Unreality TV

Aaron Sorkin’s Cable Crackup: Why His HBO Series Is a Snooze

His TV news sendup is talky and tedious. Howard Kurtz on the fictional newsroom full of pompous blowhards.

There is a lot of shouting in The Newsroom.

And most of it has nothing to do with journalism.

Aaron Sorkin’s much-anticipated HBO series—much-anticipated by the chattering classes, at least—revolves around half-crazed anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his strong-willed ex-turned-executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), along with a staff of fast-talking neurotics.

Maybe expectations were too high, given the brilliance of Sorkin’s track record (The West Wing, The Social Network). Maybe, after reading that Sorkin was hanging out with Keith Olbermann, we were looking for a brilliantly nuanced rendition of the pathologies of cable news.

The thing is, as the individual soap operas unfold, the characters at times seem rather cartoonish. The thing is, for much of the episode that debuts Sunday night, they could work in a law office, since the plot turns on their clashing egos, romantic urges, and overweening personalities.

The thing is, this is pretty broad comedy—amusing at times, but essentially a sitcom that veers into bad satire built around pious blabbermouths.

Even the debate over journalism, when Sorkin gets around to that, has a simplified, black-and-white, heroes-vs.-heathens quality—and it’s hard to root for either self-obsessed side.

The narrative begins with Will cursing out a college student at a forum and delivering an epic rant on how America is no longer the world’s greatest country. He’s then confronted with the resignation of his top producer (Thomas Sadoski), prompting this considered reaction—“Hey dickless!”—when Will is informed that he is horrible to work for. “I’m affable!” he shouts.

The successor, Will is stunned to learn, is MacKenzie, a British-accented idealist with whom he shares some woeful sexual past. “You punk!” she scolds him, giving flowery speeches to Will that he can make journalism an honorable profession again, which fail to dent his industrial-strength cynicism. In fact, he gives the network back $3 million of his salary to regain the right to fire her.

The psychodrama is finally penetrated by news when the BP oil spill takes place (I know, soooo 2010). MacKenzie’s young pal (John Gallagher Jr.) has two sources that tell him how this could be a huge environmental disaster, but is dissed by the departing staff due to his twerpiness. The morality play is set, and Will steps up by dismissing the old staff and putting his money on his crusading ex and her sidekick. That is, he is either bravely betting his newscast on two people who just walked in the door, or mounting the white steed we secretly hoped he was capable of as he stewed in his own anger.

Forgive me if this is less than inspiring. But then, Sorkin isn’t really interested in unspooling how journalism functions, the way he was in how Martin Sheen wielded political power. The bustle of the newsroom is a mere backdrop for self-involved characters to give talky speeches and taunt each other. In fact, the smart-ass speeches go on and on and on, the actors seemingly in love with the sound of their voices.

The cameras swing back and forth as staffers talk into cellphones and try to book guests who know what the Minerals Management Agency is, typical deadline stuff for a news-based show.

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Jeff Daniels never quite captures us, perhaps because his character is written as a bundle of contradictions. Emily Mortimer is more convincing as an impossibly cheeky ball-buster, but she too slides into caricature. Ninety seconds before Will goes on the air with the oil-spill story, she badgers him, telling him in his earpiece: “For an hour, five times a week, I own you.” They scream at each other until the red light goes on.

It is all too fitting a moment, since Sorkin’s tale is about this squabbling, shark-like couple, not the news ocean in which they are allegedly swimming.

Naturally, Will delivers a boffo NewsNight, running roughshod over government and corporate flacks, and at this point the audience is supposed to cheer. Except the characters have taken turns acting like such jerks that it’s more exhausting than uplifting.