Aaron Sorkin gets mad as hell with The Newsroom
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the disaffected cable news anchor in Aaron Sorkin’s highly-anticipated new series, The Newsroom, (premiering at 9:00pm, Sunday, June 24th, on HBO) owes a large debt to Howard Beale.
After all, it was Beale (Peter Finch), in Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 Network, who set the standard for the newsman meltdown. Bemoaning the state of the world, Beale admonished us to get up, go to our windows, and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
McAvoy’s Howard Beale moment opens the first episode of The Newsroom, and his resulting rant on the end of the American Century is a marvel to behold. It’s a rousing tirade, and after it goes viral across the Web, network president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), decides to retool the evening news and give McAvoy a much bigger soapbox.
While it may be an auspicious beginning, it’s still difficult not to compare The Newsroom with Sorkin’s magnum opus, The West Wing. And, though both shows are similar in form and character, The Newsroom—its opening scene not withstanding—sadly isn’t in the same league.
Not to mention that Will McAvoy is no Jed Bartlet, the idealistic (and idealized) president who held The West Wing together. In fact, McAvoy isn’t even all that likeable; he’ll be a difficult character to hang an entire show on. And the fact that he’s presented as a Republican who “only seems liberal” comes across as little more than a cynical inoculation, of sorts, against the usual charges of Sorkin’s liberal bias.
As in The West Wing, there’s plenty of speechifying, but here it frequently plays as heavy-handed. Perhaps it’s just a sign of our fractious times, but The Newsroom is a little too preachy for its own good.
Still, when it does hit its mark, The Newsroom can be exceptional. The dialogue is tight and rapid-fire (a Sorkin hallmark), presuming a good deal of intelligence upon the viewer. And real-life events are worked into the storyline, providing a nuanced context for both the show and the events themselves.
The supporting cast serves as a excellent foil for McAvoy’s crankiness, and helps lighten the tone. Emily Mortimer, as McAvoy’s executive producer (and ex-girlfriend) Mackenzie MacHale is a standout: talented, driven, and with a great sense of comic timing, she’s the glue that holds the newscast, and the show itself, together. If McAvoy is a modern-day Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of modern politics (a running joke on the show), then MacHale is his Sancho Panza.
Sam Waterston is another bright spot, obviously having more fun than he’s had in years. His network president, a well-lubricated Ben Bradlee-type, cheerily takes the battle to the network’s owner (Jane Fonda playing, essentially, her ex-husband Ted Turner), while serving as both the newscast’s conscience and its guardian angel.
If the first few episodes are any indication, The Newsroom has more in common with Broadcast News than its aspirational Network, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get there. The pieces are all in place, all it needs is to get serious about taking itself less seriously.