HBO’s The