"We Just Decided To," "News Night 2.0," "The 112th Congress," "I'll Try To Fix You," "Amen," "Bullies," "5/1," "The Blackout, Part 1: Tragedy Porn," "The Blackout, Part 2: Mock Debate," "The Greater Fool"
by Jefferson Robbins The more I think about Aaron Sorkin's chimerical HBO beast "The Newsroom", the more I think it would work far, far better as a Broadway musical. That may be because Sorkin loads the ranks of his ensemble drama with accomplished theatre vets, or it may be because of the endless dialogue references to stage classics, beginning and ending with Man of La Mancha. But it's also a matter of timing: The show offers strange eruptions of relationship palaver, set in the midst of world-altering sociopolitical changes and the daily churn of building a TV newshour around them. They arrive oddly, maddeningly, and frequently, just when the storylines involving real-world events are beginning to compel, and they feel almost uniformly dishonest and manufactured. What I'm saying is, they'd go down easier if they were sung.
The meltdown leads to a shake-up at fictional Atlantis Cable News as Will's long-time executive producer, Don (Thomas Sadoski), bails out to steer the 10 p.m. broadcast, and news chief Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, tremoring towards Robert-Morse-on-"Mad Men" territory) imports war-weary field producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) as Will's showrunner. Two obstacles: 1) McAvoy and MacKenzie are estranged ex-lovers, with a lot of prefab conflict to be backstory'd in as the series goes on; and 2) nobody had the guts to tell Sorkin this surfeit of "Mc" names was a terrible idea. MacKenzie brings in a junior producer who's likewise back from the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones, Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.), with the brief to not only put "News Night" on the cutting edge of TV journalism but also romance Will's assistant, Maggie (Alison Pill). Literally, MacKenzie orders Jim to smoove up his underling, like some studio executive's script note made flesh, despite the fact that she's in a longstanding relationship with Don. The powerful skill of the actors involved can't drown out this false note, which rings continuously through the first season.
The new crew sets out to report the news with conviction and accuracy, starting with the environmental nightmare inherent in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. This move situates "The Newsroom" in the real world, a place we've lived, and sets the show up as a kind of corrective to the media narratives that have accumulated around major events of the past three years. "News Night" is first to the plate with the facts that, in real reportage, took days or weeks to emerge. The broadcast's new posture reinvigorates Will after what we're told is a sleepwalking half-decade behind the anchor desk, but it intimidates network president Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) and his mom, parent-company mogul Leona (Jane Fonda). What follows so closely parallels the travails of both MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rupert Murdoch's tabloid empire that I wonder if either of them gets residuals. Whatever... I bet Keith and Rupert never interrupt a crucial talk on the debt ceiling to moan that so-and-so is leaving them, or that they want to move in with such-and-such. (The Murdochian plotline even mentions Murdoch by name, causing cognitive dissonance in anyone who's paid attention to the news in the last two years, which I assume is Sorkin's audience.)
This is how "The Newsroom" will go for ten episodes: Serious Issues sit uncomfortably side-by-side with Relationship Jitters and Vaudevillian Pratfalls. The pilot is a charmer on its own merits, baiting us with Will's crisis and sinking the hook with Deepwater, but then we also have Maggie tripping on a chair and trying to run away from her desk with a phone headset still attached. Jeff Schoen's admirable production design gives us a good sense of place, and it's well-employed as the newsroom percolates slowly to life following Will's return to work, though at times director Greg Mottola's geography is questionable. (Jim hides in an office to take a call; I thought it was the same office where MacKenzie and Will were at that moment having it out.) The episode glosses over the pain and hurdles of actual newsgathering in much the same way The Social Network glossed over code development, and for all the crispness of Sorkin's dialogue and Will's alleged chops as a newsreader, once he finally goes on the air, he mushmouths. His series-setting rant concerning "great men" echoes in the handling of the female characters: MacKenzie, who starts off on fairly equal footing, ends the episode as just a girl, standing in front of a McAvoy, watching him close the elevator in her face.
She fares no better in the follow-up, "News Night 2.0," knocking over an easel, slapping a cellphone out of an underling's hand, and firebombing herself with a series of misdirected e-mails. More than just the Internet, Sorkin appears to have a blind spot for telecommunications in general. People on "The Newsroom" are always talking on/about their BlackBerrys, at a time (April 2010) when the phone's market share was in the latrine and the iPhone 3GS was the hot mobile platform. Could be a product placement deal, I suppose, but you can't have verisimilitude in only one out of three of your show's dimensions. Two parallel tales of cheating on a current flame with one's ex run in tandem with "News Night"'s quest to squeeze juice out of Arizona's unconstitutional immigration bill. Try as I might, I couldn't see how the two things were alike. Sorkin tries too hard to make a Jim and Pam out of Jim and Maggie, and as the characters' patterns become set, "The Newsroom" looks less like "The West Wing" than like "Ally McBeal"--highly-educated professionals in crucial jobs with the emotional maturity of middle-schoolers, evacuating perfectly discreet private offices in order to have explosive personal arguments before the largest possible number of witnesses.
Some of the show's best moments turn outward, to the wider world. In episode 1.4, "I'll Try To Fix You," Will (target of the slapstick this time around, earning three drinks to the face) proves prescient on the gun-control issue in the days leading up to Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford's near-fatal wounding. In "Amen" (1.5), earnest staff blogger Neal (Dev Patel) cultivates a Cairo source during the Arab Spring. In these scenes, "The Newsroom" taps into some of the breaking-the-news chutzpah of Michael Mann's The Insider, showing journalism happening, against forbidding obstacles, in service of the truth. Neal's kinship with Egyptian crypto-journalist Kahlid is similarly moving: both are post-colonial millennials radicalized by national trauma not towards violence, but towards reportage and acting as the eyes of the world. And then Maggie hits Jim with a swinging glass door.
