perhaps it’s that feature films are more a director’s medium than a writer’s, and someone like “Social Network” director David Fincher is able to keep Sorkin reined in.

Unfortunately, unleash Sorkin in the longer form of a TV series -- even one, like “Newsroom,” that only has a season made up of 10 episodes that are about an hour each in length -- and it’s like unleashing a kid in a candy store unsupervised to overindulge at his leisure.

Similar to his “Sports Night” and “The West Wing,” Sorkin is both the creator and principal writer of “Newsroom.” In an HBO-released description of the show Sorkin said this about why he chose the newsroom setting for the series: “Somewhere along the way, journalists went from heroic to derided and I wanted to write about a group of journalists who are doing their best to do the news well -- reaching unrealistically high and slipping on a lot of banana peels and doing it all in the name of an honorable mission.”

He added, “I spent time being a fly on the wall in newsrooms ranging from Fox to CNN to MSNBC to truTV.” He also said he met with a lot of “heavyweights” in the news business and “basically I asked them two questions: What would a utopian news broadcast be, and what’s stopping you from doing it.”

Sure enough, in episode one, after a too-preachy speech about what’s wrong with America, we find “Newsroom’s” main character, news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels as a cross between an out-of-control Charlie Sheen and a smartest-person-in-the-room, holier-than-thou Edward R. Murrow), reinventing his newscast.

Now here’s one of the weirder aspects of “Newsroom.” At the beginning of the 10-episode first season, Sorkin sets it in 2010. Thus we have this major scene in the first episode -- that’s terrifically edited -- of the revamped newscast that’s all about the explosion of the British Petroleum oil-drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana and the subsequent oil spill.

The conceit here is that McAvoy’s newscast focuses on the spill part, which, according to the show, most newscasts did not do initially.

But the problem is that none of us in the audience remember that. What we DO recall is hours and hours of coverage on networks such as CNN on the oil spill. So the whole point Sorkin is trying to make, about “News Night” being a "utopian" newscast such as one that hasn’t been seen on TV since the 1950s and 1960s, is totally lost.

Episode two, which premiered last Sunday, July 1, was set in April 2010, and “Newsroom” showcased the then just passed American Immigrant Act by the Arizona legislature. This episode, in which the newscast quickly went south, was one exemplifying Sorkin’s notion of “slipping on a lot of banana peels and doing it all in the name of an honorable mission.”

[Spoiler Alert] The third episode of the series -- which is scheduled to be aired this Sunday, July 8 -- starts in May 2010 and goes through November 2010, focusing on the 2010 midterm elections and the Tea Party in particular.

The episode starts with McAvoy, again, telling viewers how his nightly newscast was going to be different from everyone else’s. And then there’s his big attack on the Tea Party, best summarized when McAvoy says that the Tea Party has been “co-opted by the radical right, which, in turn, has enslaved the Republican middle.”

In one “gotcha” moment he informs some Tea Party true-believers about the money that’s coming into their movement from the Koch brothers, David and Charles. The two Tea Party members have never heard of them. Again, it’s supposed to be illustrative of the revelatory and fresh insight “News Night” is bringing to the media scene. But watching this episode today, in 2012, all we viewers recall is that the monies given by the Koch brothers -- along with who they are and what their political leanings are -- has been talked about a lot in the media.

All of this is intertwined, week in and week out, with one particular interoffice romantic triangle as well as the romantic tension between McAvoy and his executive producer, who used to date. Unfortunately, too much of the latter is preachy as well as just annoying, especially the way Sorkin makes the EP as weak in her personal life as she is strong in her professional life.

In this Sunday’s episode, we get to the best scene of the series thus far. It's the series debut of Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing, the CEO of Atlantis World Media, the company that owns ACN, the cable network on which "News Night" airs. Fonda has said she’s in three episodes this season. I think she’ll win an Emmy just for her performance in this Sunday’s episode.

She’s only in the show briefly, near the end. But Sorkin has given her a humdinger of a speech. It’s pretty much what you’d expect a top-notch, no-nonsense business CEO to say, but it’s Sorkin at his best, matched by a great performance. It reminds me of Jack Nicholson, who was Oscar-nominated for delivering Sorkin’s “You can’t HANDLE the truth” speech in “A Few Good Men.”

I’ve read that fewer viewers watched the second episode of “Newsroom” than the debut episode. That doesn’t surprise me. And I’ll bet HBO executives weren’t surprised either, as they announced a second season of the series before the ratings for episode two were made public.

And I’m sure HBO likes being in business with Sorkin. He should thank them down the road by writing a movie for them. I’ll bet it’ll be fantastic, especially if it’s an adaptation and has a very strong-willed director who can rein him in.

Here's a fun must-watch mash-up of Sorkin using some of his best lines in more than one show, as he cribs from himself: