“I’m affable!” Will McAvoy yells in the pilot of “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series. McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) is an irascible anchor whose brand is likability, and it’s a good line, delivered well. It is also a rare moment of self-mockery—and one of the last sequences I was on board for in the series. In “The Newsroom,” clever people take turns admiring one another. They sing arias of facts. They aim to remake television news: “This is a new show, and there are new rules,” a maverick executive producer announces, several times, in several ways. Their outrage is so inflamed that it amounts to a form of moral eczema—only it makes the viewer itch.
This is not to say that “The Newsroom” doesn’t score points now and then, if you share its politics. It starts effectively enough, with an homage to “Network” ’s galvanizing “I’m mad as hell” rant, as McAvoy, a blandly uncontroversial cable big shot whom everyone tauntingly calls Leno, is trapped on a journalism-school panel. When the moderator needles him into answering a question about why America is the greatest country on earth, he goes volcanic, ticking off the ways in which America is no such thing, then closing with a statement of hope, about the way things used to be. This speech goes viral, and his boss (Sam Waterston) and his producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who’s also his ex-girlfriend, encourage him to create a purer news program, purged of any obsession with ratings and buzz.
Wow, did I call it or what. I hate to go on and on about how Sorkin annoys me, but dammit, I used to be a huge fan of his. But he hasn't had a single new idea in more than a decade, as far as I can tell. And worse, he hasn't found any new ways to write about the same old ideas. Reading the review pretty much confirms what I've been thinking about Sorkin for years. A Network-style live rant? Sorkin's never done that before! (Except in the first five minutes of Studio 60.) Someone saying that what they are doing is totally new and they're gonna rewrite the rulebook? Sorkin's never done that before! (Except in The American President and in The West Wing.)
I recently watched the first three or four episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip again (they're on YouTube), and my God, that show is even worse now than I remember it being during the first airing. I really think that Aaron Sorkin is utterly convinced of his own genius, and that people will line up to hear the same lines and same tropes in the mouths of new actors playing out the same stories. Maybe they will...but yeesh, why?!
BTW, here are a couple of scenes from The West Wing, during the seasons after Sorkin left. The show was particularly uneven in the fifth season, although it did hit some real high points (the episode detailing the nomination of two Supreme Court justices was fantastic).
Here is Bartlet sitting down for some late-night ice cream with the Republican nominee for President, Senator Arnold Vinick, after rumors of Vinick's possible atheism have come to light:
Here's a beautiful scene between Toby Ziegler and CJ Cregg, from the second-to-last episode ever. Toby has been fired from the White House and is on his way to prison in a few days for leaking classified information to the press; CJ is finishing up her service in the Bartlet White House (as Chief of Staff after more than four years as press secretary), and she is wondering what to do next with her life: she has job offers from an extremely wealthy philanthropist and from Matthew Santos, the incoming President-elect.
And finally, here's a good scene between Matt Santos, the Democratic nominee, and his running mate, Leo McGarry. These two men don't know each other well, having been thrust together by Santos's surprise winning of the nomination at a brokered convention and subsequent hasty selection of Leo as his VP. Here they are still feeling each other out...and start to come together as a team.
Post-Sorkin West Wing took a bit of time to find its voice again, but when it did, it was often just as good as ever.