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TV Review: The Newsroom – “We Just Decided To”

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HBO’s new breakneck-paced series The Newsroom is the must-see TV series of the summer. Starring Jeff Daniels as Will MacAvoy, the affable (at least as far as his viewers see) “Jay Leno” of cable new anchors.

The series starts with a brilliant opening. Caught in the crossfire between two other, more opinionated anchors on a panel before a live college audience, Will sits in between, trying to tune out the acrimonious debate until the moderator insists he give an answer to a co-ed’s question: “What makes America the greatest nation in the world?”

Taking his cue from a woman in the audience holding up handwritten cards reading, “It’s not” and “But it can be,” Will finally lets loose with a blistering attack on liberals, conservatives and why the U.S. is no longer the greatest nation: what has made us great, perhaps what can make us great again.

His rant goes against everything that has made him a success, and when he returns to his newsroom at the fictional ACN news network, Will’s world turns on its head. His show, Newsnight will never again be the same. 

Beneath that bland, blond news anchor, breaths a brainy, incisive journalist, and hard-drinking News Director Charlie Skinner (the always watchable Sam Waterston) brings in Will’s old executive producer Makenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer, Hugo) to lure it to the surface. The problem is that the EP has an intimate personal history with Will, with a presumably bad breakup, and he is incensed that his boss would hire her without his approval. 

Will is a jerk, he’s abusive to his staff (when he doesn’t treat them dismissively entirely), comfortable with the status quo as long as his ratings remain in the stratosphere. But I get the impression that his mood has much to do with an internal dissatisfaction at what he has actually come to represent within the spectrum of TV journalism. 

Set in 2010, the first episode revolves around the breaking story of the catastrophic BP oil spill, which barely registered as a blip on the news radar as it began to unfold. Good fortune (and good sources) provide Newsnight enough insider insight to scoop the other networks, and as with other intense, truly breaking news, the evolving story makes all involved rise to the occasion. For Will, it’s a cathartic experience.

The Newsroom is an excellent show: smart, fast-paced, brilliantly written and acted. It’s Aaron Sorkin at his absolute best, bringing viewers a series with unabashed (and decidedly liberal) point of view. There is a sense of longing for the sort of “real” news that networks have, for the most part, long-since abandoned for canned and corporatized infotainment, and the moral equivalence given to talking heads, each with their own spin. There is no longer truth, only opinion. And as news director Skinner reminds, opinion is important: Edward R. Murrow had an point of view and ended McCarthyism; Walter Cronkite had a point of view and ended the Vietnam War.

The point of journalism is to create an informed society; speak truth to big lies and obfuscations. It is the best protector we have of our freedoms. The Newsroom reminds us what we risk when we forget that, and when we allow news organizations to take their responsibility for granted. It’s an important message, but one handled with grace and humor, intrinsically tied up within the series’ drama. Okay, so it’s a little preachy. 

But thankfully, the The Newsroom isn’t too heavy-handed; it’s not a documentary series, after all, but a drama. In addition to the story of the news, there is plenty of opportunity personal conflict woven into the script. The main conflict is clearly between Will and his EP, which will surely heat up over the weeks, but it’s not the only one.

We need a good, provacative drama to shake us up, get the blood boiling and make us think. And make us talk.

The Newsroom airs Sunday nights at 10:00 p.m. on HBO.

About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • 60 plus

    Barbara,
    After West Wing ended, little excited me on TV until House came along. Since then, House and the magic of Hugh Laurie were the only things that really captivated me. Anticipating the ending of House this spring, I tried to find other options for my limited TV viewing. I tried everything others raved about…from Once Upon a Time (sorry Barbara!) to Mad Men to Breaking Bad and many others.

    Nothing excited me until tonight. I certainly don’t expect Will to replace House–I doubt that any other character ever will for me–but I have hope that the show will live up to the promise of tonight’s premiere.

  • Colin Graves

    I have always been a big Sorkin fan! I loved The West Wing and was sad to see it go (but loved the conclusion), I was sad when I seemed to be only one of the few to embrace Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But now I have The Newsroom to enjoy. Sorkin writes a banter I always enjoy, and with this show being on HBO it allows him to take the gloves of more as he stands on his soapbox and screams about where the world (and more so, the U-S) is going. Loved the first episode…only hope it gets better as everyone gets into the swing of it!

  • Laurie

    I was a super fan of “Sports Night” and of the first few seasons of “The West Wing”. I really enjoyed last night program because it feels like the two other series and, of course, because of the writing and the acting. I hope you get hooked on it as well, so that I can enjoy reading your reviews as I did with House.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett barbara barnett

    Thanks guys. I do plan on writing a regular column as The Newsroom unfolds. I’ve actually got a partially completed opinion piece on the questions the first episode raises. This will be a series I can really dig into, I think.