This job shouldn't be this easy. But Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" (premieres Sunday, June 24 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO) offers such a target-rich environment that the phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" does spring to mind.
The biggest problem with "The Newsroom" -- and it's one of many, many problems -- is that its goals and its narrative strategies are in direct conflict with each other. The result is a dramatically inert, infuriating mess, one that wastes a fine cast to no demonstrable purpose, unless you consider giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight is a worthwhile purpose.
The ironies abound, but one of the central ironies is this: The lead character on this show, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), bemoans the fact that much of the public discourse has become an unsubtle shoutfest, yet "The Newsroom" displays all the subtlety of a jackhammer set to maximum or a terrier on speed. Characters talk at each other, they constantly preach to their colleagues, and McAvoy frequently fulminates at his viewers at length. These soliloquies, even allowing for the familiar tics and tricks of Sorkinese, become deadening over time.
Ultimately, the show is the worst possible vehicle for promulgating the values and beliefs that the core characters profess. With shrill, self-righteous friends like these, journalism doesn't need enemies.
The speechifiers on this show, who include Emily Mortimer as Will's executive producer/former girlfriend MacKenzie McHale, aren't really people as such; they function as Sorkin Belief Delivery Systems. Don't try to look for consistency in their behavior, because you won't find it. (Another irony: Will and his colleagues constantly complain about the lack of professionalism and decorum in the news business, yet they consistently act in ways that makes me lose respect for them as professionals). Sorkin isn't that interested in sketching out anything more than vague character traits, and though he makes some gestures toward building star-crossed romances, the plots on this show, if you can call them that, are half-formed at best.
Don't be trivial, television viewers! "The Newsroom" isn't about to stoop to dumb stunts like telling stories or exploring the nuances of human nature. No, these people exist to Tell Us What's What, especially Will, yet another middle-aged Sorkin hero who bears the heavy burden of being smarter than everyone else. Can he help it that he's fated to save the stupid people of America from themselves? It's not easy, you know! I think we're meant to think that Will is a flawed, yet brave man, but I found him to be a smug, self-absorbed windbag.
Perhaps I'm the only one immune to the charm of his lectures (he actually says, more than once, "I'm on a mission to civilize!"). There's a scene in the third episode in which Will makes yet another What I Believe speech, and the camera swoons through dozens of upturned faces in the newsrooms of Will's cable network. These people don't look like fellow employees, they appear to be acolytes in the Cult of Will, dazed at the good fortune that allows them to be in the presence of greatness. Maybe that moment would have made sense if Sorkin had given us believable examples of the man's personal charm or magnetism. No such luck. Why is MacKenzie still hung up on him? No idea. Apparently he "had this way of doing things." That's the entirety of the explanation we get.
There is a way to enjoy "The Newsroom," one that doesn't necessarily involve drinking Scotch every time someone references the heroic ways in which Will's show (all by itself) is keeping the American electorate informed: You can view it as a long-form "Saturday Night Live" skit parodying Sorkin's worst instincts. It has the usual traits of his shows -- the walk-and-talks, the "noble" male savior, the sassy gal pal who pines for the hero, the eager young staffers, the long chunks of dialogue about current events, the lecturing (or hectoring) tone. Everything about it is overblown or undercooked to the point of being laughable; a palpable and occasionally comical cognitive dissonance arose between the admiration the swelling soundtrack told me I was supposed to feel and the buzzing annoyance I actually felt during the four episodes I watched. Even aesthetically, the whole thing feels off: The cinematography in Will's airless newsroom is pallid and clumsy, and the interactions of the characters feel flat and contrived.
Another central irony: These characters constantly reference their love for the truth, yet so much about "The Newsroom" rings false.
