HBO presents the new one-hour drama series from the fertile mind of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and executive produced by Sorkin, Scott Rudin and Alan Poul. Smart, topical, humorous and highly entertaining, The Newsroom takes a behind-the-scenes look at a high-rated cable-news program at the fictional ACN Network, focusing on the on- and off-camera lives of its acerbic anchor (Jeff Daniels), new executive producer (Emily Mortimer), their newsroom staff (John Gallagher, Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and others) and their news-division boss (Sam Waterston). Overcoming a tumultuous first day together – climaxing in a newsflash that a BP oil rig has just exploded in the Gulf of Mexico – the team sets out on a patriotic if quixotic mission to “do the news well” in the face of corporate and commercial obstacles, and their own personal entanglements.
has caused as much conversation about creative and cultural tunnel vision as the HBO series' creator sparks himself. Aaron Sorkin was the brains behind TV's The West Wing
, Sports Night
, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
as well as screenwriter of The Social Network
(with Steven Zaillian), and A Few Good Men
(based on his play), among others. Wielding a sort of totalitarian imprimatur that marks everything he does, Sorkin is the subject of much adoration and derision, both of which have been heaped on a show with a distinctive voice that can be as long-winded, blustery, and full of idealistic intellect as most of its characters. The Newsroom
is set in a sprawling simulacrum of the nerve center for a fictional 24-hour cable news network, with only a few segues into the boardrooms, bars, and apartments. The prime-time anchor is Will McAvoy, a vaguely Republican veteran reporter whose crisis of faith in the media and dedication to the fundamentals of journalism causes a meltdown in the premiere episode. Before he knows it, he's launched into a public diatribe about how America isn't number one, an event that ultimately drives him to form a new path for his show. Helping him craft a purer angle that's poised to cut through the noise, mundanity, and ennui in TV news is a new production team headed by producer MacKenzie McHale. She's an ex-lover who jilted Will, but who also happens to be a firebrand of passion, integrity, and battle-scarred honor. Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer as Will and MacKenzie carry much of the weight with their inherently personal skirmishes (hard feelings linger) and the speechifying that makes up most of the dialogue, usually dialed up to 10 in speed and volume. Will's arrogance is slightly tempered by MacKenzie's uprightness, but both of them represent clear archetypes in Sorkin's quest to carry his message through the medium. MacKenzie says her imperative is "speaking truth to stupid," which pretty well sums up Sorkin's attitude about the show's mission as well as his intention for his audience. The stridency flows from the top down, but the large cast includes plenty of other mouthpieces for the editorializing. All the politics and realistic newsiness is countered by the very public personal lives of the newsroom staff. Thomas Sadoski and John Gallagher Jr. play pit-bull producers with disdain for each other and a mutual attraction to Maggie (Alison Pill), an associate producer who plays ditzy and quick-witted at the same time. Dev Patel is a quietly likable presence on the research desk and Olivia Munn plays an on-air personality with multiple advanced degrees in economics, but a remarkable deficit in social skills. In the executive suite above them all is news director Charlie Skinner, brought to crafty, curmudgeonly, and authoritative life by Sam Waterston.
Sorkin told The New York Times he "thought it would be fun to write about a hyper-competent group of people," which he has certainly done. They're also just plain hyper; watching an episode can be like an adrenaline shot of sermonizing, sanctimony, sophistication, and jaw-dropping flights of fast-talking astuteness. Researching the show, Sorkin spent time embedded at MSNBC shadowing both Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews. He also dropped in on programs at Fox News and CNN that were the model for McAvoy and his Atlantis Broadcasting Network's show "News Night." The homework clearly informs The Newsroom's sense of verisimilitude, which is made even more realistic by the device of molding episodes about real news events of the recent past. The season unfolds from April 2010 to August 2011, so the action includes the newsroom's reporting on everything from the Gulf oil spill and the killing of Osama bin Laden to the teacher protest in Wisconsin and Arizona's controversial anti-illegal immigration bill. Personal politics enter the fray when the subject of the Koch brothers and the Citizens United decision come up, and there's a "News Night" uproar when the Fukushima nuclear crisis spills over into questions of ethics and personal responsibility. But for such a bunch of brilliant, zealous professionals there certainly is a lot of childish behavior, especially when it comes to everyone's love life. Biting social commentary dressed up as high-class entertainment sometimes dips into the soap opera-ish--which doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. A phone-hacking scandal that develops in the last episode will probably carry into the second season. It's also tantalizing to wonder what to expect when The Newsroom starts delving into the 2012 presidential election as seen through the lens of Aaron Sorkin's cutting pen and gift for putting lots of smart words into other people's mouths. --Ted Fry