Critics Not Too Keen On HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’

By Alex Weprin 

“The Newsroom” debuts Sunday evening on HBO, and reviews are in for the latest TV series from Aaron Sorkin (Read TVNewser columnist Gail Shister‘s review here). What do the other critics say?

ABC’s Jake Tapper, for The New Republic:

I wanted this show to be great. When asked to participate in a conference call, gratis, where I shared some of my reporting experiences with the writers, I eagerly did so. But I won’t further bury the lede: “The Newsroom,” which debuts June 24 on HBO, is sadly disappointing. There’s much to criticize in the media—and TV news in particular. But though “The Newsroom” intends to lecture its viewers on the higher virtues of capital-J journalism, Professor Sorkin soon reveals he isn’t much of an expert on the subject.

Alessandra Stanley, for the New York Times:

Yet oddly enough “The Newsroom” suffers from the same flaw that it decries on real cable shows on MSNBC or Fox News. Cable television would be a lot better if anchors pontificated less and went back to reporting. “The Newsroom” would be a lot better if the main characters preached less and went back to reporting.

Hank Stuever, for The Washington Post:

The word pile that once seemed so melodious in Sorkin’s other projects — especially that millennial anti-anxiety medication known as the “The West Wing” — now has the effect of tinnitus. The men talk like Sorkin writes; the women talk that way, too; the 28-year-olds talk like that, as do the 41-year-olds, as do the cast’s septuagenarians, who include Sam Waterston as the head of the network news division and, later on, Jane Fonda as the network owner who puts the arch in matriarch. (In other words, Jane Fonda as Ted Turner.)

Emily Nussbaum, for The New Yorker:

“The Newsroom” is the inverse of “Veep”: it’s so naïve it’s cynical. Sorkin’s fantasy is of a cabal of proud, disdainful brainiacs, a “media élite” who swallow accusations of arrogance and shoot them back as lava. But if the storytelling were more confident, it could take a breath and deliver drama, not just talking points. Instead, the deck stays stacked. Whenever McAvoy delivers a speech or slices up a right-winger, the ensemble beams at him, their eyes glowing as if they were cultists. 

The ironies abound, but one of the central ironies is this: The lead character on this show, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), bemoans the fact that much of the public discourse has become an unsubtle shoutfest, yet “The Newsroom” displays all the subtlety of a jackhammer set to maximum or a terrier on speed. Characters talk at each other, they constantly preach to their colleagues, and McAvoy frequently fulminates at his viewers at length. These soliloquies, even allowing for the familiar tics and tricks of Sorkinese, become deadening over time.

Tim Goodman, for The Hollywood Reporter:

What the channel gets is pure Sorkin; you can take that any which way you want, depending on your thoughts about Sorkin. Are the characters exceptionally quick-witted and do they dabble in fast-paced repartee? Yes. Do characters often talk in what could best be described as elaborate, heartfelt and intellectual monologues? They do. Sorkin has historically been prone to what’s called monologueing. But perhaps it should be called soapboxing in his case because there’s always that nagging feeling that you’re listening to a lecture. And finally, is The Newsroom earnest? Yes, because pretty much everything Sorkin does is earnest — and if you didn’t know that before, you’ll know it when you hear the swelling orchestration in the introduction and at the end of some, well, earnest scenes.

Richard Lawson, for The Atlantic:

The Newsroom also commits the fatal error of making the on-air personality, of all people, the front-and-center lead of its show. How much more enlightening, more fun, and more truthful it would have been to focus on a producer working from within the ranks, trying to change the gross, venal, pompous cable news system wherever and whenever they could sneak change in. When it’s the rich guy in the suit making the big speeches and principled demands, with the help of a few frantic, scrubbed youngsters, it becomes a self-congratulatory hour of cliched speechifying.

Mary McNamara, for the Los Angeles Times:

Watching “The Newsroom,” it’s impossible not to think of the wonderful moment in “Broadcast News” when the head of that news division smirks at Holly Hunter’s producer and says: “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room,” and Hunter, truly stricken, shakes her head and says “Oh no. It’s awful.”

That transcendent mixture of confidence and fear, of humility and clear-eyed self-assessment, evident in so much of Sorkin’s other work, is what turns a sermon into a work of art. And that is precisely what is missing here.

Bill Brownstein, for The Montreal Gazette:

And so it is that The Newsroom quickly morphs into something almost insufferably earnest and sanctimonious and self-flattering and smug and shrill and condescending. And everybody is constantly screaming at one another, led by a seriously annoying Jeff Daniels as the anchor who suddenly develops a social conscience and who becomes increasingly more unbearable. Call it a case of over-acting – he makes Al Pacino sound understated – but it appears to be infectious, afflicting the rest of the cast as well.

Howard Kurtz, for The Daily Beast:

Maybe expectations were too high, given the brilliance of Sorkin’s track record (The West Wing, The Social Network). Maybe, after reading that Sorkin was hanging out with Keith Olbermann, we were looking for a brilliantly nuanced rendition of the pathologies of cable news.

The thing is, as the individual soap operas unfold, the characters at times seem rather cartoonish.

Alan Sepinwall, for HitFix:

Like the cable news industry “The Newsroom” relentlessly critiques, Sorkin’s work tends to preach to the converted. His characters speak about issues with such passion and eloquence that you’re meant to feel smarter and better about yourself for agreeing. But he often pushes things so far that even if you happen to agree with him politically — as I suspect I do on most issues — it can be uncomfortable to watch the deck being stacked in your favor.

Ben Grossman, for Broadcasting & Cable:

If you miss The West Wing every day, you will wrap your arms around this new series like a dog you see on the street that looks just like your old beloved pooch that passed away a few years ago.  The comparisons are many, beginning with the Sorkin-esque dialogue (a whole lot of harried monologues and — shocker — a whole lot of preaching).

And this show has an incredibly inflated sense of self. The Newsroom does not think it is about a newsroom; it thinks it is about much more than that. It fancies itself a political show (or a mechanism to save journalism — or maybe the world), as interested in debating — strike that, lecturing — about topics like gun control as breaking down how a 60-minute newscast gets made.

Troy Patterson, for Slate:

The Newsroom presents an elementary and elemental critique of television news as a thing disfigured by corporate pressures and heedless races for sensation, a point on which everyone who has cable will agree. The analysis ends there, or it ought to, so that we can get on with the business of romancing ideals and idealizing office romances. But such lusty adventures are tangled up with didactic excesses. The mirror Sorkin holds up to the television has a funhouse warp that limits The Newsroom’s potential for serious reflection—and yet week after week come the sonorous debates about truth and justice. The show offers a lot of great talking, but to whom does it wish to speak?

Matt Zoller Seitz, for Vulture:

The Newsroom is the worst of Aaron Sorkin and the best of Aaron Sorkin; you can’t have one without the other, and I’ll wager that anyone who’s ever enjoyed his work must know that. Set at the fictional, New York–based cable network ACN, the show is part of an unofficial triptych of shows about how TV is watched and consumed. Like its predecessors — the mostly fondly remembered Sports Night and the train wreck Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — it’s equal parts screwball comedy, workplace drama, and polemic about what’s wrong with America and American media and how they could be fixed if we’d just find our moral compass, or what’s left of it, and quit being slaves to ratings, profits, and cheap cynicism.