August 27, 2012


Here’s what Aaron Sorkin’s THE NEWSROOM is, for better and very often for worse:  a deadly serious, indeed doggedly self-righteous, primer on how news should be reported and, by extension, how America should be governed, that also includes a Sex and the City gag/salute/parody so moronically shameless that even the people who make the very worst Katherine Heigl/Kate Hudson romantic comedies would be embarrassed to be associated with it.  Left to his own devices (and he certainly was, taking solo screen credit on 9 of the season’s 10 scripts, and sharing the 10th), that’s Sorkin’s sensibility, and as much as we might wish for the guiding hand of a John Wells or a David Fincher behind the scenes, The Newsroom is always going to be unblended Sorkin, the moonshine version of his vintage.

HBO has been using the tease of Jane Fonda’s Leona Lansing telling Will (Jeff Daniels) “…and you’re fired” so often in the past few weeks that it had to be a trick, and of course it was–he was unfired 5 minutes later.  But Sorkin had to get all clever about it, making an iffy plotline downright silly by doing his version of The Sting, as Will, Mac (Emily Mortimer) and Charlie (Sam Waterston) conned Leona and her awful son Reese (Chris Messina) into thinking that they had actual evidence of Reese hacking Mac’s phone, while in fact, all they had was a beef stew recipe from Charlie’s suicidal NSA informant.  (By the way, if the phones were hacked strictly by the network’s gossip magazine, why were they tapping the phones of victims of Somali pirates?  Naturally, because that’s what News of the World did in the real-life version of this story, but did it make any sense for what was supposed to be the show’s version of TMZ?  No?  OK, at least the show is consistent.)  Instead, Charlie had his handy tape recorder ready for Reese’s convenient confession, like the show was suddenly an episode of Wiseguy.  (Because, in case you were wondering, secretly tape recording good guys is evil, but secretly recording bad guys is OK.)   This enabled Will and Mac to go off, this time with even Leona’s approval after a trademark Sorkin sudden reversal, and do their big anti-Tea Party hour, which turned out to be a collection of the same Republican sound-bites Jon Stewart has been using for the past 2 years, except without the brilliant wit.  And let’s not even talk about the illogic of gossip columnist Nina Howard (Hope Davis) suddenly developing enough of a conscience to tell Mac in advance that she knew Will had been stoned on the air the night Bin Laden was killed.  And let’s really not talk about Will going on the air stoned in the first place.

So Will was able to recover from his bleeding ulcer, caused by the hatchet job story in New York Magazine by Mac’s ex-boyfriend (because hiring your ex’s bitter ex to write a feature about you turns out–surprise!–not to be a great idea).  And, a few “Don Quixote” and Camelot references later, Will got the ultimate endorsement of NewsNight 2.0 when the sorority girl who had asked the question about the greatness of America that led to Will’s breakdown long, long ago in the pilot was so inspired by the show that she showed up to become NewsNight’s newest intern.  To dream the impossible dream, indeed!

But what, you ask, about the show’s romantic stories?  Well, even after the genuinely insane contrivance of Maggie (the endlessly humiliated Alison Pill) having a meltdown in front of a Sex and the City tour bus on which Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.) coincidentally happens to be a passenger, the two of them are still with the wrong people, as for the 10th consecutive episode, just as they seemed about to finally get together, Don (Thomas Sadoski) wiggled his romantic pinky finger in Maggie’s direction, prompting her to instantly run back to his arms. which presumably left Jim back with Maggie’s roommate.  The only interesting few seconds in this laborious, woeful storyline was the possibility raised of Don getting together with Sloane (Olivia Munn), which actually seemed like a good idea, but it went exactly nowhere.  Also not together:  Will and Mac, for increasingly little reason, since we now know (and even Mac strongly suspects) that the hacked and deleted phone message Will left for her was a profession of love.  Will does finally know that he wasn’t hallucinating all the way back in the pilot and Mac really was at the college Q&A with cue cards for him, a fact that has never made any sense at all and still doesn’t.

It is–clearly–easy to ridicule The Newsroom, and there’s good reason for that.  Yet it may be one of the most irresistibly watchable terrible shows in the history of television.  Sorkin is, and will always be, a whiz at snappy, smart dialogue–and more to the point here, dialogue that manages to sound smart even if the characters speaking it are complete idiots.  Tonight’s episode was filled with enough sharp repartee to keep some sitcoms rolling for a season.  He also knows how to spin an uplifting, throat-swelling sequence of good people gathering together to achieve their collective best.  (Although tonight’s episode wasn’t a great example of that, with its strained heroic montage scored to “Teenage Wasteland.”)  The show has a superb cast that handles Sorkin’s rat-a-tat banter and lengthy monologues, along with its abrupt tonal shifts, like champions, especially Daniels, Mortimer, Munn, Sadoski and Waterston (and let’s give a little credit to Pill, who plays the most ill-used character with remarkable dexterity).

There’s no quasi-literary reference The Newsroom invokes more than Man of La Mancha, and it was hard to avoid thinking of the show itself while listening to Will go on about the Knight of the Mirrors, who destroyed Quixote by simply forcing him to see his true reflection.  Like the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, Newsroom is remarkably deluded, living in a state of denial about its serious flaws.  But as Will noted, the Knight of the Mirrors’s victory was only temporary:  Quixote rose from his sickbed and went back into battle.   Eventually he collapsed and died, of course, but that seems to be okay with Sorkin, whose biggest windmill may be his own willfulness.  The important thing is to keep tilting.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."