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Dead Tree Alert: Blowhardball: The Not-So-Special Comment of HBO’s The Newsroom

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Sunday night, HBO premieres The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s attempt to do for cable news what The West Wing did for politics: present a romanticized version of a beleaguered institution, with a cast of hard-working idealists, long impassioned speeches and lots of walking-and-talking. I was not a fan. And while my full review is behind TIME’s paywall, here’s a taste:

The fourth episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom is called “I’ll Try to Fix You.” That may as well be the title of the whole series. Like Sorkin’s The West Wing, the show wants to fix America, this time through the story of Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a successful, cynical and bland cable-news anchor who decides that he, and journalism, and yea, democracy, can do better.

Which means what? Will’s producer/ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) explains: “Reclaiming the fourth estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect and a return to what’s important. The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid–” She’s not nearly done, but I have only a page here. Yes, articulate characters are Sorkin’s gig. But on The Newsroom (Sundays, HBO), people simply open their mouths and perfectly formed op-eds fall out. Which means that The Newsroom needs to be reviewed two ways: as a drama and as an editorial.

Its chief problem as a drama is that, well, it’s an editorial…

You may argue that you could make many of the same arguments—about the sanctimony, the deck-stacking, the too-perfect stylized dialogue, &c.—against The West Wing. I agree, and I made them when The West Wing was on. But I also included The West Wing in my list of the 100 All-TIME TV Shows, because it also gave us rich characters, a sense of proportionality and an infectious feeling of romance with the country and the people who want to make it better. The Newsroom, after four exhausting, smug episodes, gives us none of that: just Aaron Sorkin writing one argument after another for himself to win.

Sorkin has a lot to get off his chest, whereas my review had to fit into about 650 words, so I had to leave out a lot of arguments and examples. For instance:

THE BAD:

* The Women Problem. Either Sorkin is no longer able to write credible women characters, or he no longer wants to. This is the guy who wrote Sports Night’s Dana and The West Wing’s C.J., women who were as intelligent, flawed and competent as the men around them. The Newsroom, on the other hand, gives us a series of women as ninnies who need men to set them straight. Will spends much of the series patronizingly lecturing women, from the “sorority girl” he lectures in a three-minute rant at the opening of the pilot to the terrible fourth episode, where he condescendingly tells off a string of women for being too interested in frivolous things like gossip and reality TV. The junior-staff rom-com subplot takes the fine Alison Pill and casts her as a naif who spends her time scrunching up her face, trying to please her boyfriend or being instructed in Real Journalism by Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.), her supervisor and the guy we pretty much know she will eventually end up with. The show’s strongest woman is Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie, Will’s producer, but for every scene with her as Will’s peer, there’s another of her as a ninny–fumbling through a presentation, screwing up her e-mail, or abjectly apologizing to Will for a problem in their past relationship. In Sorkinworld, the men are men and the women are sorry.

* It’s Intellectually Self-Serving. One of the principles that Mac sets for Will’s new newscast is that it will always try to present the best version of a party’s argument, not the most provocative or caricatured one for ratings. The Newsroom does not follow its own advice. News executives are calculating, greedy boors; when Will steps on the wrong powerful toes, the head of Will’s ACN network, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) schemes agains him like a soap-opera villainness. Journalists who don’t share News Night’s ideals are dimwits. And Republican conservatives are either Tea Party extremist idiots, or exist only to complain that their party has been taken over by Tea Party extremist idiots. Will says repeatedly that he’s a “registered Republican,” but except for his quick, half-hearted support of tough immigration policy, he registers only distaste for the Tea Party. His politics are a dodge: “It’s true that the Republicans have been taken over by radical nutjobs! Even the fictional moderate Republican who I made up thinks so!”

* A Résumé Is Not Character Development. Mac, we are told, is a tough, smart journalist who made her bones covering wars, but in practice she’s an emotional ditz. We are told Will is a Republican but he spends much more time making Democrat’s arguments. We are told that Will was a wishy-washy anchor concerned only with ratings, but his conversion to truth-telling crusader is near-instant and almost without conflict. Sorkin behaves as if simply telling us that someone is something is a substitute for actually having them behave as that thing.

As a result, no one seems very real on The Newsroom. The supporting characters are literally that: they are there to buck Will up, to admire him (if sometimes grudgingly) or to support his ideas by cartoonishly opposing them. Mac is there to help Will become his better self. Sam Waterston, as Will’s direct boss Charlie, exists to engineer Mac’s arrival to do just that,to argue Will’s case before the network bosses who’ve forgotten their principles, and to beam approval as Will starts to become the newsman he should be. He’s basically the Dumbledore of cable news.

* Bias Is a Qualification? I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that journalists can admit they have opinions and still be fair, so in a way I’m with Sorkin when he argues for impassioned journalism. But two exchanges in the second episode really bothered me. In the first, Jim is helping Margaret (Pill) do an interview about a controversial Arizona immigration law, when she bursts into a speech on the term “illegal immigrant”: “The rhetoric we use to talk about these people who risk their lives to have a shot at picking oranges so their kids can have a shot at not being dead makes it sound like we’re talking about scraping gum off our shoes. These people chose to take a huge risk to become Americans, and they deserve a better descriptor than ‘illegals.'” “You don’t need me,” Jim tells her, impressed. “You’ve got this one.”

