The little miracle of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing was that it felt like being in a lively civics and government class; Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet could make pronouncements about the nature of democracy ring with common sense, which is one reason it could become a broadcast-network hit. By contrast, Sorkin’s The Newsroom too often feels like sitting in a tense workplace and having the boss yell at you for an hour: What he’s saying may be wise, but you wish he and the true believers chattering around him would stop sucking the air out of the room.
The Newsroom features a superb performance by Jeff Daniels, who stars here as Will McAvoy, anchor of News Night, a down-the-middle prime-time cable show that prides itself on objectivity and is thus slowly shriveling Will’s soul and the show’s viewership. For Sorkin, the greatest insult he can muster is to repeatedly compare Will’s long-running success to Jay Leno’s. But then the network hires an ex-lover of Will’s — journalist and producer MacKenzie McHale, played by Emily Mortimer — and News Night is revamped. Will and MacKenzie debate ethics and their old love affair; they hire a young, eager staff (including Alison Pill, Dev Patel, and Olivia Munn) that debates ethics and their old love affairs. And Sam Waterston is around to embody old-news ethics. The Newsroom boldly wants to smother you in both ethical debate and its own self-reflected glory.
Whatever else it is, The Newsroom is — and I write this without sarcasm — noble and earnest. Sorkin puts forth many of the same messages being delivered nightly by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and (to take a show that more closely resembles what Will and MacKenzie want theirs to be) MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. But he wants to emphasize how the news media have failed us by pandering, retreating, and colluding with business interests from which they ought to be independent — and he wants to condemn the Real Housewives franchise in the bargain. His shotgun speeches spray everything.
In a sense, everything The Newsroom has to offer about independence and creativity in TV programming was already said by someone on another Aaron Sorkin show. In 1999, on the short-lived Sports Night, William H. Macy delivered a spine-tingling speech about Philo Farnsworth, the invention of television, and corporate leadership that says what The Newsroom says, but in under three minutes. Some of Will’s speechifying could be snipped in favor of sorely needed development of the female characters, who at times come off as startlingly foolish and callow. I yearn for some of the same things Sorkin does: more earnestness, more idealism; I’m on his side. I just wish his side were less repetitive and self-righteous. B-