For fans of Aaron Sorkin's punchy, ham-fisted moralizing, Sunday, June 24, was a return to church. The writer debuted his new HBO drama, The Newsroom, steeling up the network's already formidable rotation with a show about an idealistic newsman who wants to make an honest wife out of cable news.
In the space of one clumsy pilot episode, however, this was a dull axe to grind, bookending a potentially clever parody with indulgent dialogue and wistful histrionics for an America that never was.
Where the show lands, it does so because Sorkin abuses a famous political maxim: Speak not at all softly, carry the biggest stick and then club everyone to death with it as you make grandstanding value judgments.
Jeff Daniels carries the stick as Will McAvoy, a surly anchor undergoing a transformation from milquetoast everyman to impassioned soothsayer. Following a slightly unhinged tirade made during an unusually engaging media panel, McAvoy and his team of crusaders at the Atlantic Cable News network try to flip the script of TV news overnight.
And it's just that easy. Network president and resident lush Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) tells him as much: "About 10 minutes ago? We did the news well. You know how? We just decided to."
McAvoy's new show is helmed by executive producer and onetime fling Mackenzie MacHale, played with a skittish give and take by Emily Mortimer. There's also young rogue producer Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), a determined muss of bedhead and cunning who proves his mettle with little provocation.
We hope to learn something about the two anonymous black characters, one of whom is "smart enough" to challenge Obama. Then there's the problem of Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel. The network's lone blogger, he responds to "Neal Sampat" and occasionally to "Punjab," which is a place in India and not, contrary to popular opinion, a name. To be fair, Patel is Punjabi! But still. The point is clear: McAvoy is one callous buzzard, concerned with "just the facts," except when he isn't.
That's a burden also carried by the viewer. The show is so tantalizingly manipulative and dishonest that despite betraying the philosophical axis of its own premise, you stop caring. It's easy to be dismantled by the blitzkrieg of Sorkin's dialogue, where characters don't just deal in measly small talk but also unpack monologues full of heightened imperatives and bite.