If you ask a smart, talented, prolific, highly opinionated and possibly overextended writer to create a series for you whenever he gets the chance, you might get a terrific television show. Or you might get “The Newsroom,” which is what HBO got when it approached Aaron Sorkin with just such a request.
Sorkin, of course, is the man behind “Sports Night” and “The West Wing,” two of the truly great workplace shows of our time, as well as the short-lived “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” which was not. He has also written a fistful of admirable screenplays, including last year’s Oscar-winning “The Social Network.”
“The Newsroom” fits neatly into his TV oeuvre, revolving around “News Night,” a fictional cable news show helmed by Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), an anchor who once dreamed of being a real journalist like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite before the nattering nabobs of numbers-crunching, the gossipification of news and his own fear of rejection apparently turned him into a media milquetoast.
But behind that placid exterior lurks a true Sorkinian hero, another Great White Hope rising to talk, Talk, TALK some sense into the American public. It begins almost instantly when McAvoy, trapped onstage at a journalism school panel between two nitwits of each party, suddenly goes ballistic, answering the question “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” with the scathing announcement that it’s not, and here’s why.
And we’re off, into a statistic-studded, fury-fueled and occasionally amusing diatribe that could just as easily have come from the mouth of Martin Sheen or Bradley Whitford on “The West Wing.”
Indeed, “The Newsroom” is, essentially, “The West Wing” by way of “Broadcast News.” It’s not necessarily a bad idea, although clearing one extremely high bar is difficult enough, never mind two. For the first hour, the show seems promising, especially for Sorkin fans. After that, things go into a baffling free-fall in which plot exists almost solely to support the political and cultural points Sorkin wants to make, often in non sequitur monologues.
After his meltdown sends him into corporate-imposed hiatus, McAvoy returns to discover that news division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, delivering the show’s most interesting performance, as usual) has brought in a new producer for “News Night,” the indomitable MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who just happens to be Will’s ex. Aside from the inevitable tension (he’s angry and wounded, she’s wary and apologetic), MacKenzie is there to remind Will that there once was a fleeting wisp of glory known as ... well, she uses “Don Quixote,” rather than Camelot as a reference point -- the couple’s quixotic journey is to produce a news program that delivers sobering truths and big ratings.
Now, it’s hard to argue against the observation that, in the face of obstacles both economic and cultural, media outlets have squandered opportunities to disperse vital information in favor of pandering. Nor would many take issue with “The Newsroom’s” second great insight -- that the political and social divisions between left and right have been exploited by certain forces, many of them television personalities, to create an endless cycle of predictable arguments that are both absurd and extremely dangerous.
Folks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have, in fact, been making these same points, brilliantly, for years. Not that there’s anything wrong with having another go at raising consciousness -- as Cynthia Ozick once observed: “In stating the obvious, never choose cunning; yelling works better.”
Sorkin is certainly a big fan of yelling; unfortunately, by choosing to use real past events like the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a timeline, he surrenders the ability to create drama from scratch. Instead, he must build it around that which has already happened, which cuts not one, but two narrative hamstrings: We already know how the big things go, and real journalism, like most things worth doing, is nine parts hard boring work, one part Big Moment.
So the real tensions must come from the various personalities in the newsroom, boiled down here to brilliant idealist versus corporate numskull, and a series of thwarted love stories. Along with MacKenzie and Charlie attempting to rekindle Will’s inner-Cronkite, there’s winsome intern Margaret Jordan (Alison Pill) balancing nascent career and clearly doomed relationship with Will’s former executive producer, Don (Thomas Sadoski).
Margaret (Maggie to her friends) is also the instant object of affection of Jim, a self-effacing, smartphone-wielding news-junkie superhero. There’s also Neal (Dev Patel), a blogger and requisite geek-savant, and Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith, one of those mythical young women TV writers love so much -- brilliant and gorgeous, yet socially inept.
It’s an altogether splendid cast and there are some truly lovely moments, especially in the first two episodes. Mortimer is always a pleasure to watch, even when she is forced to pretend she doesn’t understand email. Her ability to transform from anguished apology to steely-eyed professionalism is perhaps the show’s biggest draw.
But try as they might, the actors cannot make their characters anything but what they are: mini-megaphones for pronouncements on blogs, morning shows, reality TV, celebrity news sites, the tea party, handguns, the history of the FCC and Bigfoot. McAvoy is “a registered Republican,” something he mentions with alarming regularity, which is almost as hard to swallow as the idea that he was, before his meltdown, considered the Jay Leno of news anchors. We discover in Episode 4 that he is on a rather vitriolic mission “to civilize” all those TMZ-reading, “Real Housewives"-loving morons who threaten the very fabric of our nation.
Watching “The Newsroom,” it’s impossible not to think of the wonderful moment in “Broadcast News” when the head of that news division smirks at Holly Hunter’s producer and says: “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room,” and Hunter, truly stricken, shakes her head and says, “Oh no. It’s awful.”
That transcendent mixture of confidence and fear, of humility and clear-eyed self-assessment, evident in so much of Sorkin’s other work, is what turns a sermon into a work of art. And that is precisely what is missing here.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)