Broken News: HBO Show Rejects Reality

Looking back on veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s (“The Social Network,” “The West Wing”) dramatic comedy The Newsroom, it seems increasingly obvious that, even at its best, it was just not a good show. But despite the flurry of negative reviews it received, the show was quickly renewed for a second season due to its commercial achievements.

So why have critics claimed that HBO’s biggest hit since Game of Thrones “chokes on its own sanctimony” (Alessandra Stanley,New York Times) and is “a dramatically inert mess” (Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post)? We should be both surprised and disturbed by that disconnect, a disparity that necessitates a little exploration to discover what The Newsroom is really all about.

I won’t take issue here, as other critics have done, with the things that make the show merely bad. I can get past its wanton hostility towards women, the slapstick gags that derail any attempt at seriousness and even Aaron Sorkin’s infuriating habit of writing long-winded, unrealistic verbal jousts that largely define his characters’ interactions.

To be truly terrible — as The Newsroom is — there must exist a sense of ambition gone horribly wrong — goals set and unmet, promises made and broken. Make no mistake: The Newsroom was born of lofty ambitions. Sorkin set out to argue that an informed news media, one more concerned with truth than giving the viewers what they want, has the potential to seriously impact our society for the better.

Unfortunately, the show’s complete inability to realize this argument is the source of both its commercial success and critical failure.

Sorkin lays out his thesis in the first three minutes of the series, with an opening scene that is among the best in all of television. Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, “Looper,” “Away We Go”), a witty yet inoffensive news anchor, unexpectedly lashes out at a clueless college student, who asks him the perennial platitude, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?”

Clearly exasperated, McAvoy stares out into the stunned audience and spots his executive producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer, “Hugo,” “30 Rock”), holding a sign that reads, “It’s not … but it can be.” The stage it set for Will and Mackenzie, along with a motley crew of staffers, to fix breaking news, and hopefully, change the world.

On this count, The Newsroom fulfills its promise. McAvoy reports on the stories of our recent past — the Gulf Oil Spill, the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden, among others — with admirable insight and sobriety, which real world anchors seem to lack.

The premise is nice in theory, and probably could have been in practice, had Sorkin and his writers not squandered the potential present in that opening. Those first few minutes were so great because they made us uncomfortable.

McAvoy’s indictment of America forced us to confront the legitimacy of claims to our exceptionalism. And that’s the thing about great art: It doesn’t make us feel better about ourselves, it makes us re-evaluate the things we believe about ourselves and about the world.

This is why The Newsroom falls so short. In every moment we feel uncomfortable, something happens to ease our doubts and assure us that everything will turn out alright.

In the worst episode of the series, “I Will Fix You,” Sorkin juxtaposes his characters’ needs for each other against the backdrop of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting of January 2011. This episode underscores the fragility of the Gifford’s life, but also Will’s need for Mackenzie and her need for him. A moment of senseless violence, in essence, is exploited for romantic gain. A memory whose resurgence should make us uncomfortable is hidden behind the main characters’ blossoming romance. Instead of reliving horror, we smile at love.

At some point, it becomes clear that The Newsroom is just the kind of show its characters are arguing against: a show more concerned with giving the audience what they want than what they need.

I realize that some of this criticism is unfair. Sorkin and his writers set out to make a show about the potential for news to educate the American public, while emphasizing our own tumultuous political climate. Sorkin shows us how the stories of the past two years should have been covered, but without an alternate timeline to show us how great news could have benefited our society. The entire show feels doomed from the outset — a victim of ambition gone off the rails. The Newsroom’s most powerful claim, that news like McAvoy’s could have made us a better country, is nullified by history itself. And even Sorkin can’t banter his way out of that argument.

— By William Partin