HBO’s “The Newsroom” provides enough Sorkinisms but needs more darkness

By Matthew Grimm

I want to like Aaron Sorkin’s latest exercise in being America’s conscience. I want to like The Newsroom because Emily Mortimer’s eyes melt my soul and because, in an age where Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have become the unqualified best news hour on TV by routinely shaming the institution of telejournalism, it seems to beg for an HBO/Showtime/AMC treatment. I want to see a gutty deconstruction of how it has come to fail on so many levels at its mission of effecting the informed citizenry that makes democracy work.

The Newsroom flirts with this. But as it unfolds, I keep getting a creeping sense that, at day’s end, everything will be okay. That sucks because then I will peruse actual news and feel bad.

The rundown: Nobody wants to work with Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), cantankerous diva-esque TV anchorman slouching-towards-conformity/irrelevance. Amiable besotted news unit chief (Sam Waterston) brings in intrepid stanchion-of-integrity reporter and onetime McAvoy paramour MacKenzie McHale (Mortimer) to reinvent McAvoy’s News Night in an intrepid, integrity-ridden way. Oh, and younger people work here, anchored by Sorkin Archetype No. 3, Proficient But Socially Awkward Earnest Guy, and Sorkin Archetype No. 4, Flustered But Gives 110% Female Wonk.

I wanted to like it, too, because it kicked off with McAvoy loosing a deliciously ranty YouTube moment at a university-sponsored panel discussion. Good start: a come-to-Jesus moment amid the morass of Opinions-Differ-On-the-Shape-of-the-Earth School of Journalism. It didn’t last.

I won’t dig deeply into the Sorkinist wit, but it’s here, because there is no one in the Sorkinverse who is not witty, though that rapier rusts more each day. Soap suds float about, too, Archetype 3 and 4’s vomitous will-they-or-won’t-they thread and Will and MacKenzie’s lingering affections occupying disproportionate screen time to, and promising dilution of, story elements that matter. Aaron Sorkin fans will likely love this show. The Newsroom’s more ominous pall, however, is the Sorkinverse constant: there is always an upside and it lives in the hearts of these spunky, flawed but ultimately well-meant™ characters.

This is irksome because it seems a disservice to what Sorkin is trying to do. He is challenging a complex, leviathan, thoroughly corrupt system, but goes further to offer a reductionist tonic to it: if newspeople be pure of heart, the Truth will out. See Episode 2, when Mortimer’s McHale tears into McAvoy, pressing him as to whether he is on board with the vision, entreating him, “Be the leader, Will. Be the moral center of this show. Be the integrity.”

We should here point out the irony of Sorkin applying his template to a show about people trying to make television that bucks templates.

Setting aside that no remotely conservative American would ever mull the above opening rant for fear of the Inquisition, Sorkin has bent over backwards to make Daniels’ character an Old School parliamentarian Republican. McAvoy grumbles in a news meeting about illegal aliens taking American jobs (no worries! — after hearing of a Mexican-born kid denied his driver’s license over his immigration status, he foots a daily cab, anonymously, for the guy to get to work and back). His politics play more strategically in Episode 3, wherein the team breaks down the Tea Party “movement” as a wholly owned subsidiary of Kansas’ answer to The Devil, the Koch brothers. A fictive version of, say, Olbermann — whose real-life arc obviously influenced this show — doing this would be one thing, but McAvoy is a card-carrying Eisenhowerian working to expose how “my party” is being subsumed by know-nothing flat-earther lunatics owing fealty to corporate paymasters — a clever if obvious deflection of inevitable caterwauls of “librulmedia.”

HBO's The Newsroom features an all-star cast including Dev Patel, Olivia Munn, Thomas Sadoski, Sam Waterston, John Gallagher Jr., Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Alison Pill

(L-R) Dev Patel, Olivia Munn, Thomas Sadoski, Sam Waterston, John Gallagher Jr., Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Alison Pill. Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

This brings us to the hook: Sorkin sets his series two years in the past, which puts his crew on the cusp still-raw stories, so when most everybody else in news muffs their obligations, those plucky Newsroom kids get it right, a kind of retroactive prescience. Naturally, the kids’ integrity lands them in hot water with smarmy-but-witty company president and his bombastic-but-witty media mogul mom/boss (Jane Fonda). Fonda, engendering everything-wrong-with-megacorporate-media-ownership, insists McAvoy is jeopardizing the “business” she has before Congress and has landed the network left of MSNBC.

In response, Waterston — all props on this — crystallizes the Lost Truth of the Age of Servile Media: “Facts are the center…We don’t pretend that certain facts are in dispute to give the appearance of fairness to people who don’t believe them.”

I want to like this show because of that. Fonda’s character has threatened to end McAvoy’s career if the show doesn’t go back to obfuscating “human-interest” pabulum. We’ll see what happens this Sunday but, see, problematically, I’m not really worried.

Sorkin creates alternate universes where heroes do the right thing, inconvenienced sometimes by the dread reality of corrupt systems but never daunted by them. Our great common denominator is that most of us are victimized to the point of hopelessness by corrupt systems and daunted like hell by them. That is what makes overcoming them heroic. Hindsight-empowered superheroes amid a cratered reality feels almost chipper given the subject matter, because journalists have gotten it right in recent years and it amounts to peeing up a rope. The “news” node of American culture has been rendered so inert that wiggy outliers like News Night don’t matter. The national conversation has been programmed elsewhere.

That is a story to be told. Bad and stupid people, of which there are too few in The Newsroom, brought the news racket to its sorry state for very specific reasons: entrenched vapidity, corporate assimilation and, sin-of-sins for journalists, pandemic credulity. Lay that mess bare, show me the darkness and tradeoffs of people who sent the industry off the rails oblivious to or OK with how it made us a dumber country and I will hook the cable up to my vein. As yet, I don’t think this is that.

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4 Responses to HBO’s “The Newsroom” provides enough Sorkinisms but needs more darkness

  1. Pingback: "The Newsroom" episode 10 recap: The Greater Fool - Channel Guide Magazine

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  3. Amy K says:

    You know, I also disagree with your desire. West Wing didn’t show us what a stinking pile of corrupt, cynical crap the white house was; it showed us what it could be, if we could just hang on and believe (and yes it could). Similarly, I think Newsroom is aspirational. I don’t need it to be realistic. I need it to be perfect, so I have something to shoot for. Hang in there; I think you’re going to like what’s coming down the pike.

  4. Byron says:

    I agree that the show doesn’t accurately reflect the sorry state of “news” in the US. But I have to disagree in that I don’t think it should.

    You say you watch an episode, and come away reinforced that the characters’ integrity allow them to come through – then you turn on the actual news and you feel bad. Imagine how much worse you’d feel if Newsroom was just a mirror of how the media actually handled those stories the show covers.

    Imagine some future season 3 episode where the Supreme Court makes an announcement and two networks get it wrong by trying to be “first”. TV has to deviate. It has to offer more hope than despair. Even HBO heavyweight OZ had its fair share of feel-good endings. If it didn’t, nobody would watch.

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