Tuned In: Sorkin's HBO series 'The Newsroom' feels out of touch


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With plenty of junk on TV, it's understandable that viewers will want to embrace HBO's "The Newsroom" from writer Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing," "The Social Network"). It's smarter than most of what's out there, and Mr. Sorkin makes sure viewers know it, with statistic-filled monologues. "The Newsroom" moves fast and can be entertaining at times.

But compared to many of TV's most-respected programs -- "Breaking Bad," "Homeland," "Game of Thrones," "The Good Wife" -- "The Newsroom" feels musty and out of touch.

Part of that is attributable to Mr. Sorkin's writing style, which remains remarkably the same as it was on ABC's "Sports Night." Everything about "The Newsroom" (10 p.m. Sunday, HBO) will be familiar to viewers of that 1998-2000 series.

"Sports Night" was set behind the scenes of a cable sports news show; "The Newsroom" is set behind the scenes of Atlantis Cable News. "Sports Night" had co-workers with romantic entanglements; "The Newsroom" has similar relationship dynamics. "Sports Night" had a wise, older newsroom leader (Robert Guillaume); "The Newsroom" has its own benevolent manager (Sam Waterston, "Law & Order").

But where "Sports Night" felt new -- because at the time the show's style and rhythm were fresh and novel for TV -- "The Newsroom" oftentimes feels like a rerun. It's not a bad show but it's not great -- more moderately OK than anything.

The series begins in 2010 with "News Night" anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) -- the Jay Leno of news anchors, "popular because he doesn't bother anyone" -- unable to contain his anger and frustration when asked to answer the question, "Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?" He tries to dodge the question but eventually goes on a tear, citing statistics that show the U.S. is not No. 1 (49th in life expectancy, seventh in literacy, No. 3 in household median income, etc.).

"It sure used to be," he says, before slipping into a back-in-the-good-old-days rant that may or may not be apocryphal. "We stood up for what was right. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, cared for our neighbors ... cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. ... We aspired for intelligence, we didn't belittle it. We were able to do all these things because we were informed. ... The first step in solving any problem is realizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. Enough?"

Speaking his mind gets McAvoy pilloried in the press, but it sparks an idea in his understanding boss, Charlie Skinner (Mr. Waterston), who orchestrates the hiring of a new executive producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), with whom McAvoy has a tortured romantic past but who may be able to bring out the best in McAvoy as the anchor of "News Night."

There's been chatter that McAvoy is based on Keith Olbermann, and in terms of the character's volatility, the comparison is apt. But Mr. Sorkin bends over backward to tell viewers in future episodes that McAvoy is a registered Republican, albeit a clearly liberal Republican espousing views that would be anathema to the mainstream of the party today. McAvoy's views -- some will call them a liberal's fantasy of Republicanism -- are similar to those of Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), a Republican character on Mr. Sorkin's "The West Wing."

"I only seem liberal because I believe hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage," McAvoy says in the fourth "Newsroom" episode.

If the show's politics seem like fantasy, its attempts to rewrite the rules of TV news are even more idealistic and improbable in the current media environment.

Charlie, Mac and Will set about reinventing "News Night" in future "Newsroom" episodes, intent on informing the public and refusing to "pretend certain facts are in dispute to give the appearance of fairness to people who don't believe them." Will even begins a newscast apologizing for past reports, saying, "We took a dive for the ratings.

"We're not waiters in a restaurant, serving you the stories just the way you like them prepared, nor are we computers dropping only the facts because news is only useful in the context of humanity," McAvoy says. "Who are we to make these decisions? We are the media elite."

That's a clunker line. No one in the real world would ever self-describe as the "media elite" and expect to be taken seriously even in an effort to reclaim the term. Yet that's exactly what "The Newsroom" wants viewers to do -- take seriously Mr. Sorkin's ruminations on the pitfalls of cable news, journalism and how Americans practice the dissemination of news and information in the 21st century.

Maybe some viewers can watch "The Newsroom" and bask in its idealism, but it's tough to imagine the general public will. It's a similar problem that faced Mr. Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," which asked viewers to care about the problems of wealthy entertainers. While it's still possible to evoke an emotional, positive response from the public when the wish-fulfillment setting is the White House (as on "The West Wing"), it may be a lost cause to ask viewers to care about and revere the work of fictional comedians and news anchors whose real-world inspirations are generally held in fairly low esteem.

Strangest of all, perhaps, is the placement of "The Newsroom" on HBO. Yes, Mr. Sorkin gets freer range with content, but aside from occasional bits of profanity, he doesn't use it. Tonally, "The Newsroom" is too earnest for HBO's lineup of cynical, darker shows. "The Newsroom" is very much a broadcast network show that wound up on a premium cable channel where it can be as political as it wants without fearing an advertiser boycott.

