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July 29, 2014

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Aaron Sorkin repackages the familiar on HBO’s The Newsroom

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The Details

The Newsroom
Two and a half stars
Sundays, 10 p.m., HBO

The Newsroom, the new HBO series from creator Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), begins with a respected TV veteran having a bit of a public meltdown, followed by the network bringing in a former colleague to take over and stabilize his show. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s essentially the same as the set-up for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin’s last series about the behind-the-scenes drama at a TV show.

The Newsroom’s biggest advantage over Studio 60 is that its show-within-the-show, a nightly news broadcast on a CNN-like network, is a much better vehicle for Sorkin’s trademark bloviating about the state of the world. The people who worked on the late-night sketch comedy on Studio 60 took themselves way too seriously in relation to the significance of their show, but delivering the news actually is a pretty vital and important endeavor. Sorkin uses the characters as mouthpieces for his views about the state of the news business and how it needs to change, and his speechifying (which starts in the first scene of the first episode) can be rousing and engrossing even if it rings kind of hollow.

But once news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) delivers his heartfelt diatribe about how the media is failing America, and then his ex-girlfriend/former co-worker/new executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) delivers her stirring address about how they’re going to do the news in an honorable, straightforward fashion, and then Will delivers his speech in slightly different formats several more times over the course of the next few episodes, it all becomes extremely exhausting.

The Newsroom is full of talented actors, and Sorkin’s dialogue is often clever even when he’s belaboring the same point over and over again. But he stumbles when it comes to writing human relationships, and the depiction of the news business is simultaneously too cynical and too earnest to be truly realistic. Sorkin sets the show in the recent past so that he can have the characters report on real news stories, but that just highlights the artificiality of their approach. Despite the noble efforts from Sorkin and the cast, The Newsroom ends up closer to Studio 60 than to The West Wing.

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