Hold onto something because this is going to go on for a bit.
Basically, HBO’s The Newsroom is about a fictional cable news program called “News Night” hosted by the hugely popular and moderate Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels; The Squid and The Whale). However, even though “News Night” is fictional, the stories Will McAvoy and his team report on are real – beginning with the BP oil spill in April 2010 and moving forward through recent history with the shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona, Anthony Weiner’s sex scandal, the midterm elections, and of course the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.
The opening scene of the pilot episode, in which McAvoy yells at a college student about how America is not the greatest country in the world [anymore] was making its rounds on the internet for months before the episode actually aired and got me really excited to see what the show had to offer. In the show, the incident leads to most of McAvoy’s staff leaving for different jobs and the network is forced to hire Will’s ex-girlfriend Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer; Match Point) as the show’s new executive producer. The two have a very troubled history and it leads to a lot of tension throughout the series, but both characters are played perfectly and a definite comrodery develops between the two despite their personal history.
All I really needed to know about this show was that Aaron Sorkin was behind it. I have seen everything he’s ever written (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War, Sports Night, A Few Good Men, and more) and have loved practically everything. That being said, The Newsroom is his best work yet. I hear a lot of criticisms of the show as being too liberal, which I get because even though the McAvoy character is a Republican trying to do a balanced news cast, it is the far right that more often than not comes out looking like a bunch of idiot children in the series. McAvoy spends a lot of time pointing out how dangerously ignorant key members of the Tea Party are and how they’re dragging the Republican Party further in the wrong direction. I’m a liberal, so it doesn’t bother me, but I can see the critics’ point as far as this is concerned. Overall, however, I think “News Night” is an ideal for other news programs to strive for. Despite McAvoy’s argumentative commentaries on the Tea Party, he is working to provide a fair and analytical report of the world’s news; working to be influenced only by what the American people need to know to be informed about current events, rather than his show’s ratings.
Now, a big reason why I think Newsroom is Sorkin’s best work is that he’s finally starting to learn from the mistakes that sank his previous behind-the-scenes series Sports Night and Studio 60. Sorkin does a lot of things really well as a writer. He’s great at writing dialogue that feels fun and banter-like but still manages to develop the characters, he’s great at writing characters who love what they do, he’s great at writing about politics and issues that affect all of us in a way that’s interesting and compelling. However, he does have a couple of really big blind spots as well. First, he’s not very good at writing romantic relationships. If you go back and look at The West Wing or Sports Night, you’ll notice that any romance was few and far between, and when characters did become romantically involved it tended to fade away quickly and without being properly addressed by the narrative. Studio 60’s insistence on developing romantic relationships between its primary characters quickly became tedious and repetitive and was one of the big reasons (in my opinion) that the show failed despite having a lot going for it.
Newsroom does have quite a few romantic relationships going on. We have the love triangle between Jim, Maggie, and Don (John Gallagher Jr., Allison Pill, and Thomas Sadoski respectively) in which Maggie and Don keep breaking up and getting back together and Jim is left never finding a good time to tell Maggie how he really feels about her. And then we have the Mackenzie/Will relationship which is interesting because she feels awful for how things went between them and he’s trying to act tough and stay mad at her, but can’t help letting down his defenses at times to show off for her. I don’t know how Sorkin managed to finally write some romance that felt real and interesting, but at least through this first season, it all holds up nicely.
The other big pitfall Sorkin tends to fall into is his tendency to write drama surrounding characters worrying about ratings. Sports Night’s second season and the second half of Studio 60’s one and only season are all mainly centered on the ratings of those shows, with characters wandering hallways whining about low ratings and executives demanding they get the ratings up, etc. This is incredibly boring to anyone who does not work in television and I think it’s probably the chief reason that audiences ultimately gave up on both series. Newsroom deals with ratings a little differently. No one who works for “News Night” cares about ratings. Well, McAvoy does at the back of his mind because it was such a big part of his life before Mackenzie comes on board, but ultimately he just wants to do the best news program possible even if it means he loses huge chunks of his audience. Instead, we have the network president Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) and her son Reese (Chris Messina) who are only concerned with ratings, but fortunately are not a huge part of the overall show. Sorkin has managed once again to find a good balance and as long as the scales don’t tip against him, I can see this show going on for a long time.
To wrap up, I want to say that the entire ensemble of actors here is fantastic. There are people in this who I’ve seen in other stuff and always liked, but had no idea they were capable of this caliber of performance. That being said, I want to highlight Sam Waterston’s performance as Charlie above all the other already great performances here. I’m not sure what Charlie’s title is, but he seems to be the executive in charge of “News Night” and the liaison between McAvoy’s team and the corporate executives. I guess I would most closely compare Charlie to the Isaac character on Sports Night. Everyone looks up to him as a father figure, so he’s really kind and beneficent, but more than capable to go to battle for his team and his show when the suits come knocking. It’s a really terrific performance.
The Newsroom returns in July for its second season on HBO. Special features include several behind the scenes featurettes with interviews with the cast and crew, episode commentaries, and deleted scenes. Available Blu-ray and DVD from HBO Home Entertainment on June 11.