Real Life And Fiction Excitingly Collide In HBO's 'The Newsroom'
The new series everyone will be talking about next week is HBO’s “The Newsroom,” a timely drama about the staff at a cable news program that was created and is written by the quick-witted if somewhat long-winded Aaron Sorkin. Even with its flaws, it is the most exciting and satisfying new series of the year.
Like every Sorkin project, it is powered by seemingly nonstop dialogue that can be intoxicating or intolerable, depending on the subject at hand and the viewer’s reaction to it. But many scenes in “The Newsroom” reflect Sorkin at the top of his game, and they should be more than enough to make this smart series an instant media favorite.
At first blush such aggressively intelligent fare may seem a strange choice for summer entertainment, given that it is more thoughtful than escapist. In truth, “The Newsroom” might play better in the fall and winter, when people are more apt to embrace anything having to do with hard news and tough issues and the presentation of same to the public, whether fictional or otherwise. It’s all serious business of one kind or another, but it becomes as engrossing as just about anything else on television when the personal-life dramas of its hyper-busy characters (which in early episodes are largely the stuff of rather uninteresting romantic relationships) are interrupted by big breaking-news stories. In fact, “The Newsroom” is at its best in those moments when real-life events eclipse the fictional narrative and the characters respond with dazzling efficiency and supreme confidence that can be thrilling to watch.
To put it another way, when Sorkin is attempting to fully explore his characters’ complicated love lives, or their social lives (which are generally compromised by the crushing demands of their work), the show can start to drag. But when something happens in the outside world that propels them into action, the result is totally captivating and sometimes quite electrifying. (This is especially true of an event in the fourth episode, but you’ll get no spoilers here, even though we’re talking about a real occurrence with which we are all unfortunately very familiar.)
The gifted Mr. Sorkin is many things, but his talents don’t include clairvoyance, so he made the clever decision to set the show in the recent past (the first episode begins in 2010), allowing for his characters to react to relatively fresh real news, and his writers to explore both sides of most stories in the process. It’s exciting that we know how those events will play out, but these very capable people do not. (That said, viewers will probably learn new things about subjects they thought they knew all about, or be reminded of things they had forgotten, like the damning details of the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.)
Not to sound trite in this era of extraordinary dramatic work by so many fine actors on television, but series lead Jeff Daniels gives an Emmy-worthy performance here. (Of course there's no guarantee he'll receive any such honor. Remember, Martin Sheen never won an Emmy for his portrayal of President Josiah Bartlet on Sorkin’s modern-day classic “The West Wing.”)
Daniels plays a formerly nondescript but now powerfully determined news anchor named Will McAvoy who develops a renewed resolve to deliver the best newscast possible and must adjust to a new staff after he suffers a public meltdown while appearing on a university panel. This is the first sequence in the first episode, and it is a spectacular beginning for this series. The scene is tantalizing enough to make forgivable some of the excessive exposition that comes later in the episode, especially involving McAvoy’s new executive producer (and former girlfriend) MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer).
Many of the characters occasionally drop F-bombs, but in most other respects “The Newsroom” isn’t all that different from Sorkin’s previous television-focused efforts, including “Sports Night,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and especially “The West Wing.” Indeed, the temptation is to say that it could have run on broadcast rather than pay cable -- and in a better, brighter, smarter world it should have done exactly that (without the cursing, of course). But with very few exceptions, broadcast television is no longer in the business of providing contemporary and provocative drama that explores real-life issues and events as they are experienced by grown-ups, especially because such stuff doesn’t seem to attract viewers young enough to attract advertisers. (Speaking of older folks, the estimable Sam Waterston and Jane Fonda are both featured in this series, and they command every scene they are in. Clearly they’re both having the time of their professional lives.)
And so it is that broadcast’s loss is HBO’s gain. But it is also a win for Sorkin, who for the first time can turn out a television series unencumbered by traditional network restrictions, and for viewers who appreciate scripted programming that presumes a basic level of informed intelligence on the part of its audience.