ON PAPER, IT SEEMS like such a great idea. A show passionately – and intelligently – arguing the case against cable networks’ dumbing down of the news, and for a return to reporting that focuses on facts and well-informed opinion: “Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession.” Penned by one of the snappiest, wittiest dialogue writers around, Aaron Sorkin.
That show is The Newsroom, in which the excellent Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, an anchorman who has betrayed his early-career idealism for easy ratings and easy money. But the return of his ex-girlfriend, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), as his producer sees Will’s inner firebrand return, and, together (with a little help from Will’s boss, Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston), they revamp Will’s News Night show. The aim, in MacKenzie’s words: “The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid.”
Unfortunately, what was presumably missing from the pitch meeting was the follow-up explanation: “So, we’ll flood the show with sledgehammer moralizing – accompanied by an unnecessarily melodramatic orchestral soundtrack in case people don’t realize how important it is – and populate it with one-dimensional characters, yeah?”
Actually, that’s unfair. The characters aren’t one-dimensional. They’re two-dimensional. All of them. Will is charming and affable on-screen, raging and rude off it. Charlie is an easy-going, sweet boozer until he goes to bat for his team against the stereotypically money-minded suits upstairs, when he turns into a ballsy, righteous defender of (Sorkin’s) faith. No one seems rounded, or even real. And MacKenzie? She is, we’re told, a brilliant, fearless woman who has, according to Will, “reported more real news in an afternoon than I have in a lifetime.” But – despite having just returned from a stellar stint on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan – she’s also a bumbling, ditzy, damsel in distress, bemused by technology and, possibly, walking.
And therein lies one of the major faults with this series. Sorkin appears to believe that if someone says a character is something – a Republican (Will), maybe, or a tough, whipsmart visionary (MacKenzie) – then there’s no need to actually have the character behave in a way that would prove it. The dialogue follows suit; there’s no depth, only (admittedly very slick, polished) surface. There’s no subtlety, no difference between what the characters say and what they might mean (as in, for example, Breaking Bad or Mad Men). These guys say exactly, and only, what they mean, usually very quickly. Too often, the show seems like a mutual appreciation society for smart-asses (“Why, madam, your eloquent dismissal of the Tea Party was quite delicious. Would you care to sample my piquant opinions on immigration policy?” “Thank you. That would be marvelous”), all of whom share Sorkin’s opinions on everything. Those that don’t? They’re the pantomime villains of the boardroom, or of Fox News, of course.
The sad thing is, the series shows glimpses of real promise. When an episode is concentrating on how the team is putting the show within the show together – how a story will be presented (the series is set in 2010, so the team tackles the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the attempt to detonate a bomb in Times Square, among other stories), who they need to get to comment and why – it’s engrossing, clever and thought-provoking. But once it shifts gears, clanking into rom-com humor mode, or attempting emotional depth, it can be seriously tough to watch. At those moments, it’s hard to ignore the implication that the “stupid” MacKenzie was talking about are you and me.
And pity the poor women. For an apparently right-minded, forward-thinking writer, Sorkin struggles horribly to create a convincing female character. While lip-service is paid to their intellects, the trio of women who appear most often on the show – MacKenzie; Maggie Jordan (played by Alison Pill, a terrible waste of her talent), an intern accidentally promoted to Will’s assistant and then to associate producer; and the economist Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), smart but still hot, and yet socially awkward (as are all three) – spend much of their time tripping over furniture and/or words. Until a man steps in and saves their embarrassment.
But The Newsroom might yet become a show worth watching. The central thread (that the media has a responsibility to inform the general public, not just pander to a lowest common denominator) is one that deserves some airplay. And the argument that we should give a shit when lies are presented as facts, or unfounded opinion presented as science, is, undoubtedly, A Good Thing. Trouble is, when the decoration surrounding all that is so shoddily constructed, the general public won’t bother watching. Then Sorkin’s just preaching (and, boy, is he preachy) to the choir.