Despite recent successful feature detours (see “The Social Network” and “Moneyball”), Aaron Sorkin belongs in television, which affords him an opportunity to get more off his chest. The writer’s work is invariably as interesting for its flaws as its strengths, and on the Sorkin scale, “The Newsroom” falls closer to “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” than “The West Wing,” with a thematic nod to “Sports Night.” Tackling the glaring shortcomings of modern news, Sorkin writes like he’s trying to save America from its basest impulses. He can’t, and it’s alternately fascinating and irritating to watch him try.
It’s worth noting, right up front, that a lot of what Sorkin dishes out in “Newsroom” isn’t remotely plausible, starting with the epic rant that opens the 75-minute premiere, a device also used to set “Studio 60” in motion — and not that far removed from “Network.” This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, since Sorkin’s habit — and when he gets it right, his genius — is to root situations in reality, than take off in directions meant to resolve them in ways more satisfying than real.
In this case, his Don Quixote (a point made overtly) is really a two-headed creature: Will McAvoy (a terrific, very convincing Jeff Daniels), the world-weary anchor who rouses from his slumber in career-threatening fashion by publicly saying what he really thinks; and MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), the fearless producer enlisted by Will’s bowtie-wearing boss (Sam Waterston) to save the newsman’s job.
The most significant maneuver Sorkin executes in the setup is starting the show in April 2010, which allows him to explore actual events — beginning with the BP oil spill, followed by Arizona’s immigration law in episode two, and so forth — through the prism of Will’s fictional cable news program, “News Night.”
The device allows the writer to weigh in on media failings and also appear smugly vindicated through the benefit of hindsight, such as anticipating the debt-ceiling crisis when the Tea Party swept into the House of Representatives.
Sorkin’s primary targets — the use of false equivalency in news, and presenting the veneer of fairness at the expense of truth — should be no stranger to viewers of “The Daily Show” or (more acidly) HBO’s Bill Maher, and Sorkin assails all the expected conservative media mouthpieces. Look more closely, though, and “Newsroom” exhibits an underlying faith in the U.S. public: a belief in hunger for news and information that’s genuinely “fair and balanced,” if only someone had the balls to serve it to them.
Beyond its politics and media criticisms — which will doubtless strike even some natural allies as preachy, and most on the right as yet another liberal-media eye poke — the show more bluntly misfires in portraying its personal relationships. For starters, Will and MacKenzie’s squabbling-exes dynamic proves drearily familiar, and there’s an uninspired triangle involving Will’s former producer (Thomas Sadoski) and two younger staffers, wide-eyed Maggie (Alison Pill) and the principled Jim (John Gallagher Jr.).
While not without charms, these soap-opera elements feel like time-killers, distracting from the pointed commentary where Sorkin’s main focus resides. Besides, isn’t it possible to do the Lord’s work, journalistically speaking, without being preoccupied by jumping the bones of colleagues?
Despite this laundry list of shortcomings, Sorkin’s machine-gun dialogue still yields observations you simply don’t hear on TV often, such as a news exec’s second-episode musing that reeling in younger demos will let the network “get out of the wheelchair-selling business.”
Nevertheless, the show’s excesses will leave some of those eagerly anticipating another weekly dose of Sorkin’s verbal wizardry feeling let down. Think of that constituency as akin to President Obama’s liberal detractors — disappointed, yes, but still hoping their support will be vindicated.
It’s just a shame there’s not more subtlety in Sorkin’s arguments, not because he’s wrong, but because his characters so conspicuously become surrogates for a dissertation on where the American experiment is falling short. Indeed, at times watching “The Newsroom” explore idealistic solutions, it’s easy to think of the scene in “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen magically produces Marshall McLuhan to buttress his argument, saying, “Boy, if life were only like this.”
In that regard, it’s perhaps no accident the fictional news operation is owned by something called Atlantis World Media (Jane Fonda later appears as its CEO), evoking a mythical kingdom submerged in water.
Borrowing that imagery, plunging into “The Newsroom” essentially presents viewers with two options: Lament how the series doesn’t match the lofty crests of Sorkin’s finest work, or admire the show’s ambitions and embrace of serious ideas, and grudgingly roll with its uneven tides.