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.