“The Newsroom”: A well-ventilated workplace from HBO

One of the things I’m often asked when people learn that I worked at the White House for many years during the Clinton Administration is whether Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing is an accurate portrayal of working for the president. I tell them that it captures the intensity — subject to the limitations of television drama — especially the gallows humor that allowed many aides to get through the day.

The production design on the show was also outstanding. Kenneth Hardy, who served as Sorkin’s production designer for all 153 episodes, got pretty close to perfect all the grand rooms, the cluttered offices, the motorcade cars, the drab holding rooms and the bunting-draped stages.

In these conversations, the one caveat I offer is that the NBC series couldn’t air the profanity that regularly spiced up many real-life meetings. HBO is not under similar language constraints on cable, and the cussing flies freely in The Newsroom, the pilot episode of which I watched last night On Demand. Jeff Daniels, as News Night anchor Will McAvoy, and Sam Waterston, as ACN President Charlie Skinner, are particularly potty-mouthed.

The salty dialogue heard around the fictitious ACN may mirror real life in cable newsrooms, but one thing that stood out as incongruous was the image of Waterston as the news division president enjoying more than one scotch at a workday lunch. If ACN is competing every news cycle for viewers against ABC, NBC and CBS or their cable news cousins, I find it hard to believe that Skinner would amble through the day tipsy when going to-to-toe with his buttoned-down competitors Ben Sherwood, Steve Capus or David Rhodes.

I loved The West Wing, from the pilot which aired in September 1999 to the last episode of Season 7 in May, 2006, and I look forward to another long term relationship with The Newsroom. Growing pains are inevitable. Sorkin’s pilot script for The West Wing, which I read for the first time in 1998, was fast-paced and entertaining, but it took the vote of confidence of a series order from NBC and input from consultants like Dee Dee Myers, Marlin Fitzwater and Gene Sperling to spice up later episodes with the real life detail that earned the show such a devoted following. And yet for all the consulting help he received over the years, it was still Sorkin’s writing that made the show so special.

Pilot scripts must serve as selling brochures for the series creator to convince network executives to green light a show and recruit a top-flight cast and crew. They are often written months, or even years, before the first episode is shot. Matthew Weiner’s spec script for Mad Men, for example, was written in 2000 and the show went on the air in 2007. Given this reality of the TV business, and the faith I have in Sorkin as a writer (and the patience HBO usually commits to developing a series, with the exception of Luck from Deadwood genius David Milch), I have high hopes that The Newsroom will get its act together for a long run after its shaky first episode.

In addition to some experience in the real West Wing, I’ve also witnessed the alchemy on a sound stage in the creation of a TV series. I helped to hatch a pilot for Lifetime Television and a few years later wrote a script for NBC’s American Dreams, executive produced by Jonathan Prince, the show runner who worked with me on the Lifetime project. In addition to the dialogue, acting, lighting and sound, the show runner, along with a director, director of photography and production designer, obsess over every scrap of paper and desk adornment seen in the shot through the camera lens. Everything has to be perfect, authentic. After a day on the set, the crew pours over the reels of film that were shot to make sure everything looks right, and shares those “dailies” with network brass who track the progress of the production.

During the pilot episode of The Newsroom, I was content to give Sorkin and Co. a pass on some of the preachy dialogue that has been noted in early reviews by Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker and Jake Tapper writing for The New Republic. Sorkin will get it sorted out. The show will enjoy a successful run on HBO, even if Sorkin has to recycle some of the standby dialogue that has earned him such a following:

Sir James Dyson with his air multiplier

But here at Polioptics, we obsess over all things visual, whether in politics or television. In the case of a TV series, that means things like wardrobe and set design. Tony Soprano’s Cadillac Escalades, silk shirts, Northern New Jersey diner haunts and his back yard swimming pool always rang true on David Chase’s series.

One thing about The Newsroom that gnawed at me — and which should make an early exit in future episodes — was the Dyson Air Multiplier that seemed to show up in so many shots in Will McAvoy’s News Night workspace. Was this a case of subtle product placement by a company, Dyson, that has often proved adept at earning favorable media exposure? Or is The Newsroom’s production designer, Jeff Schoen, simply smitten with the hollow circle, cool blue look and no blades of the Dyson fan? In any case, it reminded me of the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s Sleeper from 1973.

Here’s the scene from Sleeper, in case the film isn’t part of your DVD library.

If it sounds like I’m a little obsessed with the Air Multiplier the way Miles Monroe was with his orb, it’s because when I first saw it on a shelf at J&R Electronics a few weeks ago, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. With the hot New York summer about to arrive, I went in search of a fan. This fan was a piece of art. James Dyson is a master of design. His products are museum pieces, and their function matches their design. But with the Air Multiplier carrying a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $299, I opted for something less costly.

One (of many) appearances of the Dyson Air Multiplier on The Newsroom set

For the same reason I balked at the Air Multiplier, I find it hard to believe that a low paid booker or assignment editor working in the News Night newsroom would have it on their desk, let alone sit on multiple desks, which seemed to be suggested by the wide shots of The Newsroom pilot. Those things would be walking out the door during the next all-nighter as the staff monitored developments in the Arab Spring.

Watch the episode again and see how many sightings you can spot, a series television version of Where’s Waldo. Create a drinking game around the idea if you like.

Beautiful blue fans dotting the desks of a newsroom are the kind of thing that should show up in dailies and strike a DP and set designer as out of place. Newsrooms are nothing if not well air conditioned to cool the wall-to-wall electronics and circuitry that makes a newsroom hum. In the constant heat of the news cycle, the chilled air coming from the duct work usually cools down the body temperatures of those inside. Fans, even gorgeous ones, are not needed.

There have been hundreds of well-qualified (and some not-so-qualified) TV critics jumping on the commentary bandwagon about Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. I’m not one of them and, being a Sorkin fan, will await the completion of the first season before rendering a verdict on the show. I want to be impressed. The summer months need a quality series to fill our Sunday nights. But believability in the production design is an element of a successful series. The Air Multiplier is a distraction. My advice: strike if from the set.

 

 

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