by Josh Johnson
Back in 1998, Aaron Sorkin created “Sports Night,” a half-hour dramedy about the behind-the-scenes of a SportsCenter-esque show, also called “Sports Night.” The show was canceled in 2000 after two seasons, and in its series finale, Sorkin makes his feelings known about the cancellation. A stranger tells executive producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) that “Anyone who can’t make money on ‘Sports Night’ should get out of the money-making business.” While the stranger is referring to the fictional show within the show, it is pretty obvious Sorkin was talking about his creation.
Twelve years later, it appears Sorkin is still a bit bitter about the cancellation of “Sports Night,” since his new show, HBO’s “The Newsroom,” is essentially the same thing. “The Newsroom,” which has aired three episodes and will air its fourth tonight, centers around the inner workings of a news show called “News Night” (sound familiar?). By just looking at the names of the two shows-within-a-show, Sorkin is basically saying “I want to remake ‘Sports Night,’ but instead of making it about something silly like sports, I’m going to tackle something important: the news.”
Unfortunately, Sorkin brought the worst aspect from “Sports Night” (its preachy tendencies) without bringing what mitigated it (the likeable characters). “Sports Night” wasn’t good because Sorkin shed some new light on the sports world. This was a show where the MLB trading deadline happened in February and where a character correctly predicted the entire first round of the NFL Draft when that has never happened in the history of mankind. However, these instances of inaccuracies and pretentiousness were forgiven because everyone (perhaps with the exception of Joshua Malina’s Jeremy Goodwin) was so likeable.
The characters in “The Newsroom” do not have that advantage. Anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is supposed to be a public jackass but a private mensch. Instead, he’s just a jackass. McAvoy’s executive producer, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), is supposed to be a proficient, experienced, and qualified professional due to her in-the-field coverage of the Iraq War. Yet every time she whines “We are going to do the news!” I want to throw something at the television. The one likeable character is Sam Waterston’s Charlie Skinner, but even his performance is cheapened by the fact that Robert Guillaume did it better twelve years ago as Isaac Jaffe on “Sports Night.”
Good television shows can exist without any truly likeable characters, but “The Newsroom’s” biggest problem, it’s preachy sermonizing, is exacerbating due to its character’s lack of likeability. But the show has two other major problems that deter it from being good television: its soundtrack, and the decision to set it two years in the past.
The problems with the soundtrack come up when a character is about to make the “Big Speech.” A soft piano begins as everything else goes quit. Check out this clip of Will’s speech at a student event at Northwestern (warning: HBO language present). The first part of the speech is actually kind of interesting, but then Will pauses. He becomes deathly serious as the piano comes in, and I for one cannot help but roll my eyes so hard that I feel my contacts might fall out. Similar to the unlikable characters, the soundtrack, which is basically a giant, flashing arrow saying “Listen up, this is important!,” just makes whatever drivel the characters are preaching that much more irritating.
Setting the series two years in the past, however, is the show’s biggest problem. The first three episodes have focused on the BP Oil Spill, Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, and the election of the 112th Congress. The third episode, which centered on the elections, most effectively proves “The Newsroom’s” biggest flaw. Will spends the majority of the episode lambasting the Tea Party as the 2010 midterm elections approach. Despite his efforts, the Republican Party, which included many members of the Tea Party, gains the majority in Congress, just like it did in real life. At the beginning to the episode, Will promises to use “News Night” as a program to correctly inform the American electorate. However, after spending so much time demonstrating the dangers of the Tea Party, the American electorate still votes many into Congress. So in addition to making the “News Night’s” ratings suffer, Will’s revamped version of the program ostensibly failed at what it set out to do. If Sorkin wants to make an alternative history, then he has to go in 100 percent. Instead, this new version of history has a news program that promises to make a difference in the political landscape, yet no one in this new version seems to care. So why should we?
“The Newsroom” should be a good show. This is a show that has Jeff Daniels, Dev Patel, and Allison Pill. Any show with the person who embodied Kim Pine should be better than what “The Newsroom” has aired. And despite Sorkin’s preaching, he’s still a damn good writer who creates some of the best dialogue you will ever hear. This is really the biggest disappointment surrounding “The Newsroom:” it should be great, but it’s struggling to even be good.
Josh Johnson is music editor. Email him at email@example.com.