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
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.
Where and when Sorkin developed this preposterously Manichean vision of politics is a tantalizing question. One of the highlights of his last backstage-TV show, S tudio 60 On The Sunset Strip
, was the busted romance between a cynical atheist TV producer and his evangelical Christian star, reportedly modeled on the real-life relationship between Sorkin and Kristin Chenoweth on the set of The West Wing
. Though Sorkin could easily have given himself all the good lines, he instead offered a heartbreaking honest portrayal in which both characters got a fair chance to explain their worldviews. Even The West Wing
though making clear where its liberal heart lay, was far more nuanced than The Newsroom
Sorkin’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of a middle ground in The Newsroom
extends far beyond politics. Journalism itself is portrayed as a choice between weighty eat-your-vegetables news and mindless narcissism. You’re either an investigative reporter or a gossip columnist, nothing in between; you can read statistics on Federal Reserve monetary policy or the funny papers, not both. “We don’t do good television, we do the news,” McHale proudly proclaims.
That’s a stunted view of the news, though perhaps not a surprising one from a character who insists her newscast will only run stories that include “information we need in the voting booth.” Word of a hurricane bearing down on your city or a cure for cancer are apparently to be left to less nobly evolved forms of journalism like the Internet.
And need we even discuss the central conceit of The Newsroom
, that the problem with cable news is that the anchors aren’t opinionated enough? Surely you’ve often gone to bed at night wondering what Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity really think behind their stoic masks of objectivity.
If Sorkin’s view of journalism is too Stalinist, his perspective on romance is way too frothy. The Newsroom
’s political crusades are conducted against a backdrop of piquant office love affairs styled after quippy 1940s comedies like Adam’s Rib
. But Sorkin’s idea of a comic romantic misadventure is when your significant other cheats on you, then sends an email announcing it to everybody in the office. Somebody should tell him that’s not funny; it’s cruel. It’s time we spoke truth to stupid.