Review Roundup: Why Are Critics So Disappointed in ‘The Newsroom’?

We — and every other TV connoisseur in America — have been counting down the days till the debut of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama, The Newsroom, since the show was announced several months ago. But while we’ll still be watching the premiere this Sunday, the sheer number of negative reviews that have already been published is starting to worry us. While a few critics are sticking up for the show — The Hollywood Reporter praises its strong cast and engagement with complex issues — the majority seem fairly unhappy. How could critics possibly like an Aaron Sorkin TV show about cable news (Metacritic score: 56) less than the Dallas reboot (62)? After the jump, we take a look at the reviews to see what’s turning them off.

Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker review of the show was one of the first to make the rounds, and it set the tone of disappointment that pervades many of the early notices. While it starts out energetic, with enough entertaining moments to keep her attention, she writes that “The Newsroom gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping.” Ouch! For Nussbaum, the problem is that Sorkin’s series have never been as challenging as they’re supposed to be:

“Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV. The shows’ air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what’s inside — all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, The Newsroom treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid. Characters describe events we’ve just witnessed. When a cast member gets a shtick (like an obsession with Bigfoot), he delivers it over and over. In episode four, there’s a flashback to episode three. In a recent interview, Sorkin spoke patronizingly of cop shows, but his Socratic flirtations are frequently just as formulaic, right down to the magical ‘Ask twice!’ technique.”

The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever is similarly unimpressed, echoing Nussbaum’s judgment that the show’s quality goes south quickly. His main point, though, is that Sorkin fundamentally misunderstands how the journalism world works:

“[N]o matter what The Newsroom’s producers and writers might think, journalism just isn’t very much like politics. The brain-wiring between reporters and politicos is more different than most people realize, and the high-profile personality who traverses between them (George Stephanopoulos, say) is more of an exception. Yet, from Sorkin’s keyboard, these are all the same kind of folk, thriving merely on their own highfalutin’-ness, determined to shape forces beyond their control, and determined to do it with talk.

But according to Brian Lowry, in a mixed review for Variety, The Newsroom’s shortcomings extend beyond the political and professional arenas:

“Beyond its politics and media criticisms — which will doubtless strike even some natural allies as preachy, and most on the right as yet another liberal-media eye poke — the show more bluntly misfires in portraying its personal relationships. For starters, Will and MacKenzie’s squabbling-exes dynamic proves drearily familiar, and there’s an uninspired triangle involving Will’s former producer (Thomas Sadoski) and two younger staffers, wide-eyed Maggie (Alison Pill) and the principled Jim (John Gallagher Jr.).”

At HuffPost, Maureen Ryan finds the show painfully unsubtle — to the extent that she believes “its goals and its narrative strategies are in direct conflict with each other.” As she explains:

“The ironies abound, but one of the central ironies is this: The lead character on this show, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), bemoans the fact that much of the public discourse has become an unsubtle shoutfest, yet The Newsroom displays all the subtlety of a jackhammer set to maximum or a terrier on speed. Characters talk at each other, they constantly preach to their colleagues, and McAvoy frequently fulminates at his viewers at length. These soliloquies, even allowing for the familiar tics and tricks of Sorkinese, become deadening over time.”

James Poniewozik at TIME agrees: “Its chief problem as a drama is that, well, it’s an editorial,” he writes, going on to enumerate faults ranging from Sorkin’s difficulty with female characters to the lack of character development.

Meanwhile, Willa Paskin at Salon is bothered by The Newsroom’s failure to acknowledge that there have been news anchors who do what Sorkin’s righteous main character hopes to accomplish (Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, Shepard Smith), but they’ve never succeeded in effecting large-scale change. Most of all, though, Paskin points out that Sorkin always writes the same characters, and they’re starting to grate:

“His enormous linguistic, analytic and aggregative capacities have been put into the service of high-strung characters who all sound exactly the same, wield their erudition and earnestness like cudgels, and treat everything from office crushes and basic conversation to the day-to-day tasks of their jobs as an occasion for furious speechifying and verbal somersaults. The results are a captivating, riveting, rousing, condescending, smug, infuriating mixture, a potent potion that advertises itself as intelligence-enhancing but is actually just crazy-making.”

So, readers, are you a Sorkin lover ready to be made crazy or have you been dissuaded from tuning in to The Newsroom?