Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sports Night 2.0: The Newsroom Season 1 (My 2300th Movie/Television Review!)

The Good: Exceptional writing, Great acting, Interesting plots and characters, Great DVD extras
The Bad: Recycles so much stuff from other Aaron Sorkin works!
The Basics: The Newsroom Season 1 returns Aaron Sorkin to television and it is incredible . . . except for fans of Aaron Sorkin’s other television works.

Right off the bat, I need to say that I am a big fan of the works of Aaron Sorkin. At this point, the only thing by Sorkin that I have not yet seen (to the best of my knowledge) is Malice. So, when I sat down to watch The Newsroom - The Complete First Season, I was excited because I love the writing, characters and settings Sorkin creates. And The Newsroom is great . . . for everyone but the fans of Sorkins works. I have to say, I’m not entirely sure The Newsroom is a Sorkin work: the season finale is not called “What Kind Of Day Has It Been.” Die-hard fans of Sorkin’s works will get that joke.

They’ll also get that some of the best moments in The Newsroom are lifted directly from Sorkin’s other works. In two different episodes in the first season, Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie and Sam Waterston’s Charlie deliver lines that Sorkin wrote for William H. Macey’s character Sam Donovan from Sports Night (reviewed here!). Sorkin recycling from his works is not a new thing; he took advantage of the fact that Sport Night tanked to use entire lines and plotlines from Sports Night in The West Wing (reviewed here!). The Newsroom is not at all unsurprising for Sorkin fans: it begins with a character in crisis who begins to turn his life around, finds the characters embattled against an entrenched adversary (2/3 have been “The Network,” for the other Sorkin television work, it was Republicans), and features a relationship that is on again/off again or dissolving. Fans of Sports Night will see a lot of Isaac in Charlie, Dana in MacKenzie, Casey in Will and Natalie in Maggie. After a decade off the air, Sorkin hopes that viewers will have forgotten about his beloved Sports Night characters, but his fans will not.

So, fans of Aaron Sorkins works will not be surprised by any number of the early “surprises,” like the fact that MacKenzie cheated on Will in their backstory, that Maggie and Don do not actually break up and Isaac, er, Charlie, stands up for the show without telling Will and his team just how endangered they are.

And, despite all of the Sorkin conceits familiar to the fans, The Newsroom Season 1 is still amazing television. In fact, it is better than 95% of the other programs that are on the air and the only show in recent memory where my wife and I got at least one chill per episode. When, by episode four “I’ll Try To Fix You,” the series creates a perfect episode (10/10, absolute perfection!), it is hard to deny that the viewer is watching something absolutely incredible. It is so easy to overlook the recycled lines and Sorkin conceits in the season.

As the title suggests, The Newsroom is set behind-the-scenes at a cable news network. Opening with a college seminar panel where anchor Will McAvoy declares that the United States is not the greatest nation on Earth, ACN – Atlantis Cable Network – puts McAvoy on three weeks of forced vacation. When he returns to work, he finds most of his staff gone and his ex-girlfriend, MacKenzie McHale, is being brought on as the nightly news’s new executive producer. MacKenzie comes with some of her own staff and her assistant, Jim, begins to have real chemistry with Maggie Jordan, who is still in a relationship with Will’s ex-executive producer, Don. Together, Charlie and MacKenzie push Will to produce news that is informative and substantive, as opposed to safe and easy.

Over the course of the season, Will takes on the Tea Party and does his best to stop their stranglehold on the Republican party leading up to the 2010 midterm elections. The staff covers the shooting of Gabriel Giffords, the coup in Egypt, the nuclear reactor meltdown (or near meltdown) in Japan, and the Casey Anthony trial. The season climaxes in the debt ceiling debate and the way the Tea Party is holding the U.S. hostage.

The Newsroom features Aaron Sorkin’s trademark banter and characters who have moments of intense social awkwardness. It is one of his more serious endeavors, trying to be less overtly humorous than The West Wing. This is Sorkin’s attempt to actually educate viewers to the dangers of the Tea Party and its corporate sponsors. The ten episodes of The Newsroom Season 1 present hour-long stories that re-evaluate incredible news stories from 2010 – 2011. But for viewers who want to see how poetic and packed with information scripted cable dramas can be, The Newsroom delivers.

