Aaron Sorkin longs to fix the TV industry. It’s telling that his latest opus, The Newsroom, uses the safety net of HBO to air his grievances.
In the opening scenes of Aaron Sorkin’s latest opus, The Newsroom (which premieres June 24 on HBO), a student at a university panel discussion asks cable-news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) why America is the greatest country in the world. In seconds, Will loses his cool and spews forth a diatribe on the sorry state of the country—in front of a live television audience. It’s a moment that echoes the pilot of Sorkin’s 2006 show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which the head writer of the show-within-a-show interrupts a live broadcast to deliver a furious denunciation of network meddling: “We’re all being lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry!” he howls.
The Newsroom is Sorkin’s third stab at depicting the machinations of a television network, from the frantic movements of the cast, crew, and producers to the executives they inevitably bump up against. He set his first TV show, ABC’s Sports Night, in the world of a show based on ESPN’s SportsCenter. In 2006, NBC premiered Studio 60, about a fictional late-night sketch show inspired by Saturday Night Live. Sorkin called Studio 60 a “valentine to television.” Unfortunately, TV critics tore up that love note and threw it in his face, deriding the show for its characters’ high-flown morality and the fact that the sketches just weren’t very funny. It lasted one season.
A key difference between The Newsroom and its predecessors is that this is Sorkin’s first project for cable TV. He told Vanity Fair that “HBO is in business with the audience and not with the advertisers,” an arrangement that his characters are not lucky enough to enjoy. Through the lens of its fictional news program, News Night, The Newsroom tackles the Tea Party, guns, Sarah Palin, and more, but its biggest target is television’s corporate culture: News Night’s lofty mission inevitably collides with the interests of its parent company. It’s a reflection of the current state of network television that Sorkin has produced his most succinct critique of media to date for the privileged realm of cable.
In Sorkin’s idealized vision of TV, network presidents actively resist the idea of advertisers driving content. Studio 60 had network president Jordan McDeere, played by Amanda Peet, a character willing to risk her job to promote quality programming. The Newsroom has Mackenzie “Mac” MacHale (Emily Mortimer), the executive producer of News Night. Mac’s mission is to “reclaim journalism as an honourable profession” (cue swelling music). “We don’t do good television,” she tells Will. “We do the news.”
Sorkin’s characters are filled with passionate ideas about restoring American discourse to its former splendour; the glorious tension that arises when those ideas clash with larger forces makes it thrilling to inhabit the dream-worlds he creates. And that eerie echo of Sorkin scripts past leaves viewers with the feeling that we’re watching scenes pulled straight from the writer’s head.
Twenty years ago, Sorkin’s dream-world might have looked a little like NBC. Top of the Rock, a recent book written by the network’s former head of entertainment, Warren Littlefield, describes a network (mostly) populated by executives who cared deeply about quality television and were willing to take the risks that made shows like Seinfeld, Will & Grace, and ER game-changers. And, as Studio 60’s reality-TV-loathing Jordan McDeere notes, networks have the opportunity to deliver such programs to so many more viewers than just those who subscribe to HBO.
Sorkin’s meta-shows have demonstrated that he takes television more seriously than pretty much anyone else—to him, running a network is akin to running a country. He is militant in his critique of television, projecting a scathing image of its problems and an exalted vision of what it could be if the right people held the right jobs. And it’s telling that he is now using the safety net of cable to air his grievances.