The Newsroom: Bad news for Aaron Sorkin

The feted screenwriter's take on current affairs has underwhelmed the critics.

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

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform