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matt zoller seitz

TV Review: Sorkin’s The Newsroom — Corny, But Inspiring

The Newsroom is the worst of Aaron Sorkin and the best of Aaron Sorkin; you can't have one without the other, and I'll wager that anyone who's ever enjoyed his work must know that. Set at the fictional, New York–based cable network ACN, the show is part of an unofficial triptych of shows about how TV is watched and consumed. Like its predecessors — the mostly fondly remembered Sports Night and the train wreck Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — it's equal parts screwball comedy, workplace drama, and polemic about what's wrong with America and American media and how they could be fixed if we'd just find our moral compass, or what's left of it, and quit being slaves to ratings, profits, and cheap cynicism.

If you rolled your eyes at that last sentiment, The Newsroom isn't worth your time. From the minute that Thomas Newman's stirring opening theme kicks in, you know you're in for a tale of ideals reawakened and cynicism rejected — a show in which tough professionals try to walk a fine line between pragmatism and Pollyanna softness while putting out journalism that Edward R. Murrow would have been proud of. The two main characters, cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), are trying to turn their hour-long nightly news program into a beacon of journalism. Set in the very recent past (2010–11 to be exact), the show has plenty of flaws, some of them deep: The monologues often become position papers, even harangues, and its men tend to be less easily flustered and kooky than its women. But its optimism is bracing. Created by Sorkin and co-produced by Greg Mottola (Undeclared, Adventureland), it feels more like a broadcast network drama than something that would air on HBO, a channel whose dramas tend to tell us that our institutions have either decayed into irrelevance and corruption or were always rotten. 

The opening of Sunday's pilot finds Will — a Republican-in-name-only who's rapped as "the Jay Leno of news anchors" because he tries not to bother anyone — melting down during a college panel appearance and chewing out a young female student who asked everyone on the panel to say why they think the United States of America is the greatest country on Earth. Will's condescending rant (he addresses the questioner as "sorority girl") proclaims that the U.S. is not the greatest country on Earth, but could be. The meltdown goes viral — there's a cut to a wide shot of the audience, and half of them seem to be recording the moment with a camera phone — and Will tries to recover a couple of weeks later by being soft on General Stanley McChrystal, the first of many reflexive attempts to be "fair."

But as MacKenzie (who is forced upon him as his executive producer following the panel incident) keeps telling him — and as Sorkin and countless others have said in interviews and editorials — the mainstream media's obsession with fairness is a form of profit-driven cowardice, and its alternative, the base-pleasing antics of Fox News and MSNBC, is a culturally devastating overcorrection that turns politics into a never-ending sports event that's all about winners and losers. So far, so good. This is the kind of sentiment that pretty much anyone but a partisan hack could feel good about. It's what kept large numbers of educated viewers, including Republicans, watching Sorkin's center-left political fantasy The West Wing even after George W. Bush's administration steered the country sharply to the right.

Yet there are a number of problems in the execution. One is that throughout the aughts, networks and cable channels — CBS, CNN, and MSNBC, to name just three — tried the kind of opinionated but still fact-based hour-long newscast that Will and MacKenzie are creating on The Newsroom, but for whatever reason, nobody watched them and they eventually got canceled. The only remaining example I can think of is Anderson Cooper 360 — though in fairness, maybe future episodes of The Newsroom will position Will's show as a critically lauded money-loser who's always on the cancellation bubble.

The other problem is that while the workplace details are engrossing, if you care about that sort of thing, the show doesn't have faith in their ability to carry the drama forward. As is so often the case, Sorkin is obsessed with the mostly tedious and trivial private lives of his characters. There's tension between Will and MacKenzie, who used to be lovers, and a budding triangle between Will's former executive producer Don (Thomas Keefer), his associate producer Margaret (Alison Pill), and MacKenzie's super-competent right-hand man Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.). But it's just not as engrossing as the news-gathering details or even the fulminating about politics, ethics, and demographics and other -ics.

I believed the way that the staff comes together in the pilot to cover day one of the BP oil spill. Mottola, who directed the pilot, even throws in an elegant, meaningful long tracking shot that rushes through the newsroom, flitting from character to character, showing how all of these different people become connected by professionalism during a crisis. But whenever the series veers into a romantic cul-de-sac, any journalistic or creative steam that the story builds up disperses, and you're left wondering how such silly people could have risen to such powerful positions.

I guess you could level the same gripes at another HBO series, Veep, but that's a black-hearted riff on sitcom contrivance that happens to be set in the corridors of power. The Newsroom is different. It's got one elegantly shod foot in the real world and has to keep it there, otherwise it couldn't rip its plots from somewhat recent headlines and presume to tell us how the media could have covered the story differently, or more effectively. When it dumbs itself down — or worse, treats its young white male characters as brusquely confident and its young women and minority characters as eager acolytes who are mainly there to absorb abuse and learn lessons — it cuts against its own belief that the world it's showing us is, in fact, good and noble and worth saving. 

Despite all this, I still enjoyed The Newsroom. Why? It's partly the screwball energy and rapid-fire, fact-packed patter; if a series is going to model its aesthetic on certain beloved predecessors, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and Preston Sturges are more exciting than dour seventies dramas because there aren't already 10 zillion examples on the air. Mortimer, more than any other cast member, makes the lineage explicit — or I should say that her English accent does. When she gets swept away by intellectual passion, her delivery has a Cary Grant singsong quality. ("I'm not scared of anything, except for jellyfish, which is complete-ly nohhh-mal!")

But mostly I like Sorkin's optimism, the very quality that many of my colleagues are hanging him with. He seems convinced that no matter how bad things get, they can always be made better, provided we're willing to do our homework, engage in civil debate, put common sense ahead of ego, and work together. There's a whiff of Ivy League liberal sexism and racism to a lot of his work, he's too in love with rhetoric, and he's too eager to show us his homework. But he's also a common-man idealist in the Capra mold who wouldn't know "cool" if it ran him over with a truck, and I love that about him. When MacKenzie tells Will in an upcoming episode, "We don't do good television, we do the news!" and "Be the leader; be the moral center of this show," or when Will's boss, an alcoholic ex-UPI reporter played by Sam Waterston, growls, "The American people need a fucking lawyer!" it's a tonic. People don't talk that way anymore for fear of being thought softhearted or softheaded, but it's that kind of language that neutralizes gloom and makes moral courage possible. When I read sneering pans of The Newsroom that treat Sorkin as if he's a highbrow David E. Kelley, no more sophisticated than an old-movie rube stepping off the bus in the big city with a stickered suitcase in each hand and a blade of grass between his teeth, it's more depressing than much of what currently passes for journalism. It suggests that we've become so comfortable with cynicism and despair that we can't even dream anymore.

Photo: HBO