"The Newsroom"'s jaundiced hindsight view of then-current events plays well to an informed--not to say liberal--news viewer's pipe dreams. One really does wish this was the way the news had been done the first time around, from Will's tweaking of the Tea Party to a tentative probe into the National Security Agency's domestic spying. (I mentioned prescience, didn't I?) The best ribbing of the media's decline comes with the first of a two-part instalment, "The Blackout," which keenly dissects still-writhing termagant Nancy Grace and packs in the most drama with the most finesse. (Thank you, frequent "Mad Men" helmer Lesli Linka Glatter.) Yet the gender inequity that suffuses the storylines infects "News Night"'s coverage bias as well: Rather than examining the Anthony Weiner scandal as harassment carried out by a powerful man troublingly addicted to the sexiness of power, Will and MacKenzie regard it as an eruption of avaricious bimbos.
The other best moments are Will's alone. He's a knee-jerk mansplainer who understands the times he lives in less and less but can't help trying to maintain the upper hand. When he finally gets a non-office supporting cast to use as foils (bodyguard Terry Crews and psychotherapist David Krumholtz), we become as invested in him as they are. Still, his inner life is communicated through verbal exposition, almost never through Daniels's performance. We know he's damaged, but it's up to everybody else to explain why that is. The performers can't be faulted for any of this--they're top-notch, from Sorkin's above-the-line Broadway regulars to Olivia Munn as the smart but flailing market newscaster Sloan Sabbith (oy, these names), finally given a role that lets her test herself against veterans. In part, the cast's appeal is why it's hard to see them ill-used: Sloan confronts Charlie's sexist language during a disciplinary lecture, but doesn't mind Don literally chucking her under the chin in consolation. "The Newsroom"'s first season ends where it began, much as The Social Network did, with somebody fatefully gazing at a screen. In terms of dramas where human relationships play out against the mediated backdrop of history, it's no "Mad Men".
I dunno, it doesn't feel like I should be seeing this much grain in an HBO presentation in 2013. The pilot is the main culprit, as later episodes resolve to better smoothness. Past that patina, the 1.78:1, 1080p Blu-ray image impresses, from the warm clutter of Will's office to the dark corners of his sombre, minimalist apartment--again with that fine production design, reflecting professional and private sides of the same man. (I will say the graphics generated for the newscast look like somebody CGI'd the illustrations out of my high-school geography book.) Nothing is lost in these depths, and our close-ups with the players offer unblemished skin and clothing textures. The camera moves from interior to exterior environments without strain--all crucial elements for a show that explores America's aggressively televisual way of seeing. Soundwise, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix keeps dialogue corralled in its traditional front-channel box, ensuring that no line of Sorkin's scripts (he's the sole credited writer on all but one episode) goes unheard. The ambients--and there's a fair amount of newsroom chatter, clatter, and Blackberry pings--occupy most of the remaining channels with an even and convincing distribution. Thomas Newman's grandiloquent, maddeningly hummable theme trumpets bracingly at each opening, while interstitial composer Alex Wurman gets plenty of showcasing within the episodes, usually when a character starts rolling on a monologue.
Crew and cast commentaries accompany five episodes along the way, with director/producer Greg Mottola revealing on the first, for the pilot, that it was shot on Super16, thus accounting for the obtrusive grain. Mottola's complaints about it are similar to my own. Sorkin leads this commentary group, which includes executive producer Alan Poul and offers some nice making-of vignettes. For instance, HBO funded the building of the set for the pilot, a rare move that sort of indicates they'd already committed to a full season; and Sorkin responded to Sadoski's skilful audition by merging two characters to expand Don's role--the constructive instincts of a playwright reacting to his actors. Amusingly, Sorkin claims to be confused as to why so many critics made a big deal about his "West Wing" pedeconference scenes. ("The Newsroom" is far lighter on walk-and-talks.) He also defends Will's opening rant, saying he in no way intended nostalgia for the dominion of white men--but when you say "things were better then," white dominion is the implicit core of your argument. On the yakker for episode 3, "The 112th Congress," Sorkin pauses his confab with Daniels and Waterston to moon over a beautiful bit player. Beyond that, it's all shop talk, complete with the two actors offering warm remembrances of performances past.
Munn, appropriately for an episode that involves Sloan going rogue on-air, thoroughly hijacks the "Bullies" commentary from Poul and Daniels, talking for what seems like eight years about the cruelty of online comments. I guess she should know, but...skippable. Sorkin dominates the remaining confabs, although the commentary for the season closer, "The Greater Fool," turns into a transcontinental Skype party with Sadoski and Pill joining Sorkin, Daniels, Poul, Waterston, and Mortimer.
"The Rundown" (26 mins., HD) puts Sorkin in a room with Daniels, Mortimer, Waterston, Mottola, and Poul, who mostly reiterate bits they've given on commentaries elsewhere. "Mission Control" (5 mins., HD) shows off the basically functional TV control room that was installed just for the show, letting actors work with each other through monitors and audio feeds as actual producers and newscasters would. Sorkin offers three- to five-minute post-mortems in ten "Inside the Episode" featurettes (HD), and there are approximately six minutes of deleted scenes distributed across the discs. HBO provides its usual, optional "previously on/next on" reel with every ep. The package additionally comes with the full series on two flipper DVDs--stripped of all extras save language options and subtitles (really? Finnish but not German?)--plus a Digital Copy downloadable through HBO Select. Follow Jefferson Robbins on Twitter