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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum