Aaron Sorkin’s Quirks Infect Newsroom

HBO's show, debuting Sunday, is no West Wing.

Given the creator, cast and theme of The Newsroom, I was totally ready to love Aaron Sorkin’s new drama about a cable news network. I was wrong. Newsroom is impossible to love.

Debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO, the massively hyped Newsroom stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, top anchor at fictitious cable network ACN. His outburst at a J-school panel changes the direction of his career from a bland “Jay Leno” to a take-no-prisoners newsman of the Old School.

Like Keith Olbermann—whom Sorkin repeatedly has denied was his muse for the character—McAvoy is a smart, ill-tempered, narcissistic prick. His staff loathes him.

Sam Waterston plays his boss, Charlie Skinner, head of the news division. He drinks a lot. Behind McAvoy’s back, Skinner fires his staff and brings in MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a seasoned producer and McAvoy’s ex, to revamp his show. McAvoy’s venomous behavior toward her belies his true feelings.

So far, so good, right? Not really.

Sorkin, as usual, writes like he’s getting paid by the word. Newsroom characters don’t actually talk to one another so much as exchange monologues that last longer than most network sitcoms. If people actually spoke as rapidly and as verbosely as Sorkin characters, we’d all have to carry oxygen tanks.

Equally annoying, Sorkin has a habit of treating every speech like a teachable moment. Newsroom is no exception. McAvoy and McHale, in particular, are saddled with lines that sound like civics lessons. Together, they are going to create a civil, intelligent newscast worthy of Murrow and Cronkite! It’s not too late, America!

In the opening scene, during which McAvoy’s explosion takes place, he cites reams of statistics that someone in his line of work could not possibly know. It’s an obvious homage to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, triggered by the moderator having goaded him into answering a student question about why America was the greatest country on earth. It’s not, he said, and here’s why.

McAvoy’s staff is populated by actors who don’t look old enough to drink—John Gallagher, Jr. as McHale’s senior producer; Alison Pill as the naïve intern; Dev Patel as the Internet geek. They are all painfully recognizable types, with predictable storylines not worthy of the brainchild of The West Wing.

On the other end of the scale, Waterston, one of my favorites, looks a tad old. He punches out his lines like every breath will be his last. Daniels, however, is in his element, alternately droll and seething, childish and grown up. Jane Fonda, who shows up in later episodes, eats the scenery as the tough-as-titanium owner of ACN’s parent company.

Despite Newsroom’s many flaws, news junkies will not be able to resist this show. For one thing, bad Aaron Sorkin is better than much of what passes for good TV these days. For another, series about TV news are rare. The last good one, Sorkin’s Sports Night, ended 12 years ago.

Bottom line: I don’t love Newsroom, but I’ll be watching.