Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Notes on Sorkin's "The Newsroom"

One thing's a given in TV today:  A new Aaron Sorkin show is going to get lot ofs entertainment press attention.  Sorkin's new show on HBO, The Newsroom, has gotten lots of entertainment press attention.  Last night, I was able to catch a repeat of the premiere episode.  Honestly, I watched because of actor Jeff Daniels as the news anchor in crisis, Will McAvoy.  I've been a Daniels fan since I saw him in Terms of Endearment as the disappointment of a husband to Debra Winger's character.  He's a fine actor, someone who qualifies for my "Overlooked by Oscars" list.  Trust me.  He's done a lot more than Dumb and Dumber.  Rent Something Wild, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Pleasantville, The Squid and the Whale and Infamous.  Daniels totally delivers as news anchorman Will McAvoy.  He's in top form on this HBO show.
Both actor and character are a seasoned presence of the show.  The same goes for the excellent Sam Waterston as the anchor's boss.  The show seems to be geared towards making points about how TV journalism needs to reclaim its soul.  It needs to return to some "old school" guts, brass balls and brass ovaries in news gathering and reporting.  Apparently, it needs to do this with "new school" faces.  Did anyone else notice how young the staff in McAvoy's network newsroom was?  I couldn't believe it.
Minority check:  It's racially mixcd.  But this group of racially mixed newsroom workers was so young and slim that it looked like a United Colors of Benetton ad in Vanity Fair.
All young. All slim.  All cute and a little quirky.  All single.  Not a married person in that network newsroom.  In midtown Manhattan.  This show needs the touch of someone Daniels worked with previously -- director/writer James L. Brooks, the man who won Oscars for writing and directing the Best Picture of 1983, Terms of Endearment.  The man who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated film, Broadcast News.  The man who gave us that TV classic, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Yes, it's an old sitcom but it's still relevant in comparison to The Newsroom.  I've worked on TV news shows in New York City.  Lou Grant's staff looked way more realistic to me than Will McAvoy's does.
I am not against casting youth, but Sorkin cannot effectively make his point if the news team likes like it just walked in from Glee auditions.  You need seniority.  You need experience.  You need veterans with a good reputation in the business.  Also, newsrooms have people who are married.  They also have single folks who want to get laid.
One of the problems with TV newsrooms and newspapers in America is that veterans with skills, knowledge, contacts and street smarts were downsized.  Guys like Ryan Seacrest and relatives of ex-presidents, young relatives with no prior TV experience, have booked jobs as network news reporters (Billy Bush, Jenna Bush Hager, Chelsea Clinton).  Sorkin needs to season that newsroom and dial down the wide-eyed "quirky and perky" vibe those young actors have.  Daniels' character has been criticized for being uncontroversial, like a Jay Leno of news anchors.  That's the base for him to launch into rants later in the show.  Again, I love Jeff Daniels' work.  However, I would've raised the stakes on the McAvoy casting.  I'd have gone with a black actor.  If I was playing McAvoy, I'd base him on the groundbreaking but practically forgotten ABC newsman Max Robinson.  In the 1980s, Robinson was the first and -- to this day -- only black person to anchor the network evening news.  He co-anchored ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.  I spent a long day with Robinson, doing a feature on him for PM Magazine.  Max was smart, serious, righteously angry and -- to me -- a true gentleman.  He had to keep his angers within network margins so he could appeal to a national audience as the first black man in the anchor seat.  Off-camera, one sensed that Max had the fire and capability to break into a passionate rant like Howard Beale in Network.
A black man in a prime network news spotlight would have that interior motor of working towards not being controversial while trying to distinguish himself.  Think of President Obama.  Casting like that could've enabled Sorkin's script to play two registers at the same time.  It would comment on our current America with its first African-American president and it would comment on the longtime lack of diversity in network news itself.  Max Robinson died in 1988.  No black journalist has held a weeknight anchor spot on ABC, NBC or CBS since. No black comedian has a popular news-driven talk show like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and HBO's Bill Maher do.  That group of liberals is all white.  Now that we've all realized America is not "post-racial" simply because we elected a black man to the White House, bold ethnic casting could've opened the door to some juicy and controversial episodes.  I get Sorkin's message.  He's a good writer.  But the James L. Brooks looks at TV newsrooms still feel more relevant and believable to me.  He championed racial and age diversity.  And he was less preachy in making his point.



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