At some point in his mid-to-late teens, Aaron Sorkin first feasted his eyes on Network, Sidney Lumet’s seminal, scathing, satirical attack on corporate media and its crass commercialization of what was once a revered institution driven by a sacred oath to honestly and impartially protect democracy by uncovering secrecy and exposing scandal. It’s fair to say that Sorkin never really got over it. It was a variation on Peter Finch’s now iconic “Mad as Hell…” speech that kicked things off in Studio 60, and now the acclaimed creator of The West Wing offers his own bitterly disappointed yet naively optimistic view on the sad state of cable news, predictably initiated with another deeply frustrated industry veteran experiencing a rather angry, uncomfortable, truth-laced breakdown in a very public venue.
Jeff Daniels – an actor whose consistently above-average output has always made you ponder why his career has never really taken off – plays Will McAvoy, who three weeks after viciously chewing out a college student for asking the faintly ridiculous question: “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” (hint: his answer wasn’t quite what she expected) is damaged goods. As events transpire Will is then usurped by his protégé, who moves to a coveted timeslot and takes Will’s staff with him, leading to him suffering the indignity of his ex-girlfriend, Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer), now being in charge of his show with a staff loyal to her and not him. Thus, the stage is set for another of Sorkin’s morally righteous mavericks to rail against a system that would seek to deny him, while simultaneously bickering/flirting/screwing the successful, attractive, intermittently irrational (as the plot demands) female colleague/boss/subordinate.
Only this time it doesn’t quite click as it has previously (say what you like about Studio 60, it was compelling, achingly smart television). Sorkin’s trademark has always been a wearily hip cynicism, which plays great on something like Sports Night. But with The Newsroom you get the impression that, for once, Sorkin is trying to be straight-faced, serious, earnest even, which he is not nearly so good at. The Great Man’s inimitable ear for rat-a-tat dialogue is peerless when crafting the whip snap of a zinger, but when tasked with serving up endlessly worked on, prettified, flowery diatribes on the importance of steering democracy through the treacherous waters of commercialism and special interest it all sounds, well, a bit wanky.
Not only does The Newsroom feature the familiar Sorkin trope of every character behaving like every single thing that comes out of his or her mouth is the opening line of The Gettysburg Address, but given that the show is penned from a single, solitary viewpoint then there is only that viewpoint countered by weak, unlikable detractors. In essence, every character – male or female, foreground or background – sounds exactly like Aaron Sorkin. Such is his fervor and enthusiasm to make his Deeply. Serious. Point. Again. And. Again. that no one gets a chance to breath. Characters barely get a microsecond to react to one another, to say nothing of the audience being able to react to them. Before long all the pious frothing at the mouth becomes white noise, the likes of which will have even the most ardent Sorkinite puffing out their cheeks in exasperation.
While Sorkin’s writing has always been extremely funny, the humor always comes in the form of exchanges. He has never really been any good at writing actual jokes. As such every time there is a gag in the traditional sense – such as Will, upset by the assertion that he is too impersonal, attempts to congratulate his production team only to find himself in the wrong control booth – it feels horribly forced, landing like a lead balloon. Finally there is the issue of the setting. Rather than set the series in the here and now, Sorkin has elected to place it in the recent past. The opening episode teases the viewer as to the when and where of it all before revealing itself to be taking place on April 20, 2010, the day of the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Not only does this give rise to some serious Monday morning quarterbacking, but it also grants Sorkin the safety net of being able to craft his narrative to suit a verdict on events that the public has already delivered. In essence, it shields him from having to take the kind of boldfaced risks in the face of uncertainty that he is seemingly so intent on chastising everyone else for so stringently avoiding.