The Aaron Sorkin-created television show The West Wing shaped a generation of idealistic viewers, even earning their own moniker – the West Wing babies. So when The Newsroom premiered last year, I, like so many others, could not wait to rejoin Sorkin. But now, two seasons in, I have a confession. I cannot handle The Newsroom anymore, not even to hate-watch it. So what made The West Wing work, and The Newsroom fail to satisfy?
1. Lower Narrative Stakes
Whether dealing with mandatory minimums or the state-sponsored terrorism of the fictional Qumar, each episode of The West Wing invested its narrative arcs with palpable urgency. The Newsroom, however, with its conceit of employing real-life events to dole out platitudes on the state of modern journalism, is quite simply, a bore. What are the possible outcomes of The Newsroom? They report it right, or they report it wrong. That alone makes for unexciting television, but when combined with a healthy serving of self-righteousness, the show becomes intolerable. While The West Wing pushed its viewers to look forward within a recognizable political framework, The Newsroom feels like an exercise in collective atonement, penance for all the journalistic sins none of us have actually committed.
2. The Women
The women of The West Wing – C.J. Cregg, Abigail Bartlett, Amy Gardner, Donna Moss, and even the little-liked Mandy Hampton from Season 1 – were strong, competent females who faced gender inequity and relationship strife while contributing equally in the workplace. Meanwhile, the women of The Newsroom are bumbling, clumsy buffoons who crave and rebuff male attention like prepubescent middle schoolers. The lead female, Mackenzie McHale, somehow cannot figure out email or remember her wallet. And don’t get me started on Maggie, a neurotic and inept staffer, who colloquially speaking, screws up everything she attempts.
3. Superficial Character Relationships
The West Wing had every sort of relationship: parent, friend, mentor, colleague, lover. On The Newsroom, Sorkin privileges the romantic relationship. Devoting little energy to fleshing out his characters, Sorkin makes them feel instead like an assembly of lobotomized strangers. Except for the Charlie-Will relationship (the most interesting on the show), there is little variety to the character sketches. Romantic relationships on television work best when balanced by other bonds, and The Newsroom fails here abysmally.
4. A Less Appealing Hero
Jed Bartlett, though flawed, was a charismatic, Nobel-winning economist who ascended to the highest post in American politics. While Sorkin tries to elevate McAvoy by referencing storied newsmen of broadcasts past, ultimately, McAvoy is a cantankerous evening news host too busy wallowing in low self-esteem between segments to be very inspiring to his staff. Which would be fine, if McAvoy was his own character. Instead, Sorkin forces him into the Bartlett template of the benevolent paternal figure. But a nightly news program lacks the gravitas of the presidency. Not to say that journalism is any less important (or thematically interesting), but The West Wing’s elevation of Bartlett succeeded because his stakes were proportionally higher. Bartlett gave us this, a wrenching confrontation between man and God, one of the finest scenes in modern television history. McAvoy’s greatest moment? A series of statistics, replete with mansplaining and the eulogizing of an America that never existed.
5. A Disingenuous Political Agenda
I also suspect The West Wing’s superiority lies in its explicit, if impossibly idealistic, politics. Jed Bartlett’s Democratic administration served as a beacon of light for starved liberals during the Bush years. Though there were strong Republican characters – e.g., Ainsley Hayes – The West Wing clearly was a show for liberals, in a post-9/11 period when liberalism was suffering. On The Newsroom, however, Sorkin tries to repurpose The West Wing for an age with a black, Democratic president by making his protagonist a moderate Republican. Problem is, Sorkin’s politics have not really changed. So while McAvoy crusades for an appealing moderate Republicanism that believes in climate change and marriage equality, this is a hard sell given the nature of the contemporary GOP. With the views he espouses and the straw men he employs, McAvoy is a modern-day Democrat in Republican clothing. This kind of character subterfuge just makes McAvoy the real RINO and leaves the viewer feeling vaguely tricked.
Or maybe it’s us. Maybe the West Wing Babies are not as idealistic as they once were. But there is much Sorkin could have mined from a show set in journalism: the battling egos, the hunt for the story, the fast-paced, long-nights nature of the profession. Ultimately, though, The Newsroom falls short because Sorkin fails to treat this world as one worthy of storytelling in its own right. He appropriates the structure of The West Wing while abandoning the details that made it great, and though he tries to make the stakes of The Newsroom equal, they simply cannot compare. I would love to see a TV show about journalism true to the profession. But The Newsroom is not that show.
What do some of the world’s most influential and interesting contributors think about subjects important to you? Find out by visiting The Opinionator from The New York Times