A show in which paper-thin characters spend so much time congratulating themselves for "speaking truth to stupid" is always going to have an uphill climb in the hearts and minds of viewers used to more subtle delights, but when "The Newsroom" isn't obvious and self-congratulatory, it's manipulative and shrieky. Despite game efforts from Mortimer, Daniels, Sam Waterston, Alison Pill and Jane Fonda (who makes an energetic cameo), "The Newsroom" doesn't work in part because it's never content to make a point: It feels the need to hit the audience over the head with each point, gild the point, outline it in neon and then underline it fifty times with a thick Sharpie. Because Sorkin apparently thinks HBO's well-to-do, educated viewers -- the people that will no doubt get the references to Sardi's, Frank Capra and Rep. John Boehner -- are just that stupid.
An example of overkill, "Newsroom" style: Don and Jim, two indistinguishable producers who work for different ACN news shows, have a little flap in which Jim, who just finished overseeing Will's expose on conservative power brokers David and Charles Koch, congratulates Don on his show's report on the McRib sandwich.
Really? Is that the only choice? There's only froth or reporting? In another episode, Will's on-air guest is a pro-immigration reform beauty queen who says, "I'm an American, not an American't!"; later, he spends a great deal of time attacking gossip reporters, because apparently their existence makes it impossible for other kinds of reporters to do any kind of worthy work.
The problem with Sorkin's endless array of false binaries and disingenuous equivalencies is not just that they lack subtlety and originality, it's that they are part of a narrative style that clobbers anything organic that might arise in the story or among the characters. He's not really able to explore the areas between polar opposites, and that's a very big problem. Possibility, romance, mystery, ambiguity -- these are the elements that fill out and enrich compelling dramas, but Sorkin's condescending need to educate the masses and his characters' exhausting need to verbalize everything tends to bludgeon these qualities like baby seals.
So, predictably, "The Newsroom" continually sets up straw-man villains for Will to strike down, which only serves to make him seem pompous and even bullying at times. Its characters beg for context and nuance, yet they themselves are merely a collection of traits and histories that they announce to each other. It takes the only characters of color and either underuses them (the fate of Olivia Munn's business reporter) or makes them ridiculous (Dev Patel's character emerges as a Bigfoot true believer). And it makes Will a martyr in so many ways that it's impossible to have sympathy for him, given his wearying self-absorption.
The funniest thing about "The Newsroom" is that it takes as a given that people care a great deal about what one news anchor says on his show; despite writing that Facebook movie, Sorkin still doesn't get that people sample the news all day through any number of sources and that news anchors and their shows, frankly, don't matter that much in the grand scheme of things. It's telling that Internet is only mentioned once or twice, mainly when Will finds out that, unbeknownst to him, he has a blog. Twitter is mocked, naturally.
As David Simon did in the fifth season of "The Wire," Sorkin has created a newsroom circa 1996 and used its one-dimensional characters to make a Statement about Journalism. Sorkin possesses real gifts, but this pedantic exercise hasn't done anything to help us enjoy them.
Believe me when I say that I don't come at this as a Sorkin hater. Sure, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" devolved into a didactic mess, but at least it had an enjoyable pilot, which can't be said for the plodding first episode of "The Newsroom," which gets even more maddening in subsequent hours. And I liked "The Social Network" as much as the next online addict, and though I wasn't a major "West Wing" devotee, I respected the show's aims and I'm all for celebrating the hard and frequently unsung work that journalists and public servants do.
Here's another whopping irony, this one on a more personal scale: Theoretically, I'm in the center of the choir that Sorkin is preaching to. I got my Masters in journalism from Northwestern's Medill School 19 years ago; I worked for 13 years in the newsroom of a big, urban newspaper and thus, have been on the front lines of the media industry's evolution; and I am impressed every year by the winners of the Peabody Awards, an organization on whose board I have the honor of sitting (I'm not trying to be obnoxious here -- I only mention Northwestern and the Peabodys because Sorkin's characters drop these names regularly).
Yet what am I to do with the characters on this show, who make these kinds of statements: "We don't do 'good television,' we do the news!" "That studio is a courtroom and we only call expert witnesses!" "Abolishing the minimum wage would create jobs. You know what else would? Slavery!"
All I can do is what any other educated citizen of this great nation would do: Change the channel.