Cable news is broken, Aaron Sorkin argues in his new HBO series “The Newsroom.”
Sundays at 10 p.m.
And, frankly, it’s hard to disagree with him as partisan bickering and 30-second sound bites of talking heads now dominate the cable landscape. But the alternative Sorkin offers in “The Newsroom” isn’t necessarily a solution to the problems plaguing broadcast journalism.
The group of journalists penned by Sorkin, the creator of “The West Wing” and writer of “The Social Network,” are a high-minded, self-righteous bunch who spend more time talking about the news than reporting it.
“There’s nothing that’s more important in a democracy than a well informed electorate,” claims MacKenzie McHale (Emily Moritmer, “Hugo”), the newly-hired executive producer of Sorkin’s idealized news broadcast “News Night.”
“When there’s no information, or much worse, wrong information, it can lead to calamitous decisions and clobber any attempt at vigorous debate,” she continues nauseatingly. “That’s why I produce the news.”
While her goal is just (who doesn’t want an informed electorate?), Sorkin’s characters bludgeon the point to death. Over and over again, throughout the pilot, various staffers rip off soliloquies as they work to resurrect their meddling program.
Sorkin clearly yearns for the eras of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, when larger-than-life figures ruled the airwaves and authoritatively told Americans about the state of the world. Anchorman Will McAvoy, (Jeff Daniels, “Dumb and Dumber”), a self-described “affable” guy who has made it to the top of the TV news food chain without causing much trouble, has been put in place to assume that mantle.
McAvoy may very well be that man, but the vehicle created by Sorkin may not be able to deliver him there.
Summaries of upcoming episodes on the network’s website make it seem like “The Newsroom” is headed down a perilously preachy path with McAvoy and his staff talking about why the news is important instead of showing, through hard-nosed reporting, why it’s important.
The show opens as McAvoy, speaking on a panel at Northwestern University, is asked why America is the greatest country in the world. “It’s not,” he responds, unleashing a tirade toward the unassuming sophomore who asked the question.
In a perfectly Sorkinesque rant, McAvoy ticks off reason after reason why the United States is falling behind other countries, as audience members pull out their camera phones. Before long the video has gone viral on YouTube.
After most of McAvoy’s staff quits in the fallout from his outburst, Charlie Skinner (Sam Watterson, “Law and Order”), the no-nonsense alcoholic president of the news division, then hires McHale, who’s returning from a stint as a producer in Iraq and Afghanistan, to take over the show and turn it into an old-fashioned news program that cares more about exposing bad guys than winning in the rankings.
Despite his personable public persona, McAvoy is a selfish and arrogant prick to his staff and those close to him, yet Daniels’ performance makes the character almost likable as he slowly realizes that he wants to be more than just a famous face on TV.
McAvoy and McHale have a romantic past, and he’s not pleased with the prospect of working with her despite her sterling credentials. For someone who gives off the impression of a fiercely independent woman — she has a scar on her stomach from a knife wound sustained while covering a rally in Pakistan — Mackenzie’s strangely reliant on Will, accepting his near constant belittlement. It’s almost as if she feels that she has a responsibility to help him.
Similarly, the budding love triangle between dewy-eyed assistant producer Margaret Jordan, (Alison Pill, “Hugo”), her me-first boyfriend Don Keefer, McAvoy’s former executive producer (renowned stage actor Thomas Sadowski) and newly-hired senior producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr., “Spring Awakening” on Broadway) will surely create tension that only promises to escalate as Don and Jim vie for Maggie’s affections.
The show is set in 2010 and deals with real-life news events, so when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico on MacKenzie’s first afternoon on the job (In real life, the rig exploded at 9:45 p.m., not in the middle of the day), the team springs into action to get the scoop.
As anyone who’s been in a newsroom can tell you, breaking news is like a drug — things just move faster when you’re working against the clock and the competition to get the news out. Sorkin effectively captures that emotion as Maggie scores her first big interview, getting a government official to comment on the worsening environmental disaster.
Like “The West Wing”, which romanticized government service, the “Newsroom” wants to be a more-perfect form of modern journalism. There were flashes of Sorkin’s brilliance throughout the pilot, but it remains to be seen if the newsroom can actually deliver on that promise by showing that it’s more than just talk.