The opening scene of the new HBO Sunday night drama "The Newsroom" sets up a situation that could make for a great series. In it, a cable TV news anchor named Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) is sitting in the middle of a contentious 3-person panel in front of a large audience of college students. His attention is wandering from the shouting match between the people who flank him. He keeps seeing a woman out in the audience -- someone important from his past, we deduce -- signaling to him. Whenever a question from the moderator is lobbed his way, he responds with a quip, but you can tell he's not in a jolly mood. There's a tension in his demeanor.
Then, a cute blonde co-ed from the audience asks the softest of softball questions: "What makes America the greatest country on Earth?"
The other panelists give quick, canned answers. McAvoy makes another joke.
The moderator won't let him off that easily this time. He pushes for a real response.
So McAvoy lets him -- and the audience and his fellow panelists -- have it. With both barrels. It's not quite Howard Beale in "Network," but it's gripping nonetheless.
And a bunch of people whip out their cell phones to capture the moments.
When the panel is over, the others are angry at McAvoy; the "how dare yous" come thick and fast. The bewildered anchorman talks fast, blaming the outburst on medication he'd taken, then asks the duo, "What did I say out there?"
It's fair to say that I expected a lot from "The Newsroom," mainly because it was created by Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin, whose TV output included such shows as "The West Wing" and "Sports Night." But those expectations weren't met, and I have to lay the blame at the feet of the author.
Don't get me wrong; I think Sorkin is a talented writer -- very talented, in fact. He has his own practically-patented style of patter, one that stylizes work-a-day dialogue into a machine of repetition and rhythm, with the intent of transforming conversations about mundane issues into ones fairly glistening with subtext. He also has a gift for piling words on top of themselves (in dialogue or monologue), building suspense among the characters with each new word or phrase. The opening scene I detailed above is a prime example of just that.
But I also think that Sorkin tends to overwrite. (Admittedly, this a "pot-meeting-kettle" thing.) He gets lost in his style, lost in the words -- and manages to lose the viewers in the process. Sometimes, I think he would do well to remember that less is often much more. (Again, "glass houses" and all that.)
More than that, the pilot of "The Newsroom" was an oddly unfocused one. That's disappointing considering that this is a writer who -- at his best -- can hit a plot's sweet spot like few others in the business. Although this episode was ostensibly all about the fallout from McAvoy's tirade-gone-viral (his executive producer has quit and taken a large chunk of the staff to another show on the same network; his boss has hired an ex-flame to fill the spot), there was too much wheel-spinning, either involving an office romance that has absolutely no weight to it, or in a couple of scenes between McAvoy and his boss, played by Sam Waterston. I really wanted some red meat about the business side of the broadcast news business; after all, a primetime anchor for a news network went off spectacularly enough that he'd been suspended for nearly a month, but whatever was said didn't amount to much.
The final act of "The Newsroom," however, is where my opinion really became conflicted, and it's because the show takes a bold step.
What happens? Well, the show reveals -- and rather bluntly -- that it's a fictionalized version of the real world. (Spoilers ahead.)
A senior produer (John Gallagher, Jr.), brought in by the new executive producer (Emily Mortimer), latches onto an AP alert about an explosion at a drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana. Yes, it's the opening moments of the BP/Deepwater Horizon story, and it's identified as such. A graphic materializes on-screen, letting the audience know that all of this is taking place in 2010.
To be fair, this is where "The Newsroom" kicks back into gear. The dialogue is -- for the most part -- crisp and suspenseful, the drama builds at a great clip and Daniels is terrific behind the desk. But I must ask why, in a show about fictional characters working for a fictional cable television news network, would you risk trivializing a very real incident that caused real people real distress? Why not develop a fictional scenario, one that might touch on a real-life situation, but doesn't have the stigma of such a real-life tragedy attached to it?
Perhaps Sorkin thought he was honoring the journalists who worked and sweat and bled to unpeel the onion layers of that story, but it feels oddly reductive to cram all that labor into the last half-hour of a pilot episode, and give credit to a handful of people in one TV channel's newsroom.
It's an interesting idea to tell the stories of the people who produce TV news. And the idea that the anchorman, the face of the newscast -- if not the entire company -- must choose between being a person who merely reads off the teleprompter with appropriate gravitas, or one who digs deeper and risks his popular image, is one that has the potential to be tremendously gripping. I guess that's what I wanted to see, the high-wire act of a man in a prominent position on the edge of a personality crisis. The opening scene led me to think that's what I'd be watching; I was truly disappointed that it wasn't. Two and a half stars (out of four).
Content advisory: "The Newsroom" carries a TV-MA, L, rating for strong language. Even though it's an HBO drama -- meaning the F-words come out to play -- a few trims in the occasionally salty talk would easily bring this back to commercial TV standards.