Does Aaron Sorkin's much anticipated new drama do for the newsroom what the West Wing did for the White House?
UK air date: Tuesdays, Sky Atlantic, 10pm, from 10 July
Throughout its seven NBC seasons, The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin's counter-narrative to the Dubya years, was lovebombed for its dramatic innovation and whip-smart walk-chat. Sorkin was held aloft as a liberal icon in a country where the Left like their heroes as shouty and obvious as the Right like theirs. The West Wing was born in 1999, the same year as The Sopranos, but before the cable onslaught that would frame American TV as the best in the world in the noughties.
For all its dewy narrative freshness, there was a hint of sanctimony about Sorkin's writing that was easy to forgive under the Neo-Con cloud of its TV life. Without that ominous governmental tent-top hanging over Sorkin's newest drama, The Newsroom, his preachy, patronising, woolly idealism lays more nakedly exposed. This is a reflex drama against Fox News, informed by a tinted nostalgia at how American television journalism once stood for truth and integrity, not a scramble for ratings and deference to big business.
That's what you'd guess TV news was like before Murdoch, if you believe The Newsroom. We're told, with nary a blush on Sorkin's face, that old-time anchor, Ed Murrow, single-handedly put a stop to the McCarthy witch hunts, and that CBS's Walter Cronkite (both men flicker in the title sequence, like monochromic Gods from the distant past) axed the Vietnam War, with a few killer soundbites.
Like Oliver Stone's posthumous deification of JFK, this is wobbly history and undermines most of The Newsroom's other grand points about the media's stellar standing. Apart from the gruffly cynical Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), The Newsroom is chock with perky idealists, all sprung from the loins of All The President's Men and Network, who seem to think they're the only media flies who give a shit. "We don't do good television, we do the news!" McAvoy's new producer (and former squeeze) Mackenzie McHale says when he suggests leading with some sensational footage of a sinking oil rig. So many lines seem designed to elicit a "Whoop!" from Sorkin's East Coast constituency that The Newsroom sometimes seems to be written from a collection of Noam Chomsky Christmas cracker quotes.
The series orbits around McAvoy and McHale, and while Jeff Daniels is a snug fit for the irascible and career-weary McAvoy, Emily Mortimer is calamitously miscast as McHale. Before we even meet her, we're told she has a bullets and mortar-strewn reporting history to rival Kate Adie. The part obviously shouts out for a Kelly McGillis or Faye Dunaway type, someone who can break and shake balls, but Mortimer's coffee-eyed cutsieness doesn't square with her rep as an in-the-field badass. But then neither does her office babble with her colleagues, which, when she's not giving a public service sermon, is mostly relationship gossip or quasi Sex in the City yak. "I'm taking you shopping!!" she squeals when one of her female staff members does something that impresses her. Girl power, etc.
McAvoy is the character with the most amount of shading. He's a moderate Republican, who, once upon a time, would have reviled what the GOP has become, but he's slipped slowly into a middle-age shrug, a man barely connected to caring anymore. At the beginning of the first episode, he's alienated most of his staff, and is on a tight leash, after an uncharacteristic burst of truth-spewing at a journalism-school panel. By the beginning of the second episode, spurred on by one of McHale's many speeches telling him off for giving up the fight, he's learning his team's names, one by one. "Gary. Kendra. Gary's a smart black guy who is not afraid to criticise Obama. Kendra got double 800s on her S.A.T.s, makes Gary crazy. I studied." Whether it's Asperger's or general fiftysomething saltiness, McAvoy gives the show bite, because he's the only one you feel is culled from anything like a real working newsroom.
What dulls The Newsroom of much of its potential power is Sorkin's peculiar decision to locate it in 2010. So all the news stories the fictitious Atlantic Cable News covers are real ones - the BP oil spill, the rise of the Tea Party, the Arizona immigration bill, Sarah Palin, Obamacare - but their vintage gives The Newsroom a faded, inessential quality. The buzz about news is that it's current, and even a drama about news has to trade off that fizz of now-ness.
"This is a new show, and there are new rules," McHale says at one point (and then over and over again, using slightly different words). Yet there's little new about The Newsroom. It's not likely to lose Fox News' executives any sleep, being tucked away in the rarified corners of HBO, where the already converted can nod in furious agreement.
There are eight more episodes of The Newsroom to go, and Jane Fonda, who's always a draw, has yet to turn up as ACN's CEO, Leona Lansing. Once the characters settle down and don't need to lecture each other so much, The Newsroom may relax into itself. Inbetween the smug self-righeousness, there's enough Sorkin sputter that it never sags.
But unlike his starry impressions of news anchors from the golden age, The Newsroom isn't likely to have the influence it clearly yearns to have. No more influence than when the American public voted again for George W Bush in 2005, despite Sorkin, speaking through The West Wing's President Bartlet, showing them how this Government thing should be done.
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