And just after that, Mac is talking to Sloan (Olivia Munn), an economics reporter she’s trying to recruit. Mac asks her: “What’s the difference between a corporation and a person?” Sloan: “Have you ever held a door open for someone?” Mac: “Yes.” Sloan: “Did you ask them for money first?” Mac: “No.” Sloan: “That’s the difference.” Mac: “That’s the right answer.”

“That’s the right answer.” I think there’s a very good argument that journalists can and should have strong opinions about the things they spend all their working time covering—it shows they’re intelligent, engaged and applying analysis. But that’s not the point these scenes are making. They’re saying that a good journalist is one who has the right opinion, and that having the correct opinion—Sorkin’s—is proof they’re ready to do the job.

Hindsight Does Not = Vision. You know your uncle who’s always sending you e-mails about the news stories that “the mainstream media” is ignoring, and as evidence cites links to stories reported in the mainstream media? The Newsroom is the TV-drama version of that. Week after week, we see examples of News Night getting a story “right” while the competition misses it. But its examples—the failure of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the fact that the attempted Times Square bomber in 2010 was reported by a Muslim vendor—were all reported by MSM outlets,  electronic or print, just not with the miraculous speed that News Night does with Sorkin working the rewrite desk two years later.

Zingers Are Not Drama. I’ve written it before about The West Wing, but Sorkin’s TV drama is all about esprits d’escalier: the snappy comeback you wish you had given somebody in a political argument, the debate performance Democrats wished Al Gore had had against George W. Bush. In The Newsroom, it feels like Sorkin spent two years watching cable news and jotting down comebacks, then handed us the notebook. It’s empty-calorie drama, replacing real debate and character work with the quick thrill of canned superiority. (The Newsroom is the kind of hectoring drama that fans say “People need to see,” meaning, of course, other, less enlightened people than themselves.)

It’s Not Sorkin, or HBO, at Their Best. The thing that made me most optimistic for The Newsroom was Sorkin’s The Social Network, in which he was able to show empathy and understanding for Mark Zuckerberg, a character whose background and worldview he clearly does not share. But I’m starting to think that Sorkin simply does better when he has to write characters he didn’t invent himself. And this show is an odd fit for HBO, whose best dramas—The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood—are distinguished by their use of subtext; the dialogue carries more meaning because you have to distinguish what characters say from what they’re actually thinking. This isn’t just worthwhile because it’s “difficult” or makes you feel smart; it’s because, as in literature, inferring characters’ thoughts and intentions is part of the way you make meaning from the work and come to understand the characters. Well, Sorkin does not do subtext. He does text, a crapload of it. His characters tell you exactly what they’re thinking, then say it again to make sure you got it.

The Lectures. Oy, the Lectures! Sorkin clearly has a lot to tell us about the Tea Party; episode three, which features a montage of Will tearing into Tea Party spokespeople, is like someone edited a YouTube supercut of Sorkinian sanctimony. (“Abolishing the minimum wage would create jobs. You know what else would? Slavery!”) He even takes time to scold us about reality TV. Will, on a date in episode 4: “I’m concerned about the rest of us who are being turned into a bunch of old ladies with hair dryers on our heads gorging ourselves on the staged–it’s just…” Will’s date: “It’s called a guilty pleasure.” Will: “The chocolate souffle on this menu is a guilty pleasure. The Archies singing ‘Sugar Sugar’ is a guilty pleasure. Human cockfighting makes us mean and desensitizes us.” And this one-sided, premasticated lecture makes me tune out your show. Also: Worst sweet talk ever.

THE GOOD:

The Pilot Is Actually Not Bad. Sufficiently so that you may finish it wondering why I came down so hard on the show. It’s efficient in its introductions, the dialogue is trademark Sorkin, and the last act is genuinely exciting and moving. (More on that in a minute.) I saw four episodes, each more sanctimonious and unconvincing than the last—if you still think the show is great after that, come back and tell me.

It’s a Better Idea Than Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. One problem with Studio 60 was that the comedy show within the show wasn’t actually funny. Another was that Sorkin wanted to use the setting to show people in the media engaging with major world issues, and it felt forced. On cable news, it’s at least natural, and when The Newsroom shows Will’s staff actually covering a breaking story, it feels like a different, better show. Sorkin benefits from the no-commercials length of HBO, which allows him (maybe the one new way The Newsroom is different for him) to use silence to build tension. The pacing is electric, the staccato dialogue rhythms are like a natural soundtrack; he captures the excitement of not knowing what comes next even when we do know (if you remember the news).

Aaron Sorkin Is Still Funny! For all the problems I have with this show, just like Studio 60, it proves again that line by line, Sorkin is one of the most gifted dialogue meisters on TV. When the BP oil spill breaks in the pilot, he tweaks the corporate damage-control cliché of repeating, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the missing crew.” “All our thoughts and prayers are with the missing crew!” Will shoots back irritably. “No one’s thoughts and prayers are with the fire.” (Yeah, that’s another one of those esprit d’escalier zingers I talked about above. But a really good one!) And Mac may spend much of her time talking like a well-dressed Columbia Journalism review column, but I did love it when she referred to Will’s many girlfriends as a “Netflix queue of crazy divorced women with digitally remastered breasts.”

Yes, there was a lot more bad than good in that list. But as The Newsroom has told me—and told me and told me and told me—not all stories have two equal sides.

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