Television’s finest minds have their heads up their asses—or so Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (HBO, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) asserts in its bravura opening and, in numerous scenes thereafter, haplessly demonstrates. Before we scan Sorkin’s latest—a fantasy set at a prime-time cable-news show—let’s, for the sake of perspective, scan the dial. On Comedy Central, partisans of The Daily Show and citizens of Colbert Nation are united in analyzing the nonstop democracy-maiming horror of media distortion. NBC is home to America’s funniest terminal decadence—the meta-narrative Community, the corporate self-critique 30 Rock, the comedy career of Brian Williams. Fox News and MSNBC exist symbiotically, sucking sound bites like fresh blood. This is not to mention the establishment on AMC’s Mad Men manufacturing desire for a living, or the blocks of the network week given over to talent competitions that invite all the world behind the music. Fantastical projections and inside-baseball X-rays are a main game of home entertainment, especially on HBO, 20 years after The Larry Sanders Show presented a showbiz satire not to be flipped away from.
Sorkin—the creator of The West Wing, a populist whose subjects are rhetoric and ethics—has written often about mass media. He has written often; he has often written well; he has sometimes been awfully overwrought in his zeal for showing people talking about putting on a show. He wired Sports Night (a TV comedy about a show like Sportscenter) and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (a TV drama about a show like SNL) to communicate the pressures and pleasures of the live feed. On film in The Social Network (about the creator of Facebook) and on stage in The Farnsworth Invention (about the creators of television), he offered origin stories for empires. Sorkin draws fine lines, clever loops, and bold broad strokes. I saw The Farnsworth Invention on Broadway and recall one gloriously cheesy move the playwright pulled to advance the plot: A young actor dressed like a chorus boy from Newsies skittered across the stage: “EXTRA! EXTRA!” Sorkin is not shy, as they say at tabloid papers, to break out the wood—to bark the big message of the plump headline.
The Newsroom opens with news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) sitting in a college auditorium with two lesser talking heads and a panel moderator. He has a spiritual crisis during the Q-and-A session. An ordinary woman in the back of the audience reminds him of his ex-girlfriend—ace news producer Mackenzie MacHale—and he hallucinates(?) that she’s cueing him to unleash his righteous fury and fiery brilliance(!).
The moderator of the panel agitates McAvoy by quoting a pan of his blandness, calling him “the Jay Leno of news anchors.” And then a doe-eyed sophomore named Jenny tees up a question: Can you tell us in a sentence why America is the greatest country in the world? In response, McAvoy riffs and rages at the sorry state of American power and culture. It’s an echo of Network, of course, and more directly of the barnburner delivered by Judd Hirsch in the virtuosic cold open of the Studio 60 pilot—the rant about television making us mean and bitchy and his network being a greed-filled whorehouse. The speeches share a special rhythm that Sorkin employs whenever a character is speaking to power a truth you cannot handle.
McAvoy ends his tirade cursing the student: “When you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about—Yosemite?” The Yosemite lends an excellent steaming-ears flourish to the speech—and possibly pegs McAvoy, whom Sorkin has said he imagines as a Republican, as a Teddy Roosevelt type.
Then McAvoy pauses, and here comes the bull and the moose.
In the moments after Will curses out the college student, there is silence in the auditorium. The crowd is apparently too scandalized to murmur among itself, and there are no hisses to hush. This is unnatural, and we are safely in the realm of pure theater when Will begins the second act of his performance. He follows the rant with an inspirational coda, getting misty about the New Deal and the Great Society as if stealing Brokaw’s act: “We reached for the stars. Acted like men. … We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t”—here McAvoy chokes off a heavy sigh—”we didn’t scare so easy. … We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men. Men who were revered.”
The show keeps on gusting thusly as Will and Mackenzie get together a gang to do the news with honor. Yes, McAvoy returns to the office to find that his boss, Charlie Skinner, has set him up with his perfect ex.
I rather adore the Newsroom pilot, directed by Greg Mottola, who designs the news-chase pratfalls, interpersonal investigations, and tugs-of-war very cleanly. Much of the pilot unfolds in the fishbowl of the newsroom of Atlantis Cable News, which is to say that the show’s set imitates those cubicle set-ups you see in the background of live updates, sometimes, with producers and assistants going about their business. Everyone is being watched and watching. Large reproductions of Will’s puppy-dog newshound eyes peek in from posters.
This is a good set for high-speed screwball. Alison Pill deserves special mention for playing Margaret Jordan, an intern mistaken for an assistant and abruptly promoted to associate producer. She’s cute when she’s frantic, which is always; dashing around the office, she rebounds off of a swivel chair like a pinball off a flipper. Mackenzie, “Mack,” played by Emily Mortimer, is a delightful fast-talking dame. As Charlie, Sam Waterston vivaciously portrays the Last of the Old School Journos, preserved in whiskey and wrapped with a bow tie.
For my money, the series’ first awesome over-the-top tonal misfire comes at the end of the second episode, after McAvoy has devoted a (botched) episode of his show to debating immigration issues with himself. In this scene, the hero stands on the terrace of his apartment, scanning the city from high above—kind of like Batman, but with Radiohead’s “High and Dry” on the soundtrack. McAvoy had been tough on illegal immigrants on air, tough but principled. On the terrace, McAvoy whips out his phone and performs an anonymous act of charity for an immigrant via the kid who runs his official blog. (The blogger is huddled with the other young’uns on the team at their regular after-work karaoke place.) Then there’s a shot of the Statue of Liberty, and from his terrace Will McAvoy twinkles right back at ‘er.
The many references to big old musicals—Man of La Mancha, Brigadoon—indicate both Sorkin’s commercial sensibility and his artistic ambitions for achieving music with dialogue. Because of this musical quality—and because The Newsroom’s focus is on putting on a show, and because its weak points are howlers and it will be a hoot to laugh not with but at them—I’ve come to think, four episodes in, that Newsroom is basically Smash adapted for David Carr’s Twitter feed.
Sparring intimately, she with her voice in his earpiece, Mack and Will go at it like Holly Hunter and William Hurt in Broadcast News or Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare. But as a study of TV journalism, they offer much ado about not much. The Newsroom presents an elementary and elemental critique of television news as a thing disfigured by corporate pressures and heedless races for sensation, a point on which everyone who has cable will agree. The analysis ends there, or it ought to, so that we can get on with the business of romancing ideals and idealizing office romances. But such lusty adventures are tangled up with didactic excesses. The mirror Sorkin holds up to the television has a funhouse warp that limits The Newsroom’s potential for serious reflection—and yet week after week come the sonorous debates about truth and justice. The show offers a lot of great talking, but to whom does it wish to speak?