Fresh off winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin probably wasn’t expecting to become the Internet’s new whipping boy after the first couple episodes of his latest TV drama The Newsroom. In addition to this damning supercut of self-plagiarism in his work, critics have been quick to throw around words like “sanctimonious,” “condescending” and “smug.” Even Paste’s Aaron Channon chastises Sorkin for his “overwritten monologues.”
And indeed, the pilot opened with its protagonist, the prototypical non-threatening anchor (“the Jay Leno of news”) snapping at the ludicrous nature of TV news in a lengthy diatribe that’s as subtle as placing shows like Crossfire in a set of cross hairs. He launched his last and least successful (and underrated) show, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, in a similar fashion with Judd Hirsch interrupting his sketch comedy’s cold open, saying, “We’re all being lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry, that’s just thrown in the towel on any endeavor to do anything that doesn’t include the courting of 12-year-old boys. Not even the smart 12-year-olds—the stupid ones, the idiots. Of which there are plenty, thanks in no small measure to this network.”
It was a great monologue and true. It didn’t matter that it was an obvious truth; we might all know it, but we’d also felt powerless to do anything about it. But when Sorkin pulled a similar stunt with The Newsroom, it felt too familiar. We’d seen this before.
Which is a shame because in the grand scheme of things, a milquetoast broadcast network sketch comedy afraid to take risks isn’t nearly as scary as the current state of cable news. If TV critics hadn’t already grown tired of hearing Aaron Sorkin climb up on his soapbox in his last two TV shows about TV shows (Sports Night and Studio 60), they might have written more about how badly we need an example of cable news done right.
Cable news has a pair of wonderful checks to its power in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. There’s enough ridiculousness happening on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and just about every other broadcast outlet save PBS to fill an hour of Comedy Central. But Sorkin has set out—like he did with West Wing and the other shows—to give an example of talented people singularly dedicated to a worthy cause.
And it’s not the diatribe in that first scene—as Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy responds to a vapid question from a college student about how America is no longer the best country in the world—that we should be talking about. In a scene in the second episode, the show-within-a-show’s moral visionary Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) spells out what Sorkin hopes to accomplish, approaching every issue with “the best possible form of the argument.” And while it might be nice if Sorkin didn’t feel the need to lay out his plans in such straightforward detail, even his telling is more interesting than most other writers’ showing.
It’s an ambitious undertaking to rewrite cable news—to make it intelligent, honest and entertaining. But Sorkin has already proved his ability by giving us a U.S. President we could root for. Even with its flaws, there’s no show I’m more looking forward to each week this summer than The Newsroom—at least until Breaking Bad returns.