Aaron Sorkin's return to television after six-year absence was supposed to be triumphant. After winning an Oscar in 2011 for The Social Network and being nominated the following year for Moneyball, few would have been surprised if the screenwriter had chosen to stick with movies. Instead Sorkin teamed up with cable giant HBO to write The Newsroom, a behind-the-scenes look at a news programme with a strong cast including Jeff Daniels as a world-weary anchor, Emily Mortimer as an idealistic producer and a cameo from Jane Fonda as a sharp-tongued television boss. The drama, which comes to Sky Atlantic next month, should have been a sure thing. Instead reviews have been mixed.
A lengthy takedown in The New Yorker commented: "In The Newsroom clever people take turns admiring one another… it makes the viewer itch". The New York Times remarked: "The Newsroom may be right but it's saying it wrong" and Entertainment Weekly sorrowfully concluded: "I'm on his [Sorkin's] side. I just wish his side were less repetitive and self-righteous."
It's a feeling with which many a weary viewer will sympathise. Even Sorkin's biggest fans admit he has a tendency towards sanctimony. At his best, in a show like The West Wing, he can transcend that, allowing us to sympathise with his characters even when they appear a little bit smug. We know he's condescending to us, but we don't mind because he's doing it so well.
At his worst, however, as he was in the smug Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – cancelled after one season in 2006 – Sorkin risks boring his audience by incorporating self-righteous debates about the Middle East into a show about a television comedy sketch show and alienating them with what The New Yorker labelled 'his defiant intellectual superiority'.
Unfortunately the early signs are that Newsroom showcases more of bad Sorkin than good. That's not to say there aren't some nice moments – Alison Pill turns in a strong performance as a young producer caught in a romantic triangle, Sam Waterston has old-school charm to spare as the channel's head of news, Jeff Daniels is appealingly rumpled as the hero, television anchorman Will McAvoy – but overall the tone is strident. These are good people, Sorkin seems to be shouting at us, good people doing good despite the on-going idiocy of much of America. Then there's the subject matter. Sorkin has long been fascinated by television's inner workings but journalism is not an easy subject to get right: even David Simon, so sure-footed on everything from cops and teachers to dealers and pimps, fell short when turning his eye on his own profession in the final season of The Wire.
Harking back to a mythical golden age of news reporting did Simon few favours and does Sorkin, who admitted recently that he would have felt most at home in the 1940s, none now. The Newsroom is set in 2010 but it already seems out-of-date. McAvoy's much-vaunted new news model turns out to be a shouty polemics-driven news show akin to that of former anchor Keith Olbermann, a friend of the writer in real life, while the man who so acutely dissected Facebook in The Social Network either can't or won't address the role of new media in modern reporting here. It's as though Sorkin, so smart writing as an outsider about politics, loses his focus when tackling a subject this close to home. He is aware of the pitfalls. "The accusation of sanctimony is going to happen," he admitted in a New York Times interview. "These characters aren't my mouthpiece. I'm not using them to make a political argument. I'm using them to crash into each other and live in the real world."
Yet it doesn't help that the opposition's viewpoint is so crudely drawn. The central premise behind The Newsroom is that Will and co tackle real stories from 2010 and thus Sorkin demonstrates how he thinks those stories should have been covered. Yet all too often the answer is simply, "the Right is wrong, and I am right". That's not to say that it's not easy to sympathise with Sorkin – anyone who has spent time in the US understands how frustrating a great deal of their news can be – but by stacking the cards so firmly he reduces audience sympathy.
He's also a very male writer, and, after a US television season where everything from Girls to Game of Thrones has focused on women, that viewpoint seems curiously out-of-touch. Sorkin's world is one where men are men and not afraid to shout about it. Thus early on in the first episode McAvoy delivers an impassioned eulogy to what once made America great. "We cultivated the greatest artists and the world's greatest economy, we reached for the stars, acted like men, aspired to intelligence and didn't belittle it," he rants. "We were able to do all these things and be all these things because we were informed. By great men. Men who were revered."
It's a typical Sorkinian speech – and you can hear the strings welling up West Wing-style in the background as McAvoy delivers it – there's just one problem: it's a speech about news anchors. And for all that America does revere its news readers – the Walter Cronkites and Edward Murrows – once you think of the subject matter you can't help thinking of Will Ferrell's parody in Anchorman ("People know me. I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books...").
This issue of tone, the constant threat that the show will collapse under its own self-importance tipping into self-parody, is at its worst when Emily Mortimer's MacKenzie McHale is on screen. McHale is supposed to be a respected executive producer who has just spent the better part of two years reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet her flustered fumblings about her love life make her seem more Bridget Jones then Alex Crawford.
Not everyone thinks that he's failed. The Newsroom drew over two million viewers for its opening night, a solid start equalling that of Game of Thrones last year, and New York Magazine's Matt Zoller Steiz argued the negative reviews "suggested we have become so comfortable with cynicism and despair that we can't dream anymore" adding that The Newsroom was "corny but inspiring".
'The Newsroom' starts on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 10 July at 10pm