HBO’s Newsroom: a fan’s take

Aaron Sorkin’s new cable drama centers around the behind the scenes look of the aptly titled series “Newroom”. Like Sorkin’s previous television series, the show’s title captures the premise of the show, his previous works include Sports Night (based on ESPN), West Wing (set in White house), and Studio 60 (based on SNL). His recent films include “The Social Network” and “Moneyball” and probably contributed to one of movie’s most iconic lines “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” (A Few Good Men, written by Sorkin).

This is becoming less of a review of the show and more of an ode to Sorkin…back to the show, I guess.

The Writing

Sorkin’s appeal is in his mastery of dialogue and story development. The rapid fire pace and subtle humor is pretty distinct and now is rapidly becoming a style others are trying to emulate. The pilot of “Newsroom” starts with a banging monologue. One that’s sparked national discourse on CNN (article) and posts on Reddit (comic) about America’s position as the greatest country in the world. It’s stirring, it’s rousing, it’s pretty vintage Sorkin. Like the opening monologue in Studio 60, once you watch it, you really can’t change the channel!

To be clear. Sorkin references a lot of material so the content may not be new but the delivery sure is. There’s not too much to comment about the writing except that this video clip kind of tells it all. Sorkin has a very consistent style in his shows and while some people call it “recycled”, others see it as inside jokes for fans who’ve been with him throughout. I have to admit I never noticed this and it might seem like all the characters are cut from the same cloth…that’s not the case. But it is funny.

The Casting

Previous fans of Sorkin’ll have to work a little harder to find the people Sorkin brought back. Where as Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman, Danny Trip) was in WW and S60, Josh Molina (Will Bailey) was in WW and Sports Night, Timothy Busfield (Danny Concannon) in WW and S60, and many others, maybe Sorkin’s starting with a fresh faces after the Studio 60 letdown. I only noticed one bring back…the announcer in S60 is now in the control room of Newsroom.

Over the years, Sorkin’s lead characters are getting older in age so you don’t too many young stars in this show. Maybe because the protagonist is some reflection of Sorkin himself, but those hoping to watch this show for eye candy…will be disappointed. Yup.

Oh and way back in college I think we spotted the lead, Jeff Daniels, on the highway in Los Angeles so we sped up and snapped a picture. You think that’s him?  (remember it’s way back)

Filming style

One of the trademark technique’s in WW and S60 was the “walk and talk“. A filming technique that followed one or multiple conversations as characters walked while talking through multiple rooms and sets. It allowed long flow-y conversations to occur while moving the plot forward in a very short amount of time and capturing the pure hecticness of the environment. Popularized by Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, it was a staple in previous works but it’s glaringly missing in this show. There is one segment in the pilot that is similar to it @50:16 mark of the show. The new man behind the camera for this pilot is Greg Mottola.

There’s been an infatuation with shaky-cam film story telling these days. I’m not a particular fan of it. If you remember Quantum of Solace and the recent Hunger Games, you’ll know what I’m referring to. Quick whizzing of the camera from one point to another, a lot of constant motion and movement which can sometimes lead to viewer nausea. It can serve to be a good story telling technique but to me seems to scream more Blair Witch Project and documentary than high production value. I often feel like this technique is used when you want to cover up the fact your set looks pretty jenky.

Which brings us to a list of differences. WW and S60 were broadcasted on NBC (public broadcast), while Newsroom is HBO (cable). I’m not sure if these differences are due to public vs cable but here are a few obeservations.

Set: I’m not sure if this is because it’s a newsroom, but the set is totally unlike WW and S60. While the previous two had beautiful sets that gave the audience a sense of wonder, Newsroom’s set looks like…well a newsroom. Previous shows could then use panning and sweeping shots of the interior as transitions into a new scene. Despite the awesomeness of the show, the set is really nothing to behold. Which might explain the whole shaky-cam technique. The colors, the lighting, the mood…all feels a bit off. Maybe it’s because it is the pilot show? So when they shot it they did not know if they would have the show picked up so instead of investing in building a great set, it’s pretty basic for now? I’ll revisit this later in the season and see if that’s the case.

Show length: The pilot is a lengthy 72 minutes. It doesn’t feel that long but it is an unusual length for me. Since I watched the show on HBO’s website,  there were no advertisements, but how does a show get to 72 minutes? Are there no commercials on HBO or just fewer of them? Typical shows run 22 minutes for a 30 minute show (like Friends) or 43 min for a 60 minute show (like Burn Notice). Even if you double up the pilot to a 2 hr series opening, you don’t get 72…dunno. Not complaining either, more show = awesome. Just an observation.

Pacing: One of the things my friends have had a tough time with in previous Sorkin series is it that there are sometimes segments that are a bit dialogue heavy in WW and S60. That was for a 45 min show that already packed so much into one episode. When given a 72 min time frame, it feels like Sorkin has tried to keep the pacing of a 45 min show, but at times it feels labored. There’s a 2 persion dialogue that feels a little too drawn out halfway through the pilot and it might be due to adjusting to this new show format. Maybe.

Opening intro: S60 had something like a 5 second title screen, WW’s was a bit longer. Newsroom’s title intro looks strangely dated. Black and white montages that hark back to old news broadcasts are cool but it just feels wrong in the context of a frenetic, quick paced show. Also missing is the iconic Serif font credits of old.

Hope I don’t sound like this was an underwhelming pilot because it’s definitely not. After 7 seasons of WW and another season of S60, there’s an element of familiarity and expectation so there’s just an adjustment to a new style. Shout out to Inspired Adornations for introducing me to Sorkin 7 years ago, been a fan ever since. I’m excited to see this show on the air and I really hope it lasts longer than Studio 60’s run.

Finally if you’re thinking “was that really worth all that recap”, you don’t have take my word for it…HBO posted the first episode on youtube! EPISODE

Welcome back to TV Sorkin!

*all screenshots property of HBO