Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 29, 2013)
Though he did well with earlier movies, Aaron Sorkin really made his name with the long-running TV series The West Wing, and he later snared an Oscar for his Social Network screenplay. Sorkin’s initial attempt at a TV show to follow West Wing only lasted one season, however, as Studio 60 failed to gain an audience.
Sorkin comes back to TV with a more limited series, the HBO program The Newsroom. As expected, this concentrates on the people and events within a TV news studio. The Blu-ray set spreads all of Season One’s 10 episodes across four discs. The plot synopses come straight from the Blu-ray menus.
We Just Decided To: “Surviving the fallout from a meltdown, ACN News Night anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) returns to his job and finds that his executive producer and most of entire staff are leaving the show. Will learns that he’s been assigned a new EP: MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a former girlfriend. Will and his overhauled staff face an immediate challenge when breaking news comes across the wire.”
Though Sorkin has been in the business for 20 years, I’ve had somewhat limited experience with his works. I’ve seen the six movies he wrote but had never watched any of his series. That leaves me only partially familiar with the “Sorkin Style”, though I gather he tends toward “written” and not especially naturalistic speech.
If that preconception is correct, it manifests itself consistently throughout this episode. This style can be hit or miss; while Sorkin creates some dazzling wordplay, I can find it hard to get past my belief that no one actually speaks like that.
If such “scripted” dialogue puts you off, I suspect Newsroom won’t be for you. I’m not sure how I’ll take it in the long run, but despite its lack of realism, there’s a sparkle and verve on display here that keeps me entertained. Even with all its lapses into artificiality, “Decided” launches the series in an entertaining manner.
By the way, an actor who starred in a recent Sorkin-scripted film does an uncredited voice performance as an expert Will interviews on the phone. This is cute but acts as a distraction, I think. Hopefully the rest of the series won’t follow this Frasier route.
News Night 2.0: “Mac asserts control over the new incarnation of News Night and enlists a beautiful and brainy on-air economist, Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), to do a nightly segment. Jim (John Gallager, Jr.) takes the fall for a Maggie (Alison Pill) miscue; Charlie (Sam Waterston) forbids Reese (Chris Messina) from continuing his furtive meetings with Will; a long-festering breakup secret gets out.”
While it doesn’t have quite the same zing as “Decided”, “2.0” keeps the series moving. It threatens to delve into soap opera, and I could live without the apparently inevitable Capra-style moralizing that could become a staple, but otherwise, the episode gives us a fun experience. In particular, a loony discussion of an Arizona law amuses.
The 112th Congress: “In an on-air editorial, Will apologizes for past newscasts and promises a new era of integrity for News Night. Will’s new approach rankles Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), CEO of ACN’s parent company Atlantis World Media, who warns Charlie that Will’s stance will not be tolerated. Jim soothes Maggie during a panic attack; Don (Thomas Sadoski) charges Elliot (David Harbour) to get in the game; Will parades a string of arm-candy in front of Mac.”
Newsroom comes set in 2010, which offers an unusual perspective, as it covers real news with real news clips but done by fake news people. Some times this feels like an attempt to refight the battles of that era, and it can become a method of editorializing.
That means the newsroom scenes can be up and down. I enjoy them but I don’t know how realistic they feel, and the series seems intended to do little more than challenge actual news networks to step up their game and to tell certain political elements how dumb they are.
I might agree with the series’ conclusions, but it can become heavy-handed. Because of this, the interpersonal moments can be more interesting than the newsroom elements, which is a reverse of what I’d expect. These segments can go into soap opera territory, but at least they give us a respite from the ham-fisted politicizing. I do find this to be entertaining – it’s too bright to fall flat – but I’m not enamored with all the lectures.
I’ll Try to Fix You: “Will’s ‘mission to civilize’ takes a hit when he finds himself in the tabloid spotlight. Wade (John Tenney) approaches Will with info on the government’s flagging ability to fight financial crime; Don gets Maggie to fix Jim up with her roommate, Lisa (Kelen Coleman); Sloan strikes out as a matchmaker; and Neal’s (Dev Patel) ‘Bigfoot is real’ pitch falls on deaf ears. Against Reese’s wishes, Will refuses to follow the media rumor mill and make a call on a breaking story.”
Only Newsroom could take a New Year’s party and turn it into an excuse to lecture the audience about the evils of gossip. We get many more harangues about other political issues as well. The series has enough entertainment value in other ways to sustain it, but damn could we use a break from all the editorializing. This often threatens to become less a TV drama and more an op-ed piece. Cripes, I can’t stand guns but after this episode, I’m tempted to stock up on firearms just to spite the condescending writers.