Like all great dramas, The Newsroom Season 1 is about great characters. In the first season, the essential characters are:

Will McAvoy – A Republican cable news anchor, he misses the days when the news meant something and did something other than cater to the corporate sponsors of the network. He remains emotionally damaged – three years later – after breaking up with MacKenzie. As he, Charlie, and MacKenzie transform News Night into a hard-hitting news program, he begins dating again (a string of women) and that gets him in trouble with the tabloids. He becomes outraged at how the Republican Party has been co-opted by the Tea Party faction. He gets gunshy when he realizes just how dangerous a position he is in, given that he renegotiated his contract in order to be able to fire MacKenzie and that left him vulnerable to the machinations of Leona Lansing. He works to civilize a tabloid writer and spends money on saving lives, though he refuses to let others know. He becomes the target of death threats and in the process has to have a bodyguard,

MacKenzie McHale – Returning from being embedded in Afghanistan with Jim and the military, she tries to inspire Will. In the process, she takes control of News Night. She dates Wade, a man who wants to run for Congress and takes it personally when Will brings in the man she had an affair with to write a story on News Night. She is smart, articulate, and principled, but socially awkward. She is, arguably, Jim’s best friend in the world,

Jim Harper – A producer who is the assistant to MacKenzie, having been embedded with her in Afghanistan. He is efficient and has contacts that help Will break his first major story with News Night 2.0. He has a crush on Maggie, who is antagonizing to him without reason, but starts dating Maggie’s roommate when she doesn’t make a move and Don pushes him toward it. He has a great deal of authority on the show and has real issues when Maggie acts unprofessionally, though he helps her out when she has panic attacks,

Maggie Jordan – An Associate Producer on News Night, she has an on-again, off-again relationship with Don, though she is instantly attracted to Jim. She is easily flustered, but very smart,

Don Keefer – The ex-producer of News Night, he becomes the exec on the ten o’clock show when MacKenzie comes aboard. He is initially a jackass, but fights for the good stories and starts to fight for Maggie. He wants to be a star and make his anchor into a star above Will, but when push comes to shove with the corporate parents, he steps up to do the right thing,

Sloan Sabbith – An economist with two Ph.ds, she is brought on News Night by MacKenzie to make economic issues relevant. She is incredibly socially awkward and yet passionate about the economic issues that she knows about. She overcompensates from Will's pep talk by embarrassing a Japanese official on the air! She reveals very late that she has feelings for someone else on the staff,

Neal Sampat – The writer of Will’s blog, he has an obsession with bigfoot. He becomes instrumental in getting News Night its Egypt coverage,

and Charlie Skinner – The head of the news division, he looks out for Will and works to protect News Night. He is older and something of a curmudgeon and he is tested by an NSA employee who wants to break a story about U.S. wiretapping of cell phones. He likes MacKenzie and he drinks a lot.

The Newsroom Season 1 features an amazing cast. For probably the first time that I have seen her in anything, Emily Mortimer impressed me with her performance abilities as she was anything but white bread as MacKenzie. Jeff Daniels leads the cast as Will McAvoy and every moment he is on screen, he is credible as a seasoned news anchor. Dev Patel and Sam Waterston round out the supporting cast of seasoned actors as Neal and Charlie and they are unlike they are in any other work in which they have appeared.

The younger cast members are led by Alison Pill, who plays Maggie. Pill is able to emote incredibly with her face and eyes alone. She gives some of the season’s most delightfully goofy lines and makes them seem incredibly real, making Maggie seem like anything but a parody of a young newswoman.

On DVD, The Newsroom is a wealth of bonus features, which is what one expects from HBO. Each episode has a featurette about the episode featuring Aaron Sorkin talking about how he developed the episode. There are commentary tracks on the pilot and a few other episodes – the one for “I’ll Try To Fix You” is actually entertaining as Emily Mortimer describes her experiences with nude scenes and the guys in the room resolve to make season two memorable in that regard! There are a handful of deleted scenes and a featurette on the entire season.

The Newsroom Season One is hard-hitting and smart and the punch it packs will be seen in 2014 if the show can reach enough of the electorate to usurp the Tea Party. While that is not the entire focus of the season, it is a vital component and one of the ways the show tries to be something far, far more than a well-written soap opera set in a news organization. And, even for fans of Aaron Sorkin’s works, The Newsroom is worth watching; the setting is as engaging as in his other works and for his poetry, humor, philosophy and intellect, more is certainly better.

For other current shows, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Game Of Thrones - Season 3
New Girl - Season 2
Happy Endings - Season 3
The Walking Dead - Season 3
Arrested Development - Season 4
House Of Cards - Season 1
True Blood - Season 5


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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