The Newsroom: Season 1
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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.
The Newsroom 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, Moneyball (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
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Top customer reviews
Having spent more than two decades at CNN Center in Atlanta, until two years ago, as a writer and producer, the show is a brilliant success in conveying what it feels like to be in a newsroom like that, especially when there is breaking news.
In particular, the episode with the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford was absolutely true to life. Another reviewer criticized the dilema the team felt as other networks were reporting that she was dead and they were under pressure from network executives not to fall behind on the story. At the climactic moment, the anchor Will McAvoy makes the call on air and offers only the information about the shooting: "Here's what we know so far..." Which, of course, we know to have been the right call.
The factual context is right. NPR did report that Gifford had been killed; CNN, among others, repeated the misinformation, albeit attributing the report to NPR.
I don't know exactly what happened around Congresswoman Gifford's shooting, it was on a Saturday and I was working M-F, but I was there in the CNN Headline News newsroom in a similar situation: we came within seconds of airing a false report that the first president Bush had died during a visit to Japan in 1992 (where he had taken ill the night before, throwing up on the Japanese Prime Minister).
How close? The anchor --Chuck Roberts, I think it was--, said on the air "We have some very tragic news about president Bush" and you can hear in the background the supervising producer shouting "No, No, No" and then the anchor saying no, we don't have that, followed by something very close to "Here's what we know so far. President Bush fell ill last night ..." and so on.
At that time CNN set up a much more stringent system for confirming information and vetting what got on the air. Over the years, the formalities have remained ... but not the rigor. The argument is that it is already out there, all over the Internet. But you'd think a CNN would see as its job to run the reports through a fact-checking wringer and then tell its viewers the results.
The sets are absolutely true to life, not just the newsroom but also the studio and control room. I told my son as we were watching one episode that it looked like it had been filmed in the CNN International control room. Of course, this is a TV drama not a documentary, which means the writers take any number of shortcuts to telescope events into an episode's time frame and to present conflicts and issues sharply. But that is what art is supposed to do: to illuminate by selectively highlighting and focusing. I think they have done a wonderful job of distilling the life and feel of a newsroom.
And there's something else.
My favorite definition of journalism is that journalism is making public something that someone doesn't want to come out. Everything else is propagabda.
My generation of journalists had some great contemporary role models as we were learning out craft in the reporting around the Pentagon Papers and then Watergate (not just the presidential "dirty tricks" but everything that came to light as a result, from CIA financing of political campaigns in other countries and assassination plots against Fidel Castro).
Unfortunately, today it seems those sorts of models can only be found in fiction.
Warning: this review may contain spolers
This season starts with the premise of a very smart news anchor, who, for personal reasons, decides to get a conscience, and drags his production team with him.
Every episode is frame within a specific, real life event, from a marathon bombing to the capture of Bin Laden. Each one of them is filled with the drama one can hope from events that changed United States history. They end also, with Will McAvoy editorial as the closing statement from the episode.
Even with the internal drama derived from the characters personal dilemmas, you cannot help but be touched by their reaction about the shattering events they are reporting about.
In one of the episodes, part of the production team is stuck in a plane while the events about the killing of Bin Laden are unfolding. One of the producers is complaining about not being able to get down from the plane to do his job, until he sees the captain, and realizes he is traveling in a United Airlines plane. His attitude changes immediately, from a really annoying person, to a moved individual who cannot help himself, and with the outmost respect, simply tells the captain that Bin Laden has been captured.
This season, all the historical facts are treated in a serious and respectful way. Although the following two seasons would be excellent as well, these history based episodes are only used on the first one and initiate what would be, although very short, one of my favorite series.
Do yourself a favor, and watch this, you won't regret it.
Biggest 'pros': the snappy, witty dialogue and attractive characters that are easy to root for; the ever-interesting world of TV journalism; top-level production values throughout; stories revolve around real and recent historical events. Hugely entertaining for me.
I have no 'cons' for this series. I liked all of it. Season 2 a bit less so, but that is another topic and not relevant here.