In one of the many, many, many insufferably self-righteous moments in Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom, a cable news producer snaps at an underling: “I’d rather do a good show for a hundred people than a bad one for a million!”
What an odd, self-loathing reduction it is for a veteran TV writer like Sorkin to formulate his industry as a binary universe in which bad equals popular and good equals unpopular. Especially since The Newsroom itself offers a third alternative: a bad show that is going to have an audience of hundreds.
Monstrously misconceived and incompetently executed, powered by a high-octane blend of arrogance and contempt, The Newsroom is an epochal failure, a program destined for television’s all-time What Were They Thinking? list. Not since NASA’s first Vanguard rocket blew up on its launch pad in 1957 will Americans have seen anything crash and burn on television with such hellish spectacularity.
At the center of The Newsroom is a successful cable-news anchor named Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). Sneeringly derided by the rest of the chattering class as “the Jay Leno of news anchors,” he’s popular because his studied neutrality doesn’t offend anyone. Though seemingly complacent — he jokes that the Leno jibe only makes him “jealous of the size of Jay’s audience” — McAvoy suffers a mad-as-hell meltdown while appearing on a journalism-school panel.
He scoffs at the idea that America is anything special: “We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending.” He mocks liberals as losers, derides conservatives as stupid, and lectures the students that they’re the “worst-period-generation-period- ever-period.”
Certain he’s doomed, most of McAvoy’s staff deserts him to work for another anchor. Worse yet, the network hires MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer, Hugo), his ex-girlfriend — they haven’t see one another since a mysterious scorched-earth breakup three years earlier — to produce a reinvented version of his show that will “speak truth to stupid.”
By which she means Republicans and conservatives. The Newsroom is an ideological onslaught of biblical proportions, a ceaseless rant against Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, the Koch brothers, Allen West, Fox News, Michelle Bachmann and anyone or anything else to the right of political center.
The Newsroom is often so frenzied that it actually begins to resemble a paranoid, right-wing vision of the news media. Newscast planning meetings resemble Democratic Party war rooms, where staffers madly compete with ideas about how to lampoon Republicans. On one newscast, McAvoy compares the tea party to the bloodthirsty plant from The Little Shop of Horrors and says he won’t stop attacking it “until it goes back to its planet.”
Leading off another meeting, he announces that his show will no longer pursue either fairness or balance, but will simply present what it determines to be the objective truth about, well, everything. “Who are we to make these decisions?” he says, fixing viewers with a stern gaze. “We’re the media elite.” Glenn Beck’s wettest dream can’t compete with stuff like that.