Tuned In

You’re Sorkin in It: HBO’s Newsroom Trailer Looks Pretty Familiar

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Taking advantage of the tune-in audience for the season premiere of Game of Thrones, and the built-in overlap between fans of fantasy epics and cable news, HBO previewed a trailer for its Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom last night.

It is totally unfair, of course, to prematurely judge a TV series from its trailer—except for the fact that the only reason the trailer exists is to try to get you to prematurely judge the series, positively. So with the disclaimer that I’ll do an actual review of the series when I have actual finished episodes to watch, here are a few first impressions:

* Look, everyone! Aaron Sorkin finally decided to do a series in which an idealistic character breaks his corporate shackles and tells us what he really thinks in a truth-telling rant for a live audience! The difference here, if there is one, is that Jeff Daniels’ character, Will McAvoy–though reportedly based at least in part on Keith Olbermann, who could use an advocate right about now–has spent his career as an assiduously neutral anchor, to maintain his popularity. The implication–that to keep high ratings in cable news today, you have to stifle your hosts opinions–would be breaking news at Fox News and MSNBC at least.

* It looks, on the other hand, like McAvoy works for a more CNN-like news outfit. (CNN and HBO being, like TIME, owned by Time Warner.) I’ll be curious to see if his fictional employer–like CNN–is also distantly trailing a competition that has built its success on opinions.

* I always felt that one of the greatest sources of appeal of Sorkin’s TV shows, particularly The West Wing, was their utility as a source of data points and arguments you wished you had at your disposal when you were arguing with your jerk cousin Artie at Thanksgiving. Between the education, science and life expectancy stats, the Sorkin esprits d’escalier machine is up and running again.

* “I’m a registered Republican.” An interesting choice for a Sorkin protagonist—compare Jed Bartlet and the writers of Studio 60—but it will also be interesting to see whether this is Sorkin again bringing out a moderate-liberal Republican who exists to make the point, “Why aren’t there reasonable Republicans like this anymore?” (See Sen. Arnold Vinick. Update: Correcting—a commenter points out that the Vinick election was after Sorkin’s four seasons on The West Wing. The better parallel might be Emily Proctor’s Ainsley Hayes, who came on the show as a Republican foil but whose character ended up languishing, or Sarah Paulson’s Christian evangelical Harriet on Studio 60.) One possible tell: McAvoy tells us he’s a Republican by way of saying that Republicans today believe that hurricanes are caused by gay marriage.

* “He’s trying to do good! And he’s risking a lot to do it!” There’s the Sorkin of movies like The Social Network, where he produced an empathetic portrait of a not-necessarily-sympathetic character. And there’s the Sorkin of TV, who basically makes his characters idealized mouthpieces with certain flaws–they’re workaholics, they make questionable romantic choices, etc.–that don’t get in the way of making them powerful vehicles for powerfully saying things Sorkin (and the imagined Sorkin viewer) believe to be true. Not every protagonist on TV needs to be an antihero, but the best way to make a hero is not to have characters telling us how heroic they are. (Though again: just a trailer here, but Sorkin does have a track record.)

* “Sorority girl”? Stay classy, San Diego. One measure of what kind of show this is going to be is whether we’re meant to see this as McAvoy being a contemptuous, sexist old gasbag or just cheer him on for putting this college girl in her place with her stupid question.

* That said, there is some sharp dialogue (or at least monologue) here. (“Yosemite?”) And there are potentially interesting way to make this story reflect the real pressures and problems of journalism today. On the one hand, commercial pressures reward loudmouth opinion and simplistic news that just reinforces what the audience already wants to believe. On the other hand, there’s a hidebound code of “serious” journalism that discourages reporters and anchors from calling out hogwash when they see it, and that punishes them for acknowledging that they have beliefs and opinions like any other informed citizen. But that dynamic is much more complicated than: “The corporate money guys don’t want journalists to tell you what they really think.”

* In that spirit, then, my own full disclosure: these two minutes of The Newsroom seem to repeat a lot of the preachy, self-important elements I could never stand in The West Wing and Studio 60. Which may also be the things you loved about those shows. Either way, it’s very, very much what you’d expect a Sorkin drama about Matters of Public Import to sound like, which makes the title–“Changed Man”–one of the more purely ironic things Sorkin has ever written.

* But it’s all I’ve seen so far; I will revise my view as necessary when all the facts come in. And will try, in any case, not to throw my phone at the TV.