As noted in my post yesterday, Sunday was a personal day of recovery after a long weekend of rehearsal dinners, tuxedos, trolleys, ceremonies, & receptions with binge drinking interspersed throughout.  I was pleased to return to the comforts of my couch Sunday afternoon to be reminded that the series premiere of The Newsroom was set to air on HBO later that evening.  I had been anticipating its arrival based on the pedigree of the writer (Aaron Sorkin), the cast (led by Jeff Daniels), as well as the station that carried it.  For years NBC has fought for Thursday night viewership, but for me Sunday night is the real moneymaker, and HBO has owned it for at least the past decade.  I’ve already written about the lack of television programming this summer but in doing so I knew that the potential of The Newsroom was out there waiting for me, and in this writer’s humble opinion it sure delivered.

So imagine my surprise this afternoon as I scrolled the web-o-sphere searching for critical reviews, anticipating having to sort through the numerous flowers thrown at the feet of Sorkin and HBO, when all I found were rotted tomato skins and seeds.  It appears that our learned critics wasted no time in nit picking the show to its most inane detail.  Using verbs, nouns, and clever similes, the pixels of their thoughts dumped out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Is The Newsroom the greatest show ever produced?  Probably not.  In its first hour and fifteen minutes of life there are already two love angles that have the potential to get sappy enough to suck the life out of a healthy story line, Sam Waterston’s character (Charlie Skinner) is a little too much like an alcoholic version of The Chicken Lady from The Kids In The Hall, and some of the idealism is certainly a bit over the top, but need I remind you that it is just television (despite what HBO’s slogan may imply)?  Critics are lambasting the show for not being a proper cable news network due to the timeslots in which the fictitious shows air.  They lament the fact that the entire premise of the show is based on changing the media through a medium (television) that has already seen its golden age.  It’s argued that if change is going to occur wouldn’t the internet be the more appropriate conduit?     

I also read where Will McAvoy (Bridges flawed protagonist) is Sorkin’s “Right Man” where an imperfect man delivers a morally pure message much like Martin Sheen, Jesse Eisenberg, and Brad Pitt before him.  To that I ask if having a style as an artist is wrong, should we not call out Wes Anderson for his issues with fathers (and love of sepia), Scorsese for violence, and Picasso for usage of the color blue?  Is Sorkin’s work rather verbose?  Why yes, yes it is as a matter of fact, but we live in a world where Ronnie from The Shore tells our youth that “keeping it real” is a virtue and Nick Cannon’s discretion defines what talent is for our culture.  Thank you but I’ll take a few extra words as long as they make a salient point.

In McAvoy’s opening rant at Northwestern, when describing the greatness that was America he notes, “we aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior.”  I cannot agree with this enough.  Too often today our entertainment derives from the lowest common denominator.  We’d rather put people in a glass house and tell them to make out with each other than have to think or interpret the words of others.  With The Newsroom Sorkin again is taking an opportunity to use the bar we normally push to receive a pellet, and instead makes it play music.  Will McAvoy speaks of a day gone by where the people of the United States were, “informed by great men, men who were revered.”  He goes on, “the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.  America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”  I believe Sorkin feels this in his heart and rather than sitting idly by and doing nothing about it, or worse yet, grabbing a Budweiser and a gun, saying “yes it is” while metaphorically burying his head in the sand, he lifted his pen and spoke up. 

There’s nothing more important to a democracy than a well informed electorate – Mackenzie MacHale   

Six hundred years ago peasants with less educations than we posses stood in the Rose Theater in London watching Shakespeare and understood some of the greatest written word man has put to paper.  Today a catch phrase of “get ‘er done” can generate generational wealth.  Our forefathers didn’t have spell check, instead having to hand set each letter on a press to make their words available to the masses.  It was tedious work but it was worth it to them and we are a better society for it.

There is nothing wrong with being smart.  Reading is not lame, and intelligence is not a curse.  Aaron Sorkin uses facts to make arguments and he has created a world where they aspire to spawn discussion on cultural and news-worthy topics as opposed to hosting a screaming match where he-who-can-yell-loudest wins. 

The state of news as we know it today has devolved into a world of “advertiser-supported television” rather than an outlet of information.  Every network has an angle and every segment a sponsor.  You don’t watch the news to learn what actually happened, you watch to understand your side’s position on it after the fact.  It’s not as much who’s right but more importantly why everyone else is wrong.  It’s vile and vindictive where no real winners are left standing.  If everyone else is always stupid then no one is ever really smart.  We see this in government (McAvoy’s speech touches on it), where we no longer work to solve a problem but rather filibuster and delay to prevent the success of others.  I personally hate this place we’ve gotten to and I don’t use the word “hate” lightly. 