"The Newsroom" is not the worst thing on TV; it's just a disappointment when you consider the source. The show is unconvincing even as it offers a lot for viewers to chew on if they're in the mood to think.

By setting the series in the recent past, viewers can see how the "Newsroom" team reacts to real-life news events, albeit with Mr. Sorkin having the benefit of hindsight.

If the show's setting and tone are problematic, its characters, their relationships and foibles are even more worrisome. Too often the characters behave in a forced manner. That's especially true of Mac, who comes off as flighty and technologically inept when she accidentally sends a sensitive email, intended for one person, to the entire staff in episode two. It's a predictable, stale gag that undermines Mac's intelligence while pulling the show into wacky character territory, a distraction from its heady rhetorical arguments about the current state of media.

Other characters include Maggie (Alison Pill, "In Treatment"), who dates Don (Thomas Sadoski), a producer for another ACN show, but she should really be dating nerdier Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), who arrives at "News Night" with Mac.

In episode three, "The Newsroom" introduces ACN's uber-boss, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), who begins to take offense at Will's new approach to "News Night," particularly his bashing of Tea Party figures because, as she says, her company has business in front of the U.S. Congress.

The "Newsroom" characters grow a bit over the show's first four episodes and begin to seem less like types and more like fully-defined people, but they never feel altogether real, the unintended consequence of inhabiting an idealistic fantasy land.

Gardell visits 'Sullivan'

During a visit to the set of the upcoming TBS Pittsburgh-set sitcom "Sullivan & Son" (10 p.m. July 19) last week in Burbank, Calif., series star Steve Byrne said Swissvale native Billy Gardell, star of CBS's "Mike & Molly," will make a guest appearance on an upcoming "Sullivan" episode.

"So you'll get to see a true Yinzer on the show," Mr. Byrne said while offering a tour of the show's bar set on the Warner Bros. lot. "He's been such a great friend, and I'm glad to have had time as friends to sit down together and talk professionally about what it is to be responsible for a television show."

Mr. Byrne stars in "Sullivan" as a corporate attorney who moves back from New York to run his family's bar in Pittsburgh. Mr. Gardell will play a Pittsburgh pawn shop expert who evaluates the value of an old magazine found in the bar building's attic.

'Route 66' episode

Eagle-eye Post-Gazette systems technology editor Tim Dunham pointed out that an upcoming rerun of "Route 66" on WPXI's ME-TV digital subchannel features an episode of the series filmed near Pittsburgh.

The episode, airing at 3 a.m. Monday, is titled "Mon Petit Chou" and was directed by Sam Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch"). It originally aired Nov. 24, 1961, and was one of two episodes of the series filmed locally, according to an article in The Pittsburgh Press at the time.

A young Lee Marvin appears in the episode, and his nose was broken during filming of a fight scene. The Press reported filming locations included a water-skiing sequence on the Allegheny River and at Le Mont restaurant on Mount Washington.

Channel surfing

The "Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards" broadcast moves to a new home this year, airing at 8 p.m. Saturday on HLN. Among the nominees: Nickelodeon's "Brain Surge," produced by Pittsburgh native Tim Beggy, who also has a new reality competition series on CMT called "Redneck Island." ... Disney Channel's TV movie "Let It Shine" was a hit last Friday, drawing 5.7 million viewers. ... The revival of "Dallas" on TNT got off to a strong start last week, lassoing 6.9 million viewers, although it didn't fare as well with younger demos (just 1.9 million 18-49-year-old viewers). ... TLC has renewed "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding" for a second season. ... A 10th season of TLC's "What Not to Wear" will air in early 2013. ... Reichen Lehmkuhl, one of the stars of Logo's "The A-List," tweeted this week that the reality show has been canceled. ... Nat Geo Wild has canceled "Dog Whisperer With Cesar Milan." The final season debuts at 8 p.m. July 7. ... Arsenio Hall will return to late-night TV in a new syndicated show set to launch in fall 2013. ... Former WTAE weekend anchor Shiba Russell, who left Channel 4 in 2006, has been named primary anchor at WNBC, the NBC flagship station in New York. She'll replace New York broadcasting legend Sue Simmons, whose contract was not renewed by the station. ... Comcast will make NHL Network available free in standard definition (Channel 276) and HD (Channel 858) to all digital starter tier customers in Western Pennsylvania through Sunday for coverage of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft from Consol Energy Center. The channel is usually just available to customers who subscribe to digital preferred or to Comcast's Sports & Entertainment package.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "The Killing," "Private Practice" and TV news graphics. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "The Killing," "The Soul Man," the "Munsters" reboot and "Bristol Palin: Life's a Tripp." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "Bunheads," "Dallas," "The Killing" and "Falling Skies." Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.

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TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.


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