Sorkin's 'The Newsroom': What's the verdict?

Monday, June 25, 2012 - 10:00pm

HBO's new series from Aaron Sorkin, "The Newsroom," sets us up to believe that TV news anchors establish the tone for national debate - good vs. evil and substance vs. fluff.

"Newsroom," which premiered on HBO Sunday, revolves around the fictional TV network ACN, with Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) as the anchor of the primetime newscast "News Night."

In the premiere episode, we caught up with McAvoy as he blew his "offensive to no one" cover with a tirade on the ways in which the United States is most definitely not the greatest country in the world.

The rant, which happened at a panel held at Northwestern University, was immediately all over social media.

Will was sent on a forced vacation. When he returned, he learned that almost his entire staff had departed to work at a new show, and his new executive producer is ex-girlfriend Mackenzie MacHale (played by Emily Mortimer).

He's not too happy about this -- but it gives us the framework for creator and writer Sorkin's "utopian news broadcast."

Mackenzie, returning from 26 months reporting from the Middle East, has been craving the comforts of the newsroom. But she also has a mission: She wants to push Will from his comfortable "affable" anchor chair into becoming an anchor who will "speak truth to stupid" and create the "best news on TV."

This is the much-discussed debate in the real world of the news today, with Aaron Sorkin suggesting that the media can do better than reality TV and shouting matches.

Sorkin used the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast as his vehicle for exploring this dichotomy. Will had to decide between covering the spill as the "search and rescue" for rig workers, or take the riskier route of depending on two sources who claim the explosion will lead to one of the worst environmental catastrophes in history.

But Sorkin doesn't explore this divide as much as he plays into it. All the choices in "The Newsroom" seem to be black-and-white: Ratings or integrity? Blandness or intelligence?

The acting is excellent, but the characters often end up in shouting matches that seem to be more about dueling personalities than principles. Isn't that what Sorkin is demanding we avoid?

As someone who works in the business, the show gets much of the newsroom culture right, and it's especially satisfying to watch as the machine whirs into action around breaking news. But while idealism definitely exists in the news world, some of the characters also seemed out of touch with the reality of the news cycle.

Iconic newsmen did hold sway over public opinion - when watching the nightly newscast was the primary source for daily news. But news today is cycled through endless Twitter accounts, blogs, YouTube videos and commentary -- and TV news anchors are but one part of the national conversation.

For me, Sorkin's championing of smart news coverage felt at odds with his characters black-and-white views, leaving little room for subtlety or complexity.

But I'm hoping that as the show develops it will more fully explore the nuances of the struggle between presenting news as entertaining vs. informative. I'd really like to see Sorkin's characters spend more time on the motivation behind the jump, and less on the shouting matches.

The Daily Beast's Andrew Romano wasn't sold on the series premiere.

"While Sorkin is right about the false bias toward balance that plagues the postmodern press, his decision to center the series on the real events of 2010 prevents him from dramatizing how that bias could actually be combated," Romano wrote.

And The Guardian's Michael Wolff wrote: "We don't really know what news is anymore. The people to whom we are delivering the news, not only know it already, but they have shared it at a light speed that the news business itself, built on its efficiency, can never match. ... So why is Sorkin here, treating today's television news business as though this were 1976."

What'd you think of "The Newsroom"?

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