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.