Reporting from the 30th Annual PaleyFest: The William S. Paley Television Festival
It’s an interesting thing when you have the creative team behind a television series about the goings on at a cable news show gather to discuss their work. Who do you get to lead the questions? PaleyFest got quite a coup when they enlisted real-life cable news personality Piers Morgan to moderate the panel discussion of Aaron Sorkin’s latest series.
The panel opened with a scene from another Sorkin series about TV news, the beloved Sports Night. After that, Mr. Morgan brought out the creative engine behind HBO’s The Newsroom, Oscar and Emmy winner Aaron Sorkin. Mr. Sorkin then proceeded to give the audience a ten-minute clip from the opening episode of The Newsroom’s upcoming second season.
I’ve been threatened with sharp objects if I give away any spoilers, so imagine my relief to find the clip shown didn’t really deal with any major plot points. Since The Newsroom is a show in which all the news stories are real, it must take place in the recent past. Sorkin described the show as “historical fiction.” He also said that The West Wing existed in a parallel universe, and on that show he intentionally never mentioned US presidents past Eisenhower, so viewers were never sure of where Josiah Bartlet landed in a very real timeline. The crises of that show were all works of fiction. The first season of The Newsroom took place about two years prior. The second season will begin about two weeks after the conclusion of season one and carry on through this recent presidential election. Expect many references to the primaries, conventions, and the 47%. Also expect references to drones and Treyvon Martin, as well. Sorkin said he was currently writing episode five and that the cast and crew were busy working on episode four.
Here are just some random observations about the material they showed us. First of all, it’s really good. Second, the show looks fabulous when projected on a movie-sized screen. Not all TV shows are designed for the scrutiny big screens demand. HBO series are usually move quality in terms of the cinematography and production design, and it shows. Third, it turns out if you call the Tea Party the American Taliban on national television (as Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy did in the season one finale), you can probably expect some blowback. The stuff we saw was vintage Sorkin, very smart, and very snappy.
After the clip, they brought out the cast: Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, the amazing Sam Waterston, John Gallagher, Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Olivia Munn, and Dev Patel. Also on the panel was Executive Producer Alan Poul.
One of the great things about this panel was having Morgan leading it. He was able to ask questions not only about the craft of making a quality television show, but also speak to the real world of journalism, mainly cable news.
And, Piers Morgan being Piers Morgan, he didn’t shy away from brining up the decidedly mixed reviews The Newsroom debuted to last summer. One of the problems some critics had with the show was having McAvoy’s News Night show continually getting its reporting right on recent news events everybody else had gotten wrong. Sorkin said that was the point.
“I like to write romantically,” he said. In other words, Sorkin wants to romanticize the important work news people do, often in a commercial and corporate culture that would rather they not. The characters in this show are largely idealized, but that’s the point. Morgan was quick to point out that the show was very popular with actual journalists who note its realism. Sorkin praised working with HBO, whose business model isn’t about how many people are watching so much as how much they like what they’re watching. There was also much discussion of balancing news and entertainment. Sam Waterston made the great point that when it’s done well, the news is entertaining as well as informative. Great stories are inherently entertaining.
Jeff Daniels echoed the joy of being an actor and getting to work from Sorkin’s scripts. “He writers for actors,” Daniels explained. “He writes scenes you get to get your teeth into.”
We also found out tonight that there’s no on-set improvisation. Why would you not want to say those great words? “Aaron’s writing requires of you focus and dedication and respect,” said Sadoski, who plays producer Don Keefer on the show.
It was interesting to learn that The Newsroom incorporates a sitcom-like multi-camera shooting style. This allows the actors room to move about the set and behave on instinct rather than having to step into a shot or hit a mark. It’s the camera operator’s job to capture the actors’ work.
We learned that Sam Waterston has no idea how many Golden Globes he’s won (Sorkin said it was five.) and that John Gallgher, Jr., who plays producer Jim Harper, had been on an early episode of The West Wing.
The highlight of the night was a question from the audience. A woman in the front row asked Jeff Daniels, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” The Saban Theater in Beverly Hills erupted in applause as people held up signs that said, “It’s not,” and “But, it can be.” Both the audience and cast relished the moment.
Well played, front row lady!