Aaron Sorkin has always had a huge, corn-fed Capraesque streak, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Even in his own day, Capra’s Americana was more willful than trenchant, but at least it suited its Greatest Generation era. Sorkin’s high-blown patriotic speeches, transferred from America to the glorified image of what was once Serious Journalism, are the main reason his new HBO series The Newsroom is so uneven and shaky. There’s so much that is good about the series – its intelligent characters, the zooming narrative that captures the adrenaline rush of breaking news, Jeff Daniels’ and Sam Waterston’s fierce yet grounded performances - that it’s disappointing to see how much goes wrong. The Newsroom is absolutely worth watching, but measured against its own ambition is a frustrating, partial success.
There has already been so much hype you probably know what the show is: Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a successful cable anchor so ratings-hungry and complacent that he’s considered “the Jay Leno of news anchors.” (Sorkin does create some delicious jabs.) Waterston plays the news division president, Charlie Skinner, whose old-fashioned bow tie is a too-literal symbol of his link to his profession’s more sober past.
It’s Skinner who brings in a new executive producer to give Will a kick in the right moral direction. That producer (Emily Mortimer) is MacKenzie McHale, known as Mac (was there a sale on Mcs the day Sorkin wrote this?), a war correspondent who lived with Will until their ugly breakup three years before.
You can grant Sorkin his contrivances, including the romantic backstory; would Charlie really have set up a situation so likely to implode? And because the show begins in 2010, hindsight makes this newsroom look smarter than most; for a time they’re the only people who think the BP oil spill is a big deal.
Daniels gives Will the on-air ease of Peter Jennings and the off-camera crankiness of a spoiled rich guy, and even pulls off the mini-lectures he has to deliver when he sees the journalistic light. A moderate Republican, Will presciently resents the way the Tea Party is highjacking the GOP he loves. (That hindsight trick, handy but obvious.) Soon he joins Charlie and Mac on the warpath against gossipy journalism and even human-interest stories.
But – and this is nearly fatal to the series – absolutely nothing about MacKenzie’s character is the least bit convincing. Every time she opens her mouth it’s like listening to one of those annoying MSNBC “Lean Forward” promos, urging us to remember how great the country could be. Her damn-the-ratings approach to news is from fairyland. The program she masterminds reeks of self-importance rather than journalism.
Sorkin stands on his head to explain how she came to be an American with a British accent. Her father was Margaret Thatcher’s ambassador to the U.N., so she was born here -- and, as Don, a jaded producer adds, was “immediately locked in a room and shown Frank Capra movies until she was 21.”
But self-consciousness about MacKenzie’s inspirational speeches doesn’t make that charge less lethal or true, even though Don is clearly not the guy we’re meant to side with. That guy would be Jim, the idealistic producer MacKenzie has brought with her, who responds to Don’s snark by citing her “two Peabodys and the scars coming from the knife wounds she got covering a Shiite protest in Islamabad.” Right. And she seamlessly steps into the role of executive producer. Plus -- as Maggie, a young producer, points out -- she doesn’t look a bit like she just came from a war zone. If MacKenzie had been constructed in any believable way, other characters wouldn’t have to keep explaining her too-good-to-be-true unlikeliness.
Sorkin does a better job with the engaging romantic triangle of Maggie (Alison Pill, whose enthusiasm is convincing as well as charming), ratings-chasing Don (Thomas Sadowski) and upright journalist Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.). Guess who she’s supposed to end up with?
Jane Fonda shows up in episode 3 as Leona Lansing, the cable channel’s tough-minded corporate owner, who puts her conglomerate’s relationship with the FCC and Congress ahead of Skinner’s pie-in-the-sky, backward-looking aspirations. It’s exhilarating to watch her and Waterston sparring. Leona seems refreshing because she’s such a realist, but there’s something off about a series when you find yourself rooting for the wrong side.
Speecify-ing idealism sat more easily in The West Wing, partly because Sorkin’s approach seemed fresher at the time, partly because the characters were, after all, in the White House. But reverence for Edward R. Morrow and the glory days of journalism is hollow nostalgia. And gossip journalism a pathetically easy target, as easy as saying The Newsroom is better than Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Of course it is, but that’s not really the point if you’re watching something ambitious.
The Newsroom does have ambition. And you have to like a show that includes the idea that news should be, as Mackenzie puts it, “speaking truth to stupid.” If only there were more of a connection between Sorkin’s brain and his characters’ hearts.