The Newsroom: Aaron Sorkin’s Flawed New HBO Drama

Jeff Daniels reinvents Howard Beale. Courtesy of HBO

On the fourth episode of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO -series, anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff -Daniels) encounters an agreeable blonde at a New Year’s party. So far we’ve mostly seen McAvoy at work—experiencing a Howard Beale–style meltdown, shedding his lucrative persona as the Leno of cable news, and lecturing everyone in sight about his new mission to become “the moral center of journalism.”

But now McAvoy is off the clock. He flirts; she swoons. And it seems, for a few seconds, as if his pontificating will subside—until (alas) the blonde reveals that she is a gossip columnist about to publish a “takedown” of one of New Jersey’s Real Housewives. “I would have more respect for you if you were a heroin dealer!” -McAvoy snaps. He is so repulsed that when the lady leans in for a midnight smooch, he palms her face like a basketball.

Viewers inclined to describe gossip columnists as dope peddlers and reality-television fans as “bitches”—this is McAvoy’s winsome term for the other -female character foolish enough to show an interest in Housewives—will probably enjoy The Newsroom. Normal human beings, however, may feel a little more conflicted.

The West Wing was Sorkin’s seductive fantasia about how America should be governed; the new series is his equally far-fetched reverie about how it should be covered. Both shows rely on the same basic building blocks: handsome idealists emitting reams of encyclopedic Sorkinese as they canter through glassy office spaces on an improbable quest to redeem the American experiment. But The West Wing did something The Newsroom doesn’t, at least not yet: it put its characters before its politics. The result? Both seemed more real than they had any right to be.

Sadly, Sorkin flips this formula on The Newsroom, pumping his creations so full of media-critic talking points that they almost suffocate. And while Sorkin is right about the false bias toward balance that plagues the postmodern press, his decision to center the series on the real events of 2010 prevents him from dramatizing how that bias could actually be combated. When the Deepwater Horizon rig explodes, McAvoy’s team immediately intuits that the real story is the size of the coming oil spill rather than the ongoing search-and-rescue mission—even though in real life it took days for anyone to -report that oil was leaking.

Sorkin is cheating here: he knows how each story will end; to make his characters seem “smarter than we were,” as he recently put it, he lets them know it, too. But journalism isn’t about knowing all the answers in advance; it’s about figuring them out in real time. How would these eloquent know-it-alls—these brainiacs bent on “speaking truth to stupid”—-untangle the knotty threads of information that make actual breaking news so difficult to sort out? It’s a question that’s ripe with dramatic potential; fiction tends to thrive amid doubt and wilt in the presence of certainty. But The Newsroom is only pretending to answer it.

Sorkin’s show would be more interesting if it stopped pretending. Whenever the characters are granted a momentary reprieve from reciting their well-crafted op-eds, the dialogue starts to lift off; Sorkin hasn’t lost any of his speedy Preston Sturges wit. And the cast is stellar—especially executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a canny screwball, and young reporters Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), who have more than enough chemistry to carry off the stale love-triangle subplot they’ve been saddled with. The finest films and television shows about the Fourth Estate—Broadcast News, His Girl Friday, BBC’s The Hour—have been forged from similar materials. But those productions did justice to journalism by remembering the rule that all reporters live by: show, don’t tell. Sorkin, and his characters, too often forget.

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