4 minute read
James Poniewozik

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. It kicks off with one: Will is on a political-debate panel at Northwestern, biting his tongue to avoid offending anyone. But when a young female student asks him why the U.S. “is the greatest country in the world,” he snaps. “It’s not,” he says, reeling off a Wikipedia entry of stats–“27th in math! 22nd in science! 49th in life expectancy!”–to prove his point.

The three-minute tirade goes viral on YouTube and leads Will to change his life and his newscast. From now on, he won’t hold back his beliefs; he’ll call a lie a lie. And The Newsroom becomes one long Keith Olbermann Special Comment.

The West Wing, which also idealized a discredited institution, was hardly speech-shy, but it had richly drawn, plausible, memorable characters. The Newsroom has media-criticism delivery devices. As Will, Daniels doesn’t so much act as periodically explode, and he goes from jaded sellout to blustery idealist in less time than it took Clark Kent to change in a phone booth. He’s surrounded by an office of generic workaholics–with a rom-com subplot cribbed from West Wing’s Josh and Donna–and he jousts with a string of Tea Party politicians, tabloid journalists and wicked corporate suits who may as well be allegorical figures named Ignorance, Vanity and Avarice. (An unsettling proportion of these encounters involves Will condescendingly lecturing ditsy women.)

Sorkin’s dialogue, at least, is as nimble as ever. If you want to watch The Aaron Sorkin Eloquently Expresses Things You Already Believe Hour, this is your show. “Abolishing the minimum wage would create jobs,” Will (a registered Republican, we’re told repeatedly) barks at a Tea Party guest. “You know what else would? Slavery!”

As media criticism, The Newsroom makes excellent points: that stories don’t always have two sides (some have one, some five); that money pressures are a threat to serious news; that viewers don’t need a pal but an advocate. But there’s something off about the series’ basic premise that Will used to get huge ratings by being safe and anodyne, “the Jay Leno of news.” The past decade of red-meat cafeterias Fox and MSNBC argues the opposite. If anything, Will’s old don’t-piss-anyone-off approach is what has led CNN (a unit of Time Warner, like TIME and HBO) to dive in the prime-time ratings.

This blind spot is all the more puzzling since Fox, MSNBC and CNN all exist on the show, in which Will works for the fictional ACN channel. Sorkin’s best idea was to set The Newsroom in the real world (roughly two years ago) amid real news. In the second half of the pilot, as Will’s staff covers the breaking BP oil spill, the show really bursts to life. It’s tense, electric and genuinely stirring, giving us a gut sense of why this ugly job is worth doing.

But big news can’t break all the time, as today’s cable channels know well. In between, they prop up the ratings by dragging out the soapboxes. In that sense, The Newsroom will fit right in.

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