This job shouldn't be this easy. But Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" (premieres Sunday, June 24 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO) offers such a target-rich environment that the phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" does spring to mind.
The biggest problem with "The Newsroom" -- and it's one of many, many problems -- is that its goals and its narrative strategies are in direct conflict with each other. The result is a dramatically inert, infuriating mess, one that wastes a fine cast to no demonstrable purpose, unless you consider giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight is a worthwhile purpose.
The ironies abound, but one of the central ironies is this: The lead character on this show, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), bemoans the fact that much of the public discourse has become an unsubtle shoutfest, yet "The Newsroom" displays all the subtlety of a jackhammer set to maximum or a terrier on speed. Characters talk at each other, they constantly preach to their colleagues, and McAvoy frequently fulminates at his viewers at length. These soliloquies, even allowing for the familiar tics and tricks of Sorkinese, become deadening over time.
Ultimately, the show is the worst possible vehicle for promulgating the values and beliefs that the core characters profess. With shrill, self-righteous friends like these, journalism doesn't need enemies.
The speechifiers on this show, who include Emily Mortimer as Will's executive producer/former girlfriend MacKenzie McHale, aren't really people as such; they function as Sorkin Belief Delivery Systems. Don't try to look for consistency in their behavior, because you won't find it. (Another irony: Will and his colleagues constantly complain about the lack of professionalism and decorum in the news business, yet they consistently act in ways that makes me lose respect for them as professionals). Sorkin isn't that interested in sketching out anything more than vague character traits, and though he makes some gestures toward building star-crossed romances, the plots on this show, if you can call them that, are half-formed at best.
Don't be trivial, television viewers! "The Newsroom" isn't about to stoop to dumb stunts like telling stories or exploring the nuances of human nature. No, these people exist to Tell Us What's What, especially Will, yet another middle-aged Sorkin hero who bears the heavy burden of being smarter than everyone else. Can he help it that he's fated to save the stupid people of America from themselves? It's not easy, you know! I think we're meant to think that Will is a flawed, yet brave man, but I found him to be a smug, self-absorbed windbag.
Perhaps I'm the only one immune to the charm of his lectures (he actually says, more than once, "I'm on a mission to civilize!"). There's a scene in the third episode in which Will makes yet another What I Believe speech, and the camera swoons through dozens of upturned faces in the newsrooms of Will's cable network. These people don't look like fellow employees, they appear to be acolytes in the Cult of Will, dazed at the good fortune that allows them to be in the presence of greatness. Maybe that moment would have made sense if Sorkin had given us believable examples of the man's personal charm or magnetism. No such luck. Why is MacKenzie still hung up on him? No idea. Apparently he "had this way of doing things." That's the entirety of the explanation we get.
There is a way to enjoy "The Newsroom," one that doesn't necessarily involve drinking Scotch every time someone references the heroic ways in which Will's show (all by itself) is keeping the American electorate informed: You can view it as a long-form "Saturday Night Live" skit parodying Sorkin's worst instincts. It has the usual traits of his shows -- the walk-and-talks, the "noble" male savior, the sassy gal pal who pines for the hero, the eager young staffers, the long chunks of dialogue about current events, the lecturing (or hectoring) tone. Everything about it is overblown or undercooked to the point of being laughable; a palpable and occasionally comical cognitive dissonance arose between the admiration the swelling soundtrack told me I was supposed to feel and the buzzing annoyance I actually felt during the four episodes I watched. Even aesthetically, the whole thing feels off: The cinematography in Will's airless newsroom is pallid and clumsy, and the interactions of the characters feel flat and contrived.
Another central irony: These characters constantly reference their love for the truth, yet so much about "The Newsroom" rings false.