Full confession: I already love Aaron Sorkin. Mostly, I loved Sports Night, which was a two-season series on ABC, which I found to be no end of fun and woefully underrated. It certainly had problems that got in the way of its mass appeal, so its cancellation after two years wasn’t entirely unexpected. It’s been nearly fifteen years since that show started, so Aaron Sorkin must have learned from what did and didn’t make that show work, right?

Oh yes he did, and here are the top five reasons why.

In short, The Newsroom is a new HBO show about people who run a nightly network TV news show, and — get this — actually focuses on the news that this fictional show about news purports to be about. Except it’s not about fictional news; the show will follow several actual world news events, starting with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20th, 2010. More than anything, it’s a show about how political and news junkies (or at least Aaron Sorkin) wish that news organization would cover the news, rather than worry so much about focus groups and making a buck. But that’s getting ahead of this whole exercise. On to the points!

5) Comedy through repetition

I’ll readily admit that this might be a turnoff of Sorkin’s writing style, but I love it. But since I realize it might be a turnoff for some, it’s at the bottom of the list. Characters repeat what they’ve already said, often times in the same scene. And why? Partly because the other characters tend to talk over each other. For me, it’s an example of catharsis regarding how people tend to communicate with each other, and not letting them get away with nonsense non-answers to honest questions.

That’s also a good pattern for a show that’s largely about political grandstanding, PR shenanigans, and other white-to-outright criminal lies we hear on the television every day. The characters in this show expose them (somewhat reluctantly), and they start by not putting up with that ridiculousness in their own newsroom.

4) Sam Waterston

He’s like the Mr. Rogers of the 21st century. Also, he says “shit” at least once during the premiere episode. He couldn’t say that on broadcast TV as the no-nonense Executive Assistant District Attorney on the long-running Law and Order, so speaking of catharsis… Also, his character is head of the ACN news division, and direct boss of Jeff Daniels’ national anchor/personality Will McAvoy. He’s also a marine, which (deliberately?) calls back to the internet rumor that Mr. Rogers had bad-ass tattoos hidden under all those sweet, gentlemanly sweaters he used to wear. If you’re a fab of Law & Order (the original show, not these pale imitation spinoffs), you won’t be disappointed.

3) It’s actually about the thing the title implies it’s about

The most fair complaint I’ve heard about Sports Night is that the show never actually talks about sports or show the characters doing their jobs. For a show about a sports show, the characters don’t very often mention how much they love sports. Not that I minded; it was always about the characters and their relationships for me anyway. But they made such a deliberate point to not discuss any sporting events — even fictional ones — that it almost became a running joke. Unfortunately, viewers might have thought the joke was on them.

Maybe it’s because it’s not primarily a “sitcom”, or because it’s half an hour longer, but right at the point you might expect Sports Night to cut away and roll the credits, Newsroom kicks into high gear. Before that, all of the antics are familiar (perhaps too familiar, for those who don’t like the Sports Night formula), but now we actually get to watch these people do their jobs — and do them really, really well.

Or perhaps the problem with Sport Night was that doing a show about actual professional sports the way Newsroom does it about actual past news events would have been futile, since professional sports has such a lock on their brands, players, and footage of sporting events. And who cares about a sports season after it happened? Newsroom by comparison is picks big events that still stand tall in the public consciousness.

But hindsight is 20/20, and this show has a metric butt-load of it — if not a healthy dose of near-blind idealism. What seems obvious a couple of years later wasn’t so obvious at the time, and the characters can come off as a little bit self-important that they happened to get it right the first time. We have all of the facts now, or at least more of them than we did at the time these news stories were going on. The first episode also demonstrated an noticeable amount of sheer dumb luck that will become totally unbelievable if they rely on it too much.

Mackenzie McHale (played by Emily Mortimer) nails it in one of her first scenes with Will McAvoy: it’s all very quixotic.

2) It’s trying to stay in the middle… maybe a little too hard

Strangely, I’m not even a fan of The West Wing — despite one could argue it was Sorkin’s greatest TV success (despite, yet again, that he wasn’t even directly involved for all of its long run). That show reveals something else that one might have found out about Aaron Sorkin, which one could also glean from The American President: the dude is an unabashed liberal.

One might get the impression from the previews that not much has changed; it shows Will McAvoy answering in a well-versed, statistics-heavy tirade about how America in fact isn’t the greatest country on the face of the planet — something only an America-hating liberal would say. As Will would say later in the episode “did no one hear the second part of that speech? Because I though it was a very rousing–” Well, no, we didn’t, because it wasn’t in the preview.

Will McAvoy is literally in the middle of a shouting match between the two entrenched ideologies we’ve all come to know and loathe on the type of “news” show that too many people watch. He has something scathing to say to each of them, which I suppose is meant to set him apart from the other talking heads. He’s accused of being a “Jay Leno” of network news in that he’s gotten so popular because he doesn’t take big stands and doesn’t bother anyone.

His new executive producer, Mackenzie McHale, definitely has a political axe to grind, but it’s more to “reclaim the fourth estate” than to pander to a political demographic. I recently heard a quote stating that news is about saying something that someone else doesn’t want to be made public, which seems to be a fitting hypothesis for what Sorkin is trying to do. I sincerely hope future episodes will flay open a few closely-held liberal notions as well, but only time will tell.

1) They never, not once, say “Roll VTR”

It was a nonsense phrase to begin with, and — according to a master control operator friend of mine — no one working on a live show ever says it.


They say it almost right away in the second episode, and now they say it almost ALL THE TIME.

Newsroom is not without flaws, of course. If you weren’t a fan of Sports Night, and the changes to the formula aren’t enough to keep your interest, you probably won’t like this show. If, like me, you’ve been watching how the news reacts to big political news stories over the last decade, almost everything said is going to sound familiar, and — one might hope — they try and tackle in a way you would hope the news would have the first time around. Again, all very cathartic.

On the other hand, in many ways it’s still not all that different from Sports Night. You could map just about every Newsroom character onto a Sports Night character. The main anchor and Executive Producer have a romantic past that threatens to get in the way of their professional relationship. Sam Waterston is a whiter, but just-as-idealistic, just-as-old, and just-as-drunk version of Robert Guillaume’s managing editor Isaac Jaffe. (They also both have an affinity for bow ties.) There’s the brash, somewhat dickish old EP, plus the naive young intern who’s dating him even though an office romance could get them both fired. He’s not terribly good for her, and they’ll probably break up five times before the show is over.

From time to time, each character stops sounding like themselves and start sounding like Aaron Sorkin.

Also, the theme song is… not great. Not Star Trek: Enterprise “not great”, but pretty close.

Still, it’s a fun show, and I can’t wait for this series to get going.

(What did you think? Were you not interested before, but want to watch now? Never even heard of Aaron Sorkin or Sports Night, so it’s all new to you? Leave your comments below!)