As MacKenzie McHale, the executive producer of the fictitious prime-time cable program “News Night”—whose motley staff is the focus of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new series for HBO—Emily Mortimer is made to declaim all sorts of lines that stake her out as the conscience of the show, and, it may be intuited, the articulator of Sorkin’s ideals. Lines like “We don’t do ‘good television’—we do the news!” and “That studio is a courtroom—and we only call expert witnesses!” To her star anchorman, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), she delivers passionate pep talks about “reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession,” imploring him to “Be the integrity!”
So, in the interest of upholding the honor of journalism as a profession, let it be noted here, in full fairness, that The Newsroom bears many of the hallmarks of Sorkin’s greatest work: the quick pulse and audacious political engagement of his NBC series The West Wing; the wry knowingness of his screenplays for The Social Network and Moneyball; and the head-of-steam righteousness of his Broadway breakthrough, A Few Good Men. All that said, it would run counter to the concept of “being the integrity” to suggest that The Newsroom is a good television show.
It’s a mess. One moment it’s going for pinpoint vérité, with the staff at “News Night” reporting real news stories and appropriating the real rhythms of an adrenalized office in the sweaty throes of breaking-news overdrive. The next, it’s hairpinning into screwball comedy, its characters tossing rom-com hissy fits and pratfalling like vaudevillians. It would be nice to cite this constant and abrupt mood-shifting as a sign of uncommon range, but The Newsroom just feels lost, flailing for an identity.
The story begins with Will in crisis: beaten down by ratings whoredom, likened unflatteringly in the press to Jay Leno, that human Nilla Wafer. We see him biding his time at some public forum at a university, glazedly offering platitudes while his co-panelists, a left-wing shouter and right-wing shouter, volley their opinions over his head. Then, as if spooked from his stupor by the ghosts of Murrow and Cronkite, Will suddenly snaps; he’s mild as hell, and he’s not going to fake it anymore. Dismissing a student questioner’s premise that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, Will launches into a diatribe enumerating the ways in which the country has gone awry. Softening the blow, he amends a coda explaining how we used to be better: “We fought for moral reasons,” “We waged wars on poverty, not poor people,” “We didn’t scare so easy,” and so on.
Will’s moment of candor becomes a short-lived media controversy, but it also provides an opportunity for the wizened head of his network’s news division, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), to break with the past and reboot “News Night” as the smart, infotainment-free newscast that no one in TV, evidently, is providing. To achieve this task, Charlie, without Will’s knowledge or permission, brings in MacKenzie, a high-minded hard-news vet who also happens to be Will’s ex—with whom things ended very, very badly.
Thus is the Sorkin template snapped into place. We get the workplace setting, the potential for romantic pyrotechnics, and a big ensemble of intelligent, seen-it-all motormouths who, for all their jadedness, are virtuous at heart and rise to the occasion when the occasion presents itself. There’s a clever delay in the revelation of Episode 1’s dateline—we get it only after half of the episode has gone by—in which an actual major news story from the recent past breaks in real time, compelling the team’s members to swoop into action and bond at last.
Like The West Wing, whose noble, contemplative President Josiah Bartlet lived largely in a universe parallel to George W. Bush’s, The Newsroom is an exercise in wish-fulfillment. Will is both an anchor who is willing to reveal his political bias and a Republican who is willing to take on the Tea Party. Still, the cable network newsroom seems an odd setting in which to play out Sorkin’s would-that-it-were-so fantasies. Whereas The West Wing arose at a time when political spinmeisters of the Carville-Matalin ilk were becoming household names, and whereas Sports Night, Sorkin’s regrettably short-lived lost masterpiece, reflected that Olbermann-Patrick moment when ESPN’s (DIS)SportsCenter burned most bright, the 8 p.m. evening newscast hardly seems like the battleground where the good fight must currently be fought. (Besides, the debunking that The Newsroom’s team does—the B.S. that Will calls on our politicians and the rest of the mainstream media—sounds a lot like what Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow already do.) The Newsroom’s sense of urgency might work better if it were set at a paper like the New York Times, a national institution battling every day to maintain its relevance, solvency, and integrity—or if it were a period piece from the days when everyone watched the evening news, even as figures emblematic of TV’s past (e.g., Harry Reasoner) bristled at working with figures emblematic of TV’s future (e.g., Barbara Walters).
The Newsroom’s foggy sense of purpose does no favors to its roster of terrific actors. Waterston in particular is miscast. He wears tweeds and a Charles Osgood bow tie that make him look like a still-preppier version of his longtime Law & Order character, Assistant D.A. Jack McCoy. Yet he’s meant to be a reckless, dissolute TV lifer with a drinking problem—a Nick Nolte role rather than a Sam Waterston role—and all those HBO-sanctioned swear words simply sound wrong coming out of his mouth. Daniels, notwithstanding how effective he was on Broadway as a Wall Street heel in The God of Carnage, here seems too congenitally likable to play the conflicted Will; he doesn’t have the heavy-lidded hauntedness of Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini, whose combined dark mystique has powered this golden age of episodic cable series.
Mortimer, a physically gifted actress well-suited to Sorkin’s kinetic style, acquits herself remarkably well in a thankless role. She’s The Newsroom’s chief engine of comedy, vacillating frantically between getting the show produced and getting over her feelings for Will—yet this very vacillation reflects unpleasantly upon how The Newsroom treats its women. Both MacKenzie and the show’s other female principal, Margaret Jordan, a young associate producer played by Alison Pill, are established as strong, driven professionals, yet romantically, they’re both dithering hysterics, teetering out of orbit at the first sign of boy trouble.
In an episode further down the line, there’s a moment when the in-office relationship stuff has built up to train wreck proportions. But then, thank goodness, another breaking story emerges to concentrate the gang’s attention and bring them together. That story is the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords—which, really, ought not to be deployed as a narrative device to salve a bunch of lovelorn fictional characters’ psychic wounds. That’s when it becomes clear just how confused The Newsroom is.