sat 13/07/2024

The Newsroom, Sky Atlantic | reviews, news & interviews

The Newsroom, Sky Atlantic

The Newsroom, Sky Atlantic

Aaron Sorkin's latest show is so serious it's ridiculous

Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, cable news anchorman and moral crusader

American critics haven't been too kind to Aaron Sorkin's new HBO series about a cable TV news programme, for a variety of reasons. At least they had the advantage of understanding the intricate partisan infighting of American politics which forms the show's backdrop, and which will be baffling to many British viewers.

On the other hand, nobody is likely to have much trouble recognising the A Few Good Men view of history familiar from previous Sorkin milestones such as The West Wing and, uh, A Few Good Men.

This time around, Sorkin's hero is Will McAvoy, a former lawyer turned veteran TV anchor on News Night, broadcast by New York's fictional Atlantis Cable Network (ACN). He claims to be a moderate Republican, which in Sorkinland means he's a liberal with a short temper. The opening episode found McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sitting on a Question Time-style panel at Northwestern University, glibly trying to avoid giving a personal opinion about anything as rival conservative and liberal guests snapped and snarled alongside him. Eventually he couldn't hold it in any longer, and launched into an impassioned tirade about how America wasn't great any more, had lost its soul and sold its integrity.

The series is the story of how he tries to redress that grievous state of affairs by casting aside such tasteless frivolities as ratings and advertising revenues and recreating his news programme as a beacon of truth, justice and editorial independence, and "reclaiming journalism as an honourable profession." The opening titles reference such historic icons of American TV news as Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and their significance is spelled out by News Director Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, pictured above), who's presented as the infinitely wise and wizened Ghost of News Values Past: "Murrow had an opinion, and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had an opinion, and that was the end of Vietnam." The TV critics had an opinion too, and that was the end of...

We digress. In his epic task, Will McAvoy is assisted by his producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), supposedly a battle-seasoned news veteran fresh from bitter months on the front line of the War on Terror. It's odd, then, that Mortimer plays her like a scatterbrained sitcom ditz, more concerned with obsessing over her past and obviously unfinished relationship with McAvoy than such current affairs staples as politics and the economy. However, she does find time to beat Will over the head with Sorkin's improving messages, as when she exhorts him to "be the moral leader of this show! Be the integrity!"

These wild variations in tone teem through the show, as life in the newsroom lurches from Friends-style larkishness and boastful wordplay to grand displays of solemnity as Sorkin builds real-life major news stories into the drama (a bold idea, but not necessarily a sensible one). So far we've had the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig crisis, Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants, the shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a running theme of the corruption of the Tea Party movement, with the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and the killing of Osama bin Laden to come. Last night's episode homed in on the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, alongside victimisation of public sector workers in Wisconsin (Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale, pictured below).

With a schedule that heavy it's a wonder that any episode ever ends - and sometimes it feels as if they never will - so you can understand why Sorkin wanted to lighten the burden with humour. Unfortunately the jokes are too often of the self-referential sort, as if the writer is sitting back in his chair admiring his own work. There was some of this last night, as McHale sought a crash course in economics from News Night's ridiculously glamorous economics guru, Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munns). "It's not like I need to know everything," said McHale. "You'll be in no danger of that," retorted Sabbith. "Joke well crafted," said McHale. "Thank you," said Sabbith.

We had pratfalls and slapstick too, with producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr) being hit twice in the face with a door and then banging his head, while other characters suffered a sprained shoulder and broken fingers. There was also a long, laborious riff on the American football movie Rudy, with the plot being explained in depth during the daily news conference, and then reworked as the hideously sentimental finale of the episode. Seasoned Sorkin-watchers warn that a key danger sign is when he starts quoting from Gilbert & Sullivan, though so far I've only spotted nods to Gypsy and Man of La Mancha

Somehow Jeff Daniels manages to tower over all the implausibilities and absurdities with a truly heavyweight performance as McAvoy, skilfully balancing vanity, insecurity and self-loathing with convincing gravitas. He's pretty much out on his own though, except for some carefully-rationed guest appearances by Jane Fonda (pictured above) as baleful network owner Leona Lansing, who adds a caustic dose of realpolitik even if her name does make her sound like one of Superman's girlfriends. Fonda was once married to CNN supremo Ted Turner, of course. Wonder what he thinks of The Newsroom.

Life in the newsroom lurches from 'Friends'-style larkishness and boastful wordplay to grand displays of solemnity

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You are spot on. Jeff Daniels is acting his socks off and - in spite of an exceptional cast - there is not a believable character in this show. The shared polemic of 'For a Few Good Men' and 'It's a Wonderful Life' may be worthy and even timeless, but in hands as clumsy as this it becomes ersatz and self-defeating, certainly to us cynical, world-weary Brits. In spite of that, I can't help finding 'The Newsroom' compelling viewing (it's firmly on series-record) and having read your review, I suspect this is probably due to Daniels' bravura performance and his ability to shatter our disbelief.

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