Amen: “In the midst of its coverage of the ouster of Egyptian President Mubarak, the News Night team learns of a protest in Wisconsin condemning Governor Scott Walker’s bill to balance the budget by cutting teachers’ jobs. As Maggie, Jim and Don hustle to get side-by-side views of the simultaneous uprisings on the air, Neal tracks down an Egyptian insider to get on-the-ground updates from Cairo.”
Am I the only one who thinks Newsroom would be more interesting if it didn’t focus solely on “big issues”? Granted, that’s an intriguing take on the standard “behind the scenes” series, but it feels somewhat gimmicky.
At this point, I go into every episode wondering when the show’s lecture moment will come. It takes about half an hour this time, and it’s briefer than usual, but it does arrive – and more editorializing pops up later, of course. As usual, the program remains entertaining despite its slant, but I can’t help but think Newsroom would work better if it didn’t feel like it existed solely to stop Republicans during the 2012 election.
Bullies: “A lingering bout with insomnia drives Will to keep a long-standing therapy appointment. Subbing for Elliot during the Japanese nuclear crisis, Sloan’s strident interrogation of a Tokyo power company spokesperson ends up jeopardizing her own career. After his rough handling of an interview subject, Will comes to recognize the causes and effects of being a bully.”
Is it just me, or does Newsroom occasionally give off a less comedic 30 Rock feel? Mac often delivers a bit of a less goofy Liz Lemon feel, and Will can be like a less arrogant Jack. I doubt these parallels are intentional, but they come through to me.
“Bullies” fares better than many of its predecessors because it feels less preachy. I like the segments with Sloan, as they bring out another side of a supporting character, and many of Will’s segments broaden horizons as well. If more of the series could be like “Bullies” – ie, expand characters and de-emphasize editorializing – I’d be much happier.
5/1: “An anonymous source contacts Charlie and provides advance details on an imminent story of national importance. When news breaks that the President will be making a televised speech that night, the 2.0 staff cuts short its one-year (and one-week) anniversary party and rushes back to the newsroom amidst a flurry of speculation as to exactly what happened.”
With “5/1”, the series continues the positive trend seen in “Bullies”. Even with the major event involved, it avoids the standard editorializing and focuses on its characters. It meshes drama and comedy in a satisfying manner to become one of the season’s more complete programs.
The Blackout Part I: “News Night’s refusal to lead with a pair of sensational stories causes ratings to plummet – and forces Will and Mac to abandon their principles in order to lure back viewers and shore up the network’s bid to land a Republican debate. Will auditions an unlikely scribe, Brian Brenner (Paul Schneider), to write an all-access profile; Sloan chafes over her lack of air time to report on a critical financial crisis; Charlie learns the identity of an NSA whistleblower; Neal pitches an Internet sting.”
When I look at two-part episodes, I save my comments until the end of the second segment. That’s not going to change now.
The Blackout Part II: “Will and the News Night staff stage a mock debate for a pair of Republican Party officials. Mac has an epiphany during a power outage; Charlie vets the credibility of an NSA insider; Lisa goes off-script during an on-air interview; Neal goes undercover as an Internet troll.”
With News Night’s shift toward tabloid topics – and a mock debate - Newsroom comes back with some of its patented moralizing, but it delivers this in smaller doses than usual. That’s the best thing about the last few episodes: they’ve usually avoided the series’ weaker elements. “Blackout” still indulges in them a bit – and drags at times – but it gives us good momentum as we head toward S1’s finish.
The Greater Fool: “Nina Howard (Hope Davis) surprises Mac with a damning revelation; Jim and Maggie reach a crossroad; Sloan weighs a new job offer; Neal uses his Internet alter-ego to smoke out a threat. Will, Mac and Charlie face off with Leona and Reese during a tension-filled lunch meeting.”
Season One wraps up a story line that spans 15 months – and comes full circle in some ways, though don’t expect it to tie up character elements with tidy bows. Actually, it acts almost as a cliffhanger in terms of various relationships, though it does conclude other narrative elements.
Overall, it works fairly well as a season-ender, though it does restore the series’ earlier preachiness. “Fool” aired August 26, 2012, and acted as the show’s final attempt to influence the election; as such, it goes all out to air its grievances. The rest of it gives us more interesting material and a fairly satisfying finale; I just could’ve lived without the return of the op-ed bent.