W?ill McAvoy is one soul-sick TV news anchor.?Inside the trade, they call him a "ratings whore," the "Jay Leno of news anchors." If something is likely to get his 8 p.m. cable news show a round and fat Nielsen number, you can count him in. At the same time, he'll publicly express no personal preference other than ardent fandom for the New York Jets.
Journalistic objectivity, don't want to offend, all that.
So there he is at a high-dome conference at Northwestern's Journalism School, one of those ultra-respectable J-school affairs where faculty and students pepper the objects of their curiosity about everything they've always wanted to know (or pretend they do). They're the kind of questions that, answered the right way, earn one a reputation for talking about yourself among those ill-mannered and thoughtless. Answered improperly, it's celebrity business as usual.
McAvoy can't take it anymore. It's all just too much for him – the hypocrisy of the moment, the schmoozy, factitiousness that seems required of him – and which will pass nicely for truth among people whose appetite for it seems minimal at best.
A question hits him, asking him to explain his feelings about why America is the greatest country in the world.
Finally, he explodes. No more answering every question with a cutesy, evasive "New York Jets." He rants every rotten statistical ranking our country enjoys among other nations in the world with paint-peeling eloquence.
Greatest country in the world? Hardly.
He thereby indicates why the "Jay Leno of news anchors" also has a reputation for being as mean an SOB as there is in the business. How mean? When he returns from vacation, he finds that his CNN-style news network has put in the 10 p.m. slot after his show a program to be anchored by a protege he's been touting at every opportunity. Most of his staff promptly jumps ship to work there.
That is the somewhat jaw-dropping way this summer's mostly eagerly awaited – and, no doubt, best – TV show begins (tonight at 10 on HBO).
It's Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom," in which one of the greatest living auteurs in American television ("Sports Night," "The West Wing") gives us a TV newsroom counterpart of "The West Wing," i.e. a frightfully articulate liberal wonk's ferocious fantasy of a powerful American institution whose denizens are probably a little bit smarter, nobler, better and more eloquent than their real life counterparts.
We know how eloquent real TV news anchors can be. We've heard Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Wolf Blitzer and Brian Williams speak off the cuff before. But we've never encountered their fictional stand-in before, breathing fire fueled by Sorkin's vocabulary and outrage and verbal energy.
McAvoy is to real TV news anchors what "The West Wing's" Jed Bartlet was to real politicians – the liberal fantasy version few could resist, the made-up version of the "real thing" in a debased world, with all the eloquence to prove it.
Because Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) – unlike Bartlet – is expected to remain operational in a world bounded on all sides by the Internet and its Kardashian-following hordes, his unaffiliated bitterness could corrode the rust off the bumper of a '74 Buick. Not exactly presidential.
But then McAvoy is carrying with him some unhealed heart wounds, too – all of them caused by Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a formerly embedded reporter in Iran and Iraq who's now the only executive producer who'll tolerate him.
Their wildly uncomfortable professional shotgun marriage was arranged by their network superior Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), a wry and hard-drinking old TV news grandee who has worked with all the greats and who wants, in his declining years, to see what might happen if a cable news hour actually tried giving people 60 minutes of real news again.
Yes, it has ever-so-slight resemblances to what CBS News is doing in the morning with Charlie Rose opposite "Good Morning, America" and "Today," but remember this is not only a fantasy of cable news but a creation of Aaron Sorkin, in which everything is more dramatically noble – and moving – than in the real world, whose claims of banality simply refuse to be messed with.
I've seen the first four episodes of "The Newsroom" and I can tell you this: Don't miss it. Tonight's opener is a brilliant hour of dramatic TV in which Skinner wearily avers "I'm too old to be in fear of dumb people," only to have McAvoy reply, "I'm not." That bit of dialogue alone may well be worth the entire run of Charlie Sheen's upcoming "Anger Management" sitcom, no matter how long it lasts.
"The Newsroom" is a work-culture fantasy about "reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession" – including cable TV news people actively engaged in "speaking truth to stupid."
The second episode is a bit of a let down, but the third and fourth weeks – in which Jane Fonda, chillingly, shows up as a network CEO notably uninterested in McAvoy's and Skinner's and McHale's reclamation of the business they love – are so good they put everything back on track. (To get Fonda involved, no doubt, there's even a throwaway denigrating comment in the third episode on what Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin meant to the American Left of the 1960s and early '70s vs. Fonda's ex-husband Tom Hayden.)
It's great television. Because it's on cable itself, it can risk real bile that NBC never would have let Sorkin get away with on "The West Wing."
Because Sorkin is the good Hollywood wonk that he is – and because production exigencies required the show to be set in 2010 – the news crises involved are the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (how big? how newsworthy? is the initital debate) and the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (dead, as NPR first reported? Or not dead?)
There are passing references to things like Richard Clarke's apologetic testimony to Congress about the Iraq War.
And, too there are debates over the inner meaning of devoting air time to Sarah Palin.
But the show's core issues are those that touch on the soul of journalism as a profession. It's about people who actually say aloud, "I'd rather do a good show for 100 people than a bad show for 1,000." (Meanwhile Fonda, as the network's capitalist dragon lady, believes that McAvoy is "a cable anchor who's in the exact same business as ‘Jersey Shore.' ")
It's also about people who worry about "the best of us being turned into a bunch of old ladies with hair dryers on their heads."
But then, remember that Sorkin is also the sort of writer who can quote lyrics from the musical "Gypsy" and make specific references, too, to models of Walther PPK handguns.
A lot of romance and bed-hopping is done, and those eager to take partisan political offense will have plenty of opportunity, even though Sorkin's anchor claims to be a registered Republican. It is Sorkin's obvious contention that lies and drivel are lies and drivel, and if his specific targets in passing are Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, so be it. And President Obama's paradoxical utility to the NRA comes in for a wicked sideswipe.
I wish the soundtrack music were done with less post-Copland "This is America" reverence, but what Sorkin is giving us every week is the post-Watergate Romance of American journalism, cable TV division.
We can debate substantive matters some other time. It's a hell of a TV show.