Will a TV Show About the News be More Compelling Than the Real Thing?

By Gail Shister 

I admire Aaron Sorkin, but he gives me a headache. By the time his characters finish a monologue, I’m ready for a nap.

Sorkin’s latest work, “The Newsroom,” which debuts Sunday on HBO, is no exception. In the pilot’s opening scene, set at a J-school panel, cable newsman Will McAvoy delivers a breathless tirade that, while eloquent, lasts longer than most network sitcoms.


In an homage to Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network,” McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, explodes when the moderator goads him into answering a student question about why America is the greatest country on earth. It’s not, he says, and here’s why.

Citing reams of statistics that someone in his line of work could not possibly know – another Sorkin trademark — McAvoy ends on a hopeful note. The speech will change the direction of his career from a bland ‘Jay Leno’ to a take-no-prisoners anchor of the Old School, like Murrow, Cronkite and Brinkley.

Images of those very men are in “Newsroom’s” opening montage, along with those of Dan Rather and legendary producer Don Hewitt. They are Sorkin’s heroes, he says. To that end, the underlying message of “Newsroom” is that it’s not too late to create a civil, intelligent newscast they would have been proud of.

News junkies will not be able to resist this show, despite the fact that some of the plotlines are ridiculous and that Sorkin writes like he’s getting paid by the word. Programs about the TV news business are rare. The last good one, Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” ended 12 years ago.

Sorkin reportedly based “Sports Night” on Keith Olbermann, but he’s denied that Olbermann was his muse for McAvoy.

Please. McAvoy is wicked smart, totally self-involved, highly temperamental and loathed by his staff. “I’m not the easiest guy to work for,” he tells his boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), news division president at fictional network ACN. Skinner has a short fuse and drinks a lot.

It pains me to say this, but Waterston, one of my favorite actors, is a tad old for the role. He punches out his lines like every breath will be his last. Daniels, on the other hand, is in his element,

alternately droll and seething, childish and grown up. He knows how to play a prick with a heart.

McAvoy’s was broken by Emily Mortimer’s Mackenzie McHale, a respected producer brought in to transform his newscast. She cheated on him, ending their three-year relationship. His venomous behavior toward her belies his true feelings. Make-up sex is imminent, bet on it.

Some of “Newsroom’s” cast looks barely old enough to drink: John Gallagher, Jr. as McHale’s senior producer; Alison Hill as the naïve intern; Dev Patel as the internet geek. In addition to their youth, they are all recognizable types, with predictable storylines.

Thomas Sadoski plays e.p. of McAvoy’s lead-out and his former e.p., with Olivia Munn as the network’s financial reporter, a trained economist. Jane Fonda shows up in later episodes as the tough-as-titanium owner of ACN’s parent company. Don’t mess with her; she’ll bury you.

Though ACN is fictional, there is quite a bit of verisimilitude in “Newsroom.” Episodes revolve around real news events. Real news footage is used. Real networks are mentioned, most frequently CNN. Also, real people’s names, like ESPN’s Erin Andrews and CNN’s Jim Walton.

Real TV reporters get a nod, too. In one scene, McAvoy says: “Make sure this is not a story Bill Carter [of The New York Times] can shove up my ass.” Howard Kurtz of Daily Beast/CNN is singled out in a later episode.

Even the airtime of McAvoy’s “News Night” – 8 p.m. — rings true. Olbermann’s “Countdown” ran at 8ET on MSNBC, as did his short-lived show on Current.

That said, if real-life people spoke as rapidly and as verbosely as Sorkin’s characters, we’d all have to carry oxygen tanks. Where Sorkin succeeds and other writers fail, however, is in making what they say be so damn compelling.

“Newsroom” is not Sorkin’s best series, but it’s light years ahead of much of what passes for good TV these days. I, for one, will be watching.