TV review: The Newsroom

By
From the June 21, 2012 edition

After a couple of hugely successful screenplays on the big screen — “The Social Network” and “Moneyball” — Aaron Sorkin (creator of “The West Wing” and “Sports Night”) returns to television with HBO’s “The Newsroom,” a show that’s probably going to rub people the wrong way. That’s unfortunate.

“The Newsroom” kicks off with Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the “Jay Leno of news anchors” — he’s likable because he’s bland — exploding into a “Network”-esque “I’m mad as hell” rant when a Northwestern student asks, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” Will finally lets his true colors show by pointing out America’s biggest problems and how both conservatives and liberals either ignore or perpetuate them.

This leads to Will having to take a vacation in the wake of this scandal. Upon his return, his boss, Charlie Skinner (an excellently in-your-face Sam Waterston), has decided to revamp Will’s “News Night” show on the fictional ACN cable news network. Charlie brings in Will’s former executive producer, Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who is immensely talented but also has an uncomfortable past with Will. Mackenzie has grand ideas about presenting unbiased news and tells Will to “speak truth to stupid,” something unheard of on cable news today.

This setup has immense potential, but Sorkin mishandles a few major aspects of “The Newsroom.” Those missteps might be too distracting to let most viewers enjoy what Sorkin does best — crackling dialogue that injects energy and humor into a somewhat mundane topic.

What will probably annoy audiences the most is that “The Newsroom” is set in 2010 — the pilot’s big news story is the BP oil spill — and it offers impeccable hindsight in assessing how the events of our recent history should’ve been addressed by the media, the government and the public.

Sorkin interjects his sociological/political opinions, which mostly fall in line with logical moderate-liberal Americans, to the coverage of these stories. I predict most people will say it’s sanctimonious or preachy. And they’d be right, but in doing so they’ll miss getting a nice recent history lesson that could help us avoid repeating these mistakes in the future.

I have very few quibbles with this aspect of “The Newsroom,” and it offers the most exciting parts of the show — how the fictional “News Night” decides to cover the news turns out to create an excellent workplace drama where the dashes of Sorkin’s trademark dialogue excel. Where I get ultimately frustrated and borderline irritated is with the general storytelling tone and character development of “The Newsroom.”

Minus a few F-bombs and most likely some boobies that will appear in later episodes — this is HBO after all — “The Newsroom” feels like a network drama. I can live with the banal network feel, but some of the characters are woefully written.

Besides Daniel’s Will — who’s a huge dick, but in a fun way — and Waterston’s Charlie, the rest of the characters are utterly abused by Sorkin’s depiction. The worst is Mortimer’s Mackenzie, who begins as a strong, intelligent woman in the pilot and is reduced to a bumbling, panicky high schooler in later episodes. Mortimer does the best she can here, and occasionally Mackenzie comes off as adorable, but it’s such a jarringly negative and off-putting change for the character.

The lesser character problems revolve around a love triangle that exists among Margaret (Alison Pill) her boyfriend Don (Thomas Sadoski) and new producer Jim (John Gallagher Jr.). Margaret is also reduced to a humiliating level — women just aren’t treated well on “The Newsroom” — and the will-they-won’t-they between her and Jim is too cliche, despite some well-acted heart-wrenching/warming moments for them.

Now that I’ve picked apart everything that bothers me about “The Newsroom,” it’s time to say that I’ll be watching it every week. This is a highly entertaining show with a great cast that makes the most of Sorkin’s dialogue. And I actually like the weekly lectures Sorkin is giving about the state of American politics and the media. But the serialized character plots, which are either uninteresting or flat-out infuriating, are the big elephant in “The Newsroom.”

“The Newsroom”

10 p.m. Sundays on HBO

2.5 stars