The Newsroom can’t catch a break. Season 2, a nine-episode block that wrapped up this Sunday, clearly tried to put the worst of Season 1 behind it, adding a season-long arc and taking the edge off the female hysteria. But somehow, the show still didn’t come together. The snappy dialogue was all there, as was the middlebrow elitism and all of the other guilty pleasure elements that can make watching an Aaron Sorkin show so fun. The problem is that even when Sorkin does what he does best, it’s still not enough to measure up to the shows that are its peers — namely, its fellow hour-long dramas on HBO and other prestige networks. In the Age of the Antihero, The Newsroom makes a few halfhearted attempts at unlikable protagonists and moral ambiguity, but it’s unable to follow through with them. And that’s why no matter how hard it tries, the show is doomed to fail (with the critics, at least).
The logical place to start when comparing The Newsroom to its rivals is the common DNA they share: a white, middle-aged, deeply flawed protagonist. At first glance, Will McAvoy has plenty in common with Walter White, Don Draper, and the like. Modeled loosely on Keith Olbermann, Will is sanctimonious, egotistical, and capable of doing some pretty awful things in the name of winning, whether it’s an argument or a breakup. He browbeats interviewees for no good reason, condescends all over his female employees, and in a particularly despicable move, buys an engagement ring for the sole purpose of showing an ex-girlfriend how badly she’d screwed up by giving her the false impression that he’d planned on proposing. He’s about as bad a boyfriend and boss as many of TV’s other “difficult men,” minus the violence.
But terrible as he is, Sorkin just doesn’t have the nerve to make Will as bad-to-the-bone awful as a true antihero has to be. The Newsroom is never quite willing to sell its protagonist to us as a truly nasty guy, one who challenges our preconceived notions of what it means to be a dramatic lead. To do that, Will doesn’t need to do something quite as drastic as strangle a guy with his bare hands or deal dope to 16-year-olds. He just can’t have as many preachy monologues that are obviously supposed to be Speaking Truth to Power, or as many adoring employees, or as many significant others willing to forgive some fairly massive transgressions (MacKenzie’s mad about the ring debacle but accepts a marriage proposal a couple scenes later; Nina Howard goes from throwing a drink in his face to helping him hike up his ratings in less than a season).
No matter how many times Will puts his foot in his mouth, there’s an enduring sense that we’re supposed to like him. The closest The Newsroom has come to questioning Will’s status as the noblest newsman who ever was came towards the middle of Season 1, when a gay, African-American Rick Santorum supporter rips him a new one on air for a particularly condescending series of questions regarding his candidate of choice. Had the show continued to depict Will’s so-called “mission to civilize” in such a critical light, it could have accomplished something truly interesting: asking whether Will’s sense of moral superiority hurts his ability to do his job, not to mention whether he actually wants to improve the media landscape or just make himself feel good.
Instead, The Newsroom backpedals. We never hear from the Santorum supporter again, and the next time Will tears a guest apart (Occupy Wall Street coordinator Shelley Wexler), she admits she was wrong all along while he takes the high road and apologizes. It’s an incident that affirms how likable Will is supposed to be, with the unintentional side effect of demonstrating how likable he’s not. As the audience, we know we’re meant to think of Will as a guy with faults who’s ultimately worthy of our respect. Instead, we find a figure who’s too obnoxious to love, but too uncomplicated to be the subject of a series-long character study in the vein of Tony Soprano or Don Draper. All that’s left is hate — or rather, hate-watching.
That same unwillingness to take characters’ shortcomings and run with them manifests itself across The Newsroom. There’s Jim, the senior producer whose love interest calls him out for launching a self-congratulatory crusade against the Romney campaign only to make out with him poolside. There’s Don, the EP who shamelessly grubs for ratings only to see the error of his ways and take up the good fight for Real News. And most disappointing of all, there’s Charlie, the president of news who’s ready to admit that screwing up a huge story was partly his fault right up until he isn’t.
That last plot line represents The Newsroom‘s biggest missed opportunity to give itself some of the angst and internal conflict we’ve come to expect from premium TV. The News Night team does end up airing a completely false report that the army used sarin gas during a rescue operation. But rather than having his protagonists go through the trauma of realizing they’re to blame and the soul-searching that follows, Aaron Sorkin gives them a handy scapegoat in the form of Jerry Dantana, an outside player who everyone’s happy to tell themselves is entirely at fault. It’s far too easy a move for a show that’s aiming to occupy the same Sunday-night-cable space as programs like Homeland and Boardwalk Empire.
Comparing The Newsroom to those other shows demonstrates the problem: in today’s television landscape, the bar for great drama is set too high to fall back on black-and-white morality or refuse to hold main characters accountable. By running a show on HBO in 2013, Sorkin faces drastically tougher competition than he did on NBC in 1999. Not that The West Wing isn’t a vastly better show than The Newsroom in its own right — it is. But The Newsroom is behind the times in a way that The West Wing never was, and thanks to the kind of series it’s going up against, it shows.