I’m of the mindset that you are not allowed to complain about something unless you are ready to propose a better solution.  You also must acknowledge that your idea is not infallible and thus you must be ready to defend it in a discussion yet be open to compromise, as opposed to forcing it upon others solely because it is entirely yours.  Can you imagine two hundred and thirty-six years ago at those meetings in Philadelphia when men from different backgrounds and economic classes came together, each with their own idea of what a new country should look like, and they came out of those rooms with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution upon which they all could agree?  That concept is completely unfathomable today.  I’d wager dollars to donuts that our current leadership wouldn’t even be able to reach consensus on a title for either document.

This is what Sorkin is getting after through the medium of TV and film.  Sure you can call it conceded that he thinks his voice should be the one to provide perspective and levity, but there’s nothing stopping the rest of us from doing it either.  If you want your voice heard on these matters you can write your own pilot and pitch it to the same people he did.  If it’s good it can enter the public consciousness as well.  Sure there are layers of luck in knowing the right people, but Aaron Sorkin was not born to do what he does with the rest of us waiting with baited breath to consume whatever it is that he provides.  I believe that in every scenario the cream will eventually rise, and his is at the top right now.

Later in the show Jeff Bridges (Will McAvoy) and Emily Mortimer (Mackenzie MacHale – yes three “mac” names in four opportunities – another criticism I read) are in his office discussing why she wants to be his executive producers and she makes the statement, “we’re coming to a tipping point… there’s going to be a huge conversation; is government an instrument of good or is it every man for himself?  Is there something bigger we want to reach for or is self-interest our basic resting pulse?  You and I have a chance to be amongst the few people who can frame that debate.”  While this idea interests me to the Nth degree I think it’s even cooler that Ms. Mortimer is speaking these words on behalf of Mr. Sorkin.  And he’s right.  Our society is being driven by two wings – one of which thinks the government should be more involved while the other feels it should be all but dissolved.  Sorkin is one of the few people granted the opportunity to actually frame that debate because he has the stage and the microphone every Sunday night from 9-10pm and he’s choosing to do something with it.  I don’t have that power, do you? 

At this point all other news agencies are dug into their bunkers and cannot waver on a single talking point at the risk of losing viewers and in turn advertisers (read: $$$).  So why can’t a medium of entertainment such as scripted television serve this purpose?  The Wife and I discussed this very topic before bed, I brought it up at the office today (to my chagrin no one else had watched the show because I believe there were Celebrity Apprentice reruns on instead), and because I’m still thinking about it, I opted to write this post tonight.  I’m 1,500+ words in and feel like I’m just getting started. 

America is the only country on the planet that has said over, and over, and over that we can do better.  It’s part of our DNA. – Mackenzie MacHale

I fully understand every critic that went to bed last night having submitted their drafts to their editors that were filled with the words “preachy”, “bogus patriotic speeches”, and “idealistic”, because they’re right, The Newsroom is not real.  They didn’t perform the necessary fact checking before running with their story, they aired an entire newscast off the cuff without prompter, and there’s no way Erin Andrews would vacation with a fifty-something newsman.  I get it.  You can also call Sorkin pompous for setting the show two years back in history (it opens in April 2010) so that he can offer his revisionist view of historical events and select the facts that are presented to the audience with 20/20 hindsight (a move I thought was brilliant for what it’s worth).   The fact of the matter is the show produced more quotes (in addition to those included here) and thought provoking discussion topics than any other block of television I’ve watched perhaps since Tony Soprano was killed (he was, read this).  This is what I define as entertainment.  I don’t want to “zone out” or dedicate my time to something I would describe as “mindless.”  I like shows and movies and books that challenge me and make me want to talk about them with someone else who absorbed them as well.  After the first seventy-five minutes The Newsroom has done just that for me.

Waterston’s Skinner perhaps says it best when he notes, “In the old days… we did the news well.  You know how?  We just decided to.”  So much of life boils down to that single statement.  Do you know how men walked on the moon or Columbus discovered the new world?  They just decided to.  Sorkin had something to say about the world as he sees it today so he rolled up his sleeves, opened up Word®, and began to type.  I can respect that and I hope you do too.  Besides, how can you trash a show that quotes Don Quixote not once, but twice?  The world needs more Don Quixotes.  Lord knows we have enough donkeys.    

*** FYI – for those without HBO all hope is not lost as Home Box Office Entertainment has enough faith in this investment that they have made this pilot episode free to everyone through HBO.com, YouTube, iTunes and serveral other public venues.  If you can’t tell already I’d suggest you download it before your next flight or car ride, or instead of some of the mindless drivel that is weeknight TV this summer.  Come on, you’ve at least got to see what all the fuss is about right?