“You’re giving a monologue,” a harangued man on a train tells Maggie Jordan, a fictional journalist in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series “The Newsroom.” “I know. Everyone does where I work,” Jordan replies. It’s a wink from Sorkin that he knows we know his tropes by now.
Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes look at staffers striving to do good under a benevolent patriarch – not the first time he’s told that story – just finished its three-season run. After a stodgy start, the show evolved into a showcase for Sorkin’s screenwriting gifts. Its hip young characters snappily essayed commentaries on modern political journalism. There wasn’t much new in “The Newsroom,” but it was a sweet-sounding coda to that other Sorkin show about politics.
The core of the series was a character study of anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels, who won an Emmy for the role). McAvoy needed to be loved by people he couldn’t see: the audience of his nightly newscast. Irascible by instinct, he had fallen into indolence as the show began, chasing ratings through bland gimmickry.
McAvoy was teetering, in the words of old flame/new producer MacKenzie McHale, “one pitch away from doing the news in 3D.” Prodded by McHale (Emily Mortimer), he vowed – at great length – to tell the truth and just “do the news.”
When the show premiered the popular assumption was that the character was based upon Keith Olbermann, then taking to the airwaves with nightly outbursts of indignation. Sorkin rejected the Olbermann comparison, and for the first, ponderous season of the show he seemed intent on building McAvoy up into something much grander: a modern day Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow. Both men appeared in the opening credits and an on-the-nose outburst typical of season one: “Having a point of view isn’t unprecedented in an anchor,” news chief Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) tells McAvoy. “Murrow had one and that was the end of McCarthy; Cronkite had one and that was the end of Vietnam.”
(It always seemed to me that a closer comparison to McAvoy was the British anchor Jeremy Paxman, a notoriously ill-tempered interviewer who once asked a senior politician the same question 12 times in a row and rebelled on air against BBC attempts to have him report on the weather.)
The conceit of the show was that contemporary news was retold from the standpoint of McAvoy and his crew. Yet the dramatic flaw of “The Newsroom” was that its characters could only be passive observers. When President Bartlet of “The West Wing” made a decision, missiles flew, laws were changed, action was set in motion. McAvoy could craft a zinger-filled editorial comment, but that was about the extent of his power.
So re-reporting the news didn’t work as a dramatic device, and you always had the slightly queasy feeling that nobody was watching McAvoy’s show anyway. Audience shares for point-of-view cable newscasts are tiny by comparison with those commanded by the Cronkites and Murrows of the past.
Then Sorkin retooled “The Newsroom.” The after-the-fact editorials became mere background, replaced by zippy fictional parables about modern journalism. This was accompanied by a re-working of the theme music into one of the better opening sequences on TV.
Season two was dominated by the decision to air a story about U.S. use of chemical weapons in Pakistan. The audience knew the story was faked from the start, but Sorkin showed it lived forwards. The staff asked the right questions, checked their facts and assumptions, and still made a catastrophic mistake. One was reminded of the dissections of policy fiascos like the Bay of Pigs, or the surge in Afghanistan. In retrospect, both Kennedy and Obama wondered how they could take such care yet still be so wrong.
The final season was truncated (and none the worse for that: there was an infectious pace about the last episodes) and dominated by a leak of classified government documents to McAvoy’s staff. The journalists refused to reveal their source and faced government prosecution. The James Risen case hovered in the background, with a nod to Edward Snowden, and it was compelling television.
Other Sorkin tropes played out: the on-off office romances were resolved, and there was big drama about a buyout of the company that produced McAvoy’s show. Throughout, Sorkin’s sonorous dialogue sound-tracked his world of wordsmiths and polymaths. The decision to end the show was a good one, the premise had run its course, but I’m glad I watched.