Television's finest minds have their heads up their asses—or so Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom (HBO, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) asserts in its bravura opening and, in numerous scenes thereafter, haplessly demonstrates. Before we scan Sorkin's latest—a fantasy set at a prime-time cable-news show—let’s, for the sake of perspective, scan the dial. On Comedy Central, partisans of The Daily Show and citizens of Colbert Nation are united in analyzing the nonstop democracy-maiming horror of media distortion. NBC is home to America's funniest terminal decadence—the meta-narrative Community, the corporate self-critique 30 Rock, the comedy career of Brian Williams. Fox News and MSNBC exist symbiotically, sucking sound bites like fresh blood. This is not to mention the establishment on AMC's Mad Men manufacturing desire for a living, or the blocks of the network week given over to talent competitions that invite all the world behind the music. Fantastical projections and inside-baseball X-rays are a main game of home entertainment, especially on HBO, 20 years after The Larry Sanders Show presented a showbiz satire not to be flipped away from.
Sorkin—the creator of The West Wing, a populist whose subjects are rhetoric and ethics—has written often about mass media. He has written often; he has often written well; he has sometimes been awfully overwrought in his zeal for showing people talking about putting on a show. He wired Sports Night (a TV comedy about a show like Sportscenter) and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (a TV drama about a show like SNL) to communicate the pressures and pleasures of the live feed. On film in The Social Network (about the creator of Facebook) and on stage in The Farnsworth Invention (about the creators of television), he offered origin stories for empires. Sorkin draws fine lines, clever loops, and bold broad strokes. I saw The Farnsworth Invention on Broadway and recall one gloriously cheesy move the playwright pulled to advance the plot: A young actor dressed like a chorus boy from Newsies skittered across the stage: "EXTRA! EXTRA!" Sorkin is not shy, as they say at tabloid papers, to break out the wood—to bark the big message of the plump headline.
The Newsroom opens with news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) sitting in a college auditorium with two lesser talking heads and a panel moderator. He has a spiritual crisis during the Q-and-A session. An ordinary woman in the back of the audience reminds him of his ex-girlfriend—ace news producer Mackenzie MacHale—and he hallucinates(?) that she’s cueing him to unleash his righteous fury and fiery brilliance(!).
The moderator of the panel agitates McAvoy by quoting a pan of his blandness, calling him "the Jay Leno of news anchors." And then a doe-eyed sophomore named Jenny tees up a question: Can you tell us in a sentence why America is the greatest country in the world? In response, McAvoy riffs and rages at the sorry state of American power and culture. It's an echo of Network, of course, and more directly of the barnburner delivered by Judd Hirsch in the virtuosic cold open of the Studio 60 pilot—the rant about television making us mean and bitchy and his network being a greed-filled whorehouse. The speeches share a special rhythm that Sorkin employs whenever a character is speaking to power a truth you cannot handle.
McAvoy ends his tirade cursing the student: “When you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the fuck you're talking about—Yosemite?" The Yosemite lends an excellent steaming-ears flourish to the speech—and possibly pegs McAvoy, whom Sorkin has said he imagines as a Republican, as a Teddy Roosevelt type.
Then McAvoy pauses, and here comes the bull and the moose.
In the moments after Will curses out the college student, there is silence in the auditorium. The crowd is apparently too scandalized to murmur among itself, and there are no hisses to hush. This is unnatural, and we are safely in the realm of pure theater when Will begins the second act of his performance. He follows the rant with an inspirational coda, getting misty about the New Deal and the Great Society as if stealing Brokaw's act: "We reached for the stars. Acted like men. ... We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn't"—here McAvoy chokes off a heavy sigh—"we didn't scare so easy. ... We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men. Men who were revered."