Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom:’ A lot of ambition, A lot to be desired

The Newsroom opened last year with Atlantis Cable News (ACN) anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) participating in a debate. When a blond female college student steps up to the microphone and asks why America is the greatest country in the world, rather than give a simple-minded answer like his fellow panelists, Will launches into a profanity-laden tirade, stating that it once was the greatest nation but no longer is.

Continuing for several minutes to make controversial remarks about the decline of American society and its morals; Will’s actions prompt a two-week, out of the spotlight vacation to let things settle down for the audiences and press before he returns to host his daily nightly news gig.


Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin

The idea that America isn’t the greatest nation comes to Will as he focuses on a woman seated in the audience who attempts to guide him through the question by holding a sign that reads “It’s not… but it can be.” He makes it clear that he believes the first part of the statement but never touches on the latter half and, in the first 10 minutes of the series, the audience at home is introduced to a theme that resonates through each subsequent episode.

The Newsroom  isn’t great… but it could be.

This meaning that, by current standards, it’s a decent show. It has drama.  It has wit. But it’s also a square peg being hammered into a round hole and the blacksmith just keeps swinging harder and harder. Like Will, it doesn’t seem as if creator and executive producer Aaron Sorkin anticipates on delivering anything better than a blandly stated negative idea.

The Newsroom is billed as a political drama and Sorkin has a strong resume in that area; ranging from acclaimed TV show The West Wing to the critically and commercially successful A Few Good Men.  He’s the man that turned the story of Facebook into a political narrative and won an Oscar for it.

He also successfully took us behind the scenes of Sports Night and Studio Sixty in a way we hadn’t seen the other side of the camera drama before. But with this show, Sorkin tries to do both and though his audience, critics, and sometimes even characters, seem to notice, it’s just not working out.

Upon his return to the job, Will learns his executive Producer, Don (Tom Sadoski) has taken the better part of his team and left for the 10:00 news, hosted by another anchor. Charlie (Sam Waterston), the ACN Division President, fills the position with Mac (Emily Mortimer) who then brings along Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.) as a Producer and promotes Maggie (Allison Pill) from assistant to Associate Producer.

Will McAvoy played by Jeff Daniels tries to shake up the news industry.

Rounding out the main cast are the more entertaining Neal (Dev Patel) as the IT guy who really does a lot more and Sloan (Olivia Munn), who arguably gives the most original and intriguing performance of the group despite being the economics reporter.  Jane Fonda and a horribly miscast Chris Messina act as the mother and son head honchos of Atlantis Cable Media, the channel’s parent company.

Though each actor or actress does well-enough, the characters themselves come off as one-dimensional and stereotypical.  For example, the blond, cheerleader-esque sorority sister that oozes an equally brainless and A-type personality and Will himself, the gruff, intriguingly loveable, shell shocked workaholic that eventually tries his hand at overdosing on anti-depressants because he just can’t take the overwhelming publicity anymore.

Maggie is a needy mess who makes you wonder how she matches her clothes in the morning, Don her condescending boyfriend, Jim a nerdy-sexy save the day kind of guy a la Clark Kent but with a face more like Phillip J. Fry from Futurama. The IT guy is, well, Indian, and Sloan an Asian spewing bits of ambiguous wisdom.

It’s even more unfortunate that these characters become subject to the convoluted storylines created by professional inbreeding, an all too present theme  in today’s office-based TV which mandates that each employee be either a love interest, on the prowl, or a matchmaker. The news business is so complex in and of itself that there’s plenty of material to fill an hour with just that, and the first episode nearly does this in a delightfully frantic manner. But when the camera leaves the office, everything loses a little substance, and the drama becomes less political and more personal.

Will is at one point labeled a Leno, a man who delivers his own punch lines but makes sure they’re finely tuned so as not to offend others.  On the other hand, (though not mentioned in the show), there’s a Letterman, a man who delivers his own punch lines but makes sure they’re in tune to his own opinions and doesn’t care whether they offend or not.

willnewsroom2Mac makes the point that the news has become too toned down and focused on entertaining.  In order to make himself stand out, Will needs to deliver straight news in an informative way and stop worrying about who he might offend. She calls this “reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession” and it seems as if we have a show that looks to pioneer news reporting not at a time when the industry is forming but at a time when the industry is failing and it makes us believe we’re going to be watching something great.

As reality has shown, biased news does not constitute straight news and ACN ends up looking like any real cable news channel as well as any channel the fictional network is competing with. And if this isn’t the case, the other networks must be in shambles because ACN is dealing with something short of a mess itself.

Newscasts do end up looking like a Letterman opening monologue. They come from a liberal standpoint and consist of Will taking a punch at either the Republican Party or tea party followed by an excerpt of a quote or edited video clip to support his opinion. They’re one sided and Sorkin tries to make it balanced by having Will be a republican although he would then be voting for those he bashes, again unlikely.

Newsroom needs more than just Jane Fonda.
Newsroom needs more than just Jane Fonda.

It may be the newscasts aren’t even led by Will himself; they’re infused with Sorkin’s ideals and the show seems to be an avenue where he can get his left-wing political points across. His rapid-fire writing style, while serving the fast-paced atmosphere well as a whole, ends up making Will shout the news rather than speak it.

Season two of The Newsroom is upon us and yet, with the premiere, there were no improvements in either the writing or directing departments. With eight episodes left to go (that’s one less than last year), we can only hope that we’ll have something to look forward to besides Jane Fonda incarnate and Emily Mortimer’s lovely British accent.

For an executive producer that doesn’t know how to tone things down himself, it might’ve been a smart move for Sorkin to drop the politics and focus on the nuances and dramatics of journalism itself. It’s possible he has ACN poised to come to this conclusion but after eleven episodes of listlessness, it’s not clear whether audiences will wait for him to get there.