A lot of us have yelled at the TV, especially when we see something silly during a local or cable newscast. Most of us, however, are not Oscar- and Emmy-winning writers like Aaron Sorkin, whose The Newsroom is the dramatic equivalent of yelling at the screen.
In turn, you may often want to yell at the screen during The Newsroom, in which Sorkin depicts the workings of a cable news network as he would like to see it work so that he could stop yelling at the screen so much. Sorkin has a lot of points to make, and he makes them in a way that shows that even intelligent, witty dialogue can get on your nerves when it’s delivered from a soapbox with a bullhorn that can double as a bludgeoning instrument.
Given the opportunity to play a more subtle hand in the second season, Sorkin opts to be just as strident. If you missed Season 1, Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a news anchor given to bullying his guests (and occasionally his fans) as well as occasionally getting high and saying the wrong thing off-air (and sometimes on).
McAvoy identifies himself as a Republican, but he’s really Sorkin’s vision of what he wants Republicans to be like, and in the beginning of the season he’s in such hot water for referring to the Tea Party as “The American Taliban” that his whole network has trouble getting access to social events — and some press events, as well.
As was the case with the first season, The Newsroom is set in the recent past, in this case late 2011, when the Republican presidential campaign still consisted of several candidates. Running away from a personal problem — there’s a lot of that in The Newsroom — young producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) volunteers to follow Mitt Romney’s campaign, where thanks to McAvoy’s remarks, he’s not welcomed with open arms. Although he’s not exactly embraced by his fellow reporters, either, the crusading Harper becomes the only one willing to ask hard questions, at least till he rallies a couple of other reporters to take a chance.
But again, it’s a case of Sorkin yelling at the screen via the scripts, which are at least better when they are tackling topical material than when they are addressing relationships. Most people in The Newsroom are basket cases in their personal lives, but Sorkin even takes that to extremes, especially with another young producer, Maggie Jordan (Allison Pill), whose solution to a love-life crisis is to volunteer for an assignment in Africa — another case of running away. Maggie’s reaction upon learning of the possible side effects to one of the drugs she has to take for the trip is meant to be comic, but it’s so over-the-top that it will lead many viewers to eye-rolling.
It’s a frustrating show, because Sorkin does have a sharp ear for dialogue, which, as is usual for his shows, is delivered at a His Girl Friday-paced clip with the characters dropping literary and pop-culture references in quick-witted ripostes even when they don’t quite know what to say. One of this season’s cast additions is Hamish Linklater, best-known as Christine’s laconic brother in The New Adventures of Old Christine but not so laconic here as a producer who latches on to a big whistleblower tip. Overall, the performances — especially Daniels’ — are uniformly good.
Enough people share Sorkin’s concerns about media and politics that The Newsroom has earned a following. But there’s no delicacy to it, no subtext in a show that’s all text.
In the recent book Difficult Men, Sopranos creator David Chase (not a fan of Sorkin’s style) talked about the freedom of working at HBO versus the broadcast networks, where executives are more prone to interference and giving producers copious and sometimes nonsensical notes. But Sorkin’s best work was on SportsNight and the early seasons of The West Wing, both broadcast shows that had their preachy moments but managed to maintain some balance. The sense you get with The Newsroom is that nobody’s keeping him in check.