You have to be a genius like Aaron Sorkin to get away with a show as vigorously awful as The Newsroom. That's the thing that makes it so agonizing in its watchability. Sorkin sees his hero Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, as the last noble Roman in the wilderness of cable news. But Will is just a blowhard twit who can't stop lecturing about his hard-won ideals.
Yet Sorkin is an infinitely more fascinating character than Will McAvoy – and there's no way Sorkin doesn't realize it. Like so many great American artists, he thrives when he's a hired gun jumping into somebody else's story, as in Moneyball or The Social Network. Sorkin clearly cares about The Newsroom, but for some reason he got more authentic emotion out of Brad Pitt talking about strikeout-to-walk ratios. Meanwhile, in The Newsroom, he gives Daniels pungent, paragraph-long speeches that could make pithy bumper stickers – if your bumper went all the way around your car twice.
All the maudlin pomp on The Newsroom makes you wonder: Is this the price of being so off-the-charts great at something so early in your career? Remember, even when The West Wing debuted in 1999, people were already calling it "Sorkin-esque," and the guy was just getting started. He was barely into his thirties before he became a famous screenwriter, a celebrity category that basically contains just Sorkin and the dude who wrote Showgirls. To have such mind-boggling talent for something thousands of others try to do? Does that ever feel like a burden?
Why, yes, apparently. This is some serious midlife self-pity. The tone is all mid-Seventies Bob Dylan, circa "Hurricane," when the man was wailing about wronged heroes like Rubin Carter and Joey Gallo, not so much because he cared about them personally, but as metaphors for his own martyrdom.
So if you take a sick pleasure in The Newsroom, it's like getting off on hearing Dylan sing about misunderstood mobsters reading Nietzsche in prison. Of course, Dylan ended up turning to Jesus, so maybe in a couple of years we'll get a Sorkin dramedy called Church Night, starring Bill Pullman as the world's most intensely well-meaning Methodist pastor.
The best joke on The Newsroom is the idea of cable news as a symbol of lost purity. It's tough to imagine anybody looking back on the golden days of CNN and thinking, "This was our finest hour." Ah, the innocent yesteryear of Headline News, back when staring up at the airport TV monitors while getting sloshed on margaritas at Chili's meant something.
The Newsroom suffers from coming so soon after a magnificent season of Veep, another HBO Sunday-night sensation. Any random minute of Veep crackles with the kind of rapid-fire banter that comes so laboriously on The Newsroom. If one of Veep's political hacks ever met Will McAvoy, they'd just shrug and say, "You can't reason with him – it'd be like explaining Supertramp to a Komodo dragon." And they'd probably be right.
This story is from the August 29th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.