"This all adds up to one thing, Mr. President. It's over! The game's been played and won. But because of guys like me, you get the results before anyone else does, so you get to pick which side you're on. And not only do you get to be on the winning team, you get to lead the winning team." — "The West Wing," "20 Hours in L.A."
I liked a lot of the pilot for HBO's "The Newsroom." Creator Aaron Sorkin has been responsible for television both great (much of "Sports Night" and "The West Wing") and daringly awful ("Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"). I've only seen 75 minutes of "The Newsroom," and it's far too soon to tell what kind of show this will turn out to be. But watching the pilot, I was most struck by the gimmick of setting the show in the recent past. Rather than give the show real-world context, it merely made those parts of the plot dealing with the news coverage feel too contrived and easy.
I say "gimmick" because there's no other word for it. Setting a series about breaking news in our recent past means we get to watch the team at the fictional Atlantis Cable News respond in the right and wrong ways to events whose endings have already been written. Instead of watching them deal with fictional events whose coverage and aftermath are unknown to viewers, we see them reacting to things we still remember clearly. In the pilot, it's the Deepwater Horizon/BP disaster. Had Sorkin come up with some fictional disaster — a meltdown at a nuclear reactor, a flood, etc. — then the focal point of the episode would be watching these people decide what to cover and how to do it. But because it's the BP fiasco, we know what they'll say. Moreover, we know that they're right to cover it: it was a huge story and awful environmental fiasco. We don't get the tension and excitement of watching them wonder if they're doing the right thing or chasing the right angle. We know they are. They're not heroes; they're fantasies, doing what we wish someone would have done two years ago.
The setting also becomes a cheap way to score points with viewers in terms of who Sorkin and Co. want us to root for. When the first news alert about BP pops up in the newsroom, it's spotted by Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.), who's visiting the office with the new executive producer and doesn't even work there yet. He points it out to Don (Thomas Sadoski), who's worked at "News Night" for a while and who's in the middle of prepping the newsroom for that night's broadcast. Don is, in other words, doing his job with the same commitment we could probably expect from someone working at his level. Jim pesters him to respond to the news alert and investigate the story, but Don, understandably annoyed at being told what to do by a guy who doesn't work there, keeps telling Jim to quiet down and get out of everyone's way.
Now, as viewers in 2012, we know that the BP story will be huge, and that Jim is right to want to cover it. We're meant to infer that Don is a bad guy, or at least a narrow-minded one, because he'd rather focus on the night's other stories. There's nothing on Don's screen yet but a minor news alert. He is doing his job; he is not sitting idly by, gleefully watching while the world falls apart one environmental disaster at a time. What's more, he doesn't have Jim's serendipitous sources — a college roommate who works at BP and an older sister who works at Halliburton — so he doesn't have anything to go on but the brief notice of a search-and-rescue off the Louisiana coast.
A fictional crisis would've let these characters play off each other in real ways. We could see Jim being insistent and more than a little insubordinate even if his hunch pays off; we could see Don doing his job with skill and caution, even if he wound up being on the wrong side of things. Because that's the bigger picture: with a fictional crisis, we wouldn't have known what would happen. We wouldn't get to sit back and know who's right and who's wrong. We wouldn't be urged into scolding Don just for doing a normal day's work. We'd actually have to pay attention to the situation at hand, and worry about the stakes. When Jeff Daniels's Will McAvoy takes to the airwaves to break the story, we'd have actually wondered if the risk would be worth it. But because it's BP, we know it is. It's less a drama and more a prequel to real life.
Sorkin's series, like almost all others, have taken plenty of real-life stories and reworked them into fictional events for the sake of drama or comedy. "Sports Night" had its share of criminal athletes, while "The West Wing" was a retelling of the Clinton years the way Clinton would've wished them to be. "Studio 60" had celebrities play themselves to guest-host the sketch show within the drama. Yet they've all been allowed to breathe, to exist in their own world parallel to the one we live in. It looks like ours, but it has its own people, and events, and consequences. "The Newsroom," though, is a neutered version of those shows. The series still has time to grow, and I'm not sure how Sorkin will handle other catastrophes whose causes and effects we already know. But I'm worried that the show might have set itself up to forever fall short. By robbing us of the chance to get invested in a fictional world, we don't get to have any skin in the game. All we have to do is sit back, nod, and feel good about knowing we're on the winning team.