As the genius behind The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin bears a heavy burden. For many, he represents (whimsically and mistakenly) the final bastion of American political sanity. At times it is painful to think that the rationally bipartisan and astute president he created for the series, Jed Bartlett, is barred by fiction from any say in contemporary presidential decision making.
Six years after the final series of The West Wing, Sorkin’s latest crusade for good sense is his HBO series, The Newsroom. Some may say it is folly: the US broadcast media hardly holds the moral high ground for rational reportage. Enter Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the arrogantly cynical anchor at the fictional station ACN. Posed the question, ‘Why is America the greatest country?’ at a college debate, his 3.10 minute response in the pilot’s prologue is classic Sorkin: “It sure used to be. We stood up for what was right…we struck down laws for moral reasons, we waged war on poverty not on poor people. We sacrificed … we never beat our chests. We reached for the stars. Acted like men … First step in solving a problem is recognising there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”
The tirade loses McAvoy his production team, the replacement of which is to be headed by MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a former flame jetted in from three years embedded in Afghanistan. Incidentally, far too many ‘mac’s. While her British accent is the token auditory tonic, she’s as vocal in her optimism for American media as McAvoy is in his scepticism for it: “There’s nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate. When there’s wrong information or much worse no information, it can lead to calamitous decisions and stop any attempts at rigorous debate – that’s why I produce the news.”
Bloated with these idealistic speeches, The Newsroom appears to lack the finesse and subtlety of The West Wing’s characterisation. Each episode, orbiting around the individual temperaments of the presidential cabinet, seemed carefully choreographed to arrive at a considered end, worthy of a furrowed brow reflecting on its political nuances.
Yet McAvoy’s and McHale’s rants claim explicitly: we are disillusioned with American hegemony and cultural arrogance, we will reclaim the democratic ethos of Fourth Estate journalism. It leaves little narrative flexibility, and little doubt as to how their characters will react to future broadcast and thematic dilemmas. Don’t take this review as a rally against democratic journalism: just the optimism for it is, well, a predictable tale. Take this show with a pinch of salt.
I was in New York when the series first went to air, but the woman we rented our apartment from hadn’t subscribed to the HBO channel. It was an ironic reminder that The Newsroom’s call for “A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation”, will always lack the free-to-air accessibility of the stations it is most critical of. For most Americans a rational media comes at the premium price of $15.95 a month.