Why HBO's "The Newsroom" Will Never Live Up to Expectations


Time has a fantastically lethal way of eroding the skills of creative minds. Athletes lose a step, actors are never as pristine as they are in their late 20s, and an album such as Steel Wheels is a far cry from Exile on Main Street. Outliers such as David O. Russell and George Clooney would disagree, but once you get to the top of the mountain it's more than a little bit difficult to stay there.

All of this brings us to show runner Aaron Sorkin, whose current brain child, The Newsroom, is likely going to be picked up for a third season. The show examines the lives of the people who work at Atlantis Cable News (or ACN, a fictitious major news outlet) and its flagship news broadcast News Night.

Jeff Daniels plays an amalgamation of tough lefty news pundits (but he's a Republican!), his ex (Emily Mortimer) is his new producer, Sam Waterson is the half-in-the-bag news chief, Jane Fonda is the tough owner, and lots of potential up-and-comers fill in the rest of the cast.

Critics have been less than lukewarm on the series thus far, and if you've watched the Season 2 finale, you pretty much know what you've got. If you haven't, well, you have been forewarned about the show people love to "hate-watch."

For those who have watched even a single episode of Sorkin's four seasons of the transcendent West Wing (and the three very good seasons that followed), watching The Newsroom is a little bit like being awake for an amputation of one of your own limbs. You hope it's going to work out, but your world-class surgeon decided to show up high to work.

Of course, The Newsroom creator would know all about that last part. The West Wing lasted for seven seasons, but Sorkin was unceremoniously axed as a show-runner after he was forced to admit that he had been using cocaine while lording over NBC's new marquee show.

The West Wing is primarily remembered for its snappy dialogue (you think the drugs had anything to do with it?) along well as its ability to effortlessly execute long tracking scenes. It also came out during a time when television was beginning to transition into its so-called "golden age".

The idea that show's dialogue was its best attribute is more than valid, but it arguably might not have even been the show's greatest triumph. What really stood out about The West Wing (particularly when Sorkin was leading the way) was that it was a perfect marriage of ambition and execution.

The writing and cinematography (for lack of a better word) covered the execution, but it was the ideological ambition that was the show's beating heart. Shows like 24 (scary) and Scandal (sexy) do a good job of glossing up the Oval Office, but The West Wing was one of the first shows to make the office and people feel real.

There was a hint of that realness in the pilot of The Newsroom, but that pilot didn't really define a clear direction for the show other than "Hey we're trying to fix the news!" The pilot of The West Wing, on the other hand made two things radiantly clear from the get go.

First, the show's characters (like everyone) had personal problems and histories, but these issues would not be engine of the program. Instead, these problems would often be the motivation for characters to take action (or not) within the larger context of the show and it's plot.

In that pilot, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (played to perfection by Bradley Whitford) is fresh off lambasting the religious right on national television. In the very same episode, Lyman is given the private clearance card to the president's security bunker in the event of some type of apocalyptic event. Viewers then learn that Lyman's whole family died in a fire and that he was the sole survivor. Thus, he ultimately is unable to accept the clearance card.

In less than an hour Sorkin is able to paint a beautifully grey canvas of moral contradiction. Lyman is exasperated at the notion that he did anything wrong in regards to offending a large group of people, but is simultaneously distraught over the mere possibility of leaving his friends behind, even in a hypothetical scenario.

In his post-Newsroom commentaries Sorkin has stated that the purpose of all of the excessive inter-personal turmoil has been building towards season 2. Specifically, how all of these ridiculous things would make ACN look when presented in the context of a very serious legal situation. Really? You needed to waste 15 hours of people's times to prove what The West Wing did in one episode?

There is a second major point of The West Wing pilot that stands in contrast to The Newsroom. When President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) pointedly reprimands the right wing group that has come to the White House to demand concessions (after they sent threats to his daughter), it became clear that Sorkin's White House vehicle is going to be speeding in the left lane the whole way.

The show makes very little attempt to hide its political lean, but was at its best when it tactfully attacked itself. Jeff Daniels is barely a believable Republican floating in a dark blue sea, but there is nothing more real, or hilarious than a know-it-all Rob Lowe getting eviscerated by a cute young Republican staffer on Meet the Press.

Lowe, who was charming and in the midst of a career comeback, received top billing for the first two years, but eventually got too big for his britches and quit. Lowe's exit came at roughly the same time Sorkins' did, but the show's creator had laid such a clear blueprint for success that The West Wing continued for 3 more seasons without missing a beat.

The Newsroom has a talented cast, but could it survive the loss of a talent like Emily Mortimer, who does more with less than anyone on the show? Has Sorkin really laid a road map for others to follow if he suddenly took off? The answer to both of those questions is probably no.

One could make the argument that Sorkin just isn't as creative without the frenetic lifestyle caused by the number of drugs he was taking in the late 90s and early 2000s. That argument however, falls apart too under the weight of the success of The Social Network.

The fictitious movie about the founding of Facebook was a comeback of sorts for Sorkin, who co-wrote the script. After spending all those years trapped in uninsurable exile, it was clear that he still had the gift for crafting a smart dialogue for strong characters.

What is most interesting about The Social Network is that it portrayed Mark Zuckerberg as a petulant child whose ambition was driven by insecurity. The second part is probably true, but like Zuckerburg, Sorkin may have revealed a little bit of his own petulance. The man responsible for writing A Few Good Men (on cocktail napkins no less) claims that he was affected by the criticism of The Newsroom's mediocre first season. If that is indeed the case, the shows' second season hasn't provided enough evidence to change the jury's minds.

The most frustrating thing about the Newsroom isn't what it gets wrong (there are plenty of problems), it's what it gets right. For all of its silliness and inaccuracy, The Newsroom has had its moments.

Knockout performances by Mortimer and Dev Patel, tightly directed episodes concerning the collapse of the Genoa story, and the exposition of how difficult it its for people who work at a place like ACN all make fans of Sorkin yearn for what his current project has the potential to be.

When you have some time to spare, go and watch a montage of Tiger Woods from the first 10 years of his career. Whatever you may feel about Woods personally, and whether you like sports is irrelevant. What is relevant is how dominant Woods once was at a game that might be the most mentally challenging of any sport there is.

For a time, Woods was the best athlete in any sport, maybe ever. After watching him control every aspect of his craft to perfection, it's easy to wonder what the hell happened to him (that is another column entirely). 

Sorkin's four seasons of The West Wing were that good once too, and unlike a pro athlete, it seems improbable that a human mind's ingenuity could regress over the same time span. Yet, here we are.

Much like Woods, Sorkin now faces the problem of competing against himself. His successes with A Few Good Men, The West Wing, and The Social Network have already cemented his place as a an all-time great screenwriter. With his legacy secure he should have used the opportunity at a network like HBO to try and re-raise the bar by really examining a truly complex industry. 

If he crashed his new car going 100 miles an hour, so what? It sure beats being broken down in the emergency lane.