Oscar-winning writer and “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin has made headlines with his new show, set in a TV news station, even before its weekend debut — but unfortunately not in a good way.
“The Newsroom,” which portrays the stormy behind-the-scenes life at the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN), has an all-star cast and has fueled debate about the media’s role in an election year, but it’s been lashed by critics.
“The biggest problem with ‘The Newsroom’ — and it’s one of many, many problems — is that its goals and its narrative strategies are in direct conflict with each other,” wrote the Huffington Post’s TV critic, Maureen Ryan.
“The result is a dramatically inert, infuriating mess, one that wastes a fine cast to no demonstrable purpose, unless you consider giving Sorkin yet another platform in which to Set the People Straight is a worthwhile purpose.”
The show should have everything going for it, starting with award-winning screenwriter Sorkin: even before penning the 1999-2006 series “West Wing” Sorkin won credit for 1992’s Oscar-nominated “A Few Good Men.
The 51-year-old New Yorker won an Academy Award last year for the screenplay of Facebook movie “The Social Network,” and was again nominated this year for best adapted screenplay for Brad Pitt baseball movie “Moneyball.”
His new show’s cast includes English actress Emily Mortimer, “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Skins” star Dev Patel, Jeff Daniels, while Jane Fonda takes a turn in the series which debuts Sunday on premium cable channel HBO.
Daniels plays News Night anchor Will McAvoy, who has to adapt to a new team after his co-anchor takes most of his staff to another show. Mortimer plays his feisty Mackenzie MacHale, his executive producer and former lover.
The show taps into a topical debate about the media’s role in politics, particularly as the US revs up for November elections.
“He’s trying to talk about journalism, truth, ignorance and politics in much the same way he did with ‘The West Wing,’ commented the Hollywood Reporter’s reviewer Tim Goodman.
“Sorkin would like to take on the plague of anti-intellectualism that runs amok in political circles …but the question for The Newsroom is whether that’s actually interesting or dramatic, particularly over the long haul.
Sorkin took to the red carpet in Hollywood this week to launch the show, and explained in a round of interviews how the show came together, including how he spent time at real-life TV news stations including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
“This is meant to be an idealistic, romantic, swash-buckling, sometimes comedic but very optimistic, upward-looking look at a group of people who are often looked at cynically,” he said.
“What’s in the water supply now is that the media is bad, that they’re either in the tank for one party or the other or they’re in it for sensationalism or the money or they’re jaded, etc.
“Of course there are bad journalists. There are also bad screenwriters, bad lawyers, bad doctors and bad dentists. The journalists that I’ve met really do have an ideal and badly want to do well,” he added .
But critics have lined up to poke holes in his new show.
“Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’ .. fails to meet the high expectations that greet it, save one: It is crammed with incessant gibber-jabber,” wrote Washington Post critic Hank Stuever.
Time critic James Poniewozik listed its faults at length, labeling it “intellectually self-serving,” adding “a resume is not character development” and “Zingers are not drama.”
“Its chief problem as a drama is that, well, it’s an editorial,” he wrote, comparing it unfavorably to “The West Wing,” which “gave us rich characters, a sense of proportionality and an infectious feeling of romance.”
Lamenting the “exhausting, smug” episodes he had so far previewed, he said the show “gives us none of that: just Aaron Sorkin writing one argument after another for himself to win.”
US viewers can judge for themselves from Sunday night.