The mark of a great writer is that you recognize their voice. There's no other Charlie Kaufman or Woody Allen or Diablo Cody or Aaron Sorkin. But what happens to that lauded player at the top of Hollywood's writer pyramid –both television and film–after winning the Oscar for "The Social Network" and sharing a nomination for 'Moneyball" and landing his own cable series "The Newsroom" (HBO, June 22)? He gets killed by critics. (See our collection of early reviews below.)
Watching the first three episodes, I went through my own trajectory. First, HBO faced a marketing challenge: how to sell an hour-long drama crammed with smart people talking? So they took all the most dramatic moments from the first three episodes and jammed them into a superb trailer. Sold.
But when you watch the first "The Newsroom" episode, all that drama isn't there. After the explosive on-camera interview when veteran cable news anchor Jeff Daniels loses his shit ("Network"-style) in front of a viral global audience, declaring that America is not the best nation in the world and all the myriad reasons why, establishing that yes he is the smartest man in the room, we return from his forced vacation and it's back to business as usual.
He isn't crazy anymore.
No, he and his old love and new executive producer Emily Mortimer (playing a version of the Holly Hunter role in "Broadcast News"), are vying for control of the newscast. And she's an idealist who is setting him up to fail by trying to do real news, the old-fashioned way. And they are going to show all the smart kids in the newsroom (among them two alpha male rivals vying for the same girl, well-played by standout Alison Pill), how it's done.
So. In an era of swift fast-breaking viral traffic-seeking news-as-entertainment missiles, this show is fantasizing a what-if world that is just as wishful as "West Wing"'s Liberal Democratic White House. But while that show was looking forward to what was possible, this show is looking back to what is not. And that's why it's getting creamed.The other problem is that while "West Wing" (as well as Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "Sports Night") represented the best of network television, "The Newsroom" is on HBO. And it feels like Sorkin's old shows. Of course Sam Waterston is the wily old coot running the News. And in later episodes Jane Fonda turns up as a senior Faye Dunaway from "Network" (tellingly named Leona) as his corporate boss. We recognize the familiar rhythms and cadences of Sorkin's dramatic hour-long structures (sans Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff walking and talking). But it's not cable. We expect more from cable.
That's the other reason why critics are stomping all over "The Newsroom." It's expectations. That said, once I got over my initial disappointment, the show settled into an enjoyable groove. The cast, led by Mortimer and Daniels–world-weary and jaded and inwardly thrilled to chase this impossible dream even as he struggles with the urge to chase eyeballs–is strong, even "Slumdog Millionaire" Dev Patel. The show will play best to an older Liberal demo happy to be comfortable with its familiarity. But first it has to get past the critics.
"In 'The Newsroom,' clever people take turns admiring one another. They sing arias of facts. They aim to remake television news,..Their outrage is so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema—only it makes the viewer itch,..This is not to say that 'The Newsroom' doesn’t score points now and then, if you share its politics. It starts effectively enough, with an homage to 'Network'’s galvanizing 'I’m mad as hell' rant, as McAvoy, a blandly uncontroversial cable big shot whom everyone tauntingly calls Leno, is trapped on a journalism-school panel…Much of McAvoy’s diatribe is bona-fide baloney—false nostalgia for an America that never existed—but it is exciting to watch. And if you enjoyed 'The West Wing,' Sorkin’s helpful counterprogramming to the Bush Administration, your ears will prick up. The pilot of 'The Newsroom' is full of yelling and self-righteousness, but it’s got energy,..'The Newsroom' gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping…
"Some of this banter is intelligent; just as often, however, it’s artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter,..As Dan Rather might put it, that dog won’t hunt. Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV. The shows’ air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what’s inside—all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, “The Newsroom” treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid,..Rather than invent fictional crises, he’s set the show in 'the recent past,' so that the plot is literally old news: the BP oil spill, the Tea Party, the Arizona immigration law. That sounds like an innovative concept, but it turns the characters into back-seat drivers, telling us how the news should have been delivered."
"Tackling the glaring shortcomings of modern news, Sorkin writes like he's trying to save America from its basest impulses. He can't, and it's alternately fascinating and irritating to watch him try,..It's worth noting, right up front, that a lot of what Sorkin dishes out in 'Newsroom' isn't remotely plausible,..The most significant maneuver Sorkin executes in the setup is starting the show in April 2010, which allows him to explore actual events — beginning with the BP oil spill, followed by Arizona's immigration law in episode two, and so forth — through the prism of Will's fictional cable news program, 'News Night.'
"Sorkin's primary targets — the use of false equivalency in news, and presenting the veneer of fairness at the expense of truth — should be no stranger to viewers of 'The Daily Show' or (more acidly) HBO's Bill Maher, and Sorkin assails all the expected conservative media mouthpieces. Look more closely, though, and "Newsroom" exhibits an underlying faith in the U.S. public: a belief in hunger for news and information that's genuinely 'fair and balanced,' if only someone had the balls to serve it to them,..Despite this laundry list of shortcomings, Sorkin's machine-gun dialogue still yields observations you simply don't hear on TV often, such as a news exec's second-episode musing that reeling in younger demos will let the network 'get out of the wheelchair-selling business.'
It's just a shame there's not more subtlety in Sorkin's arguments, not because he's wrong, but because his characters so conspicuously become surrogates for a dissertation on where the American experiment is falling short. Indeed, at times watching 'The Newsroom' explore idealistic solutions, it's easy to think of the scene in 'Annie Hall' where Woody Allen magically produces Marshall McLuhan to buttress his argument, saying, 'Boy, if life were only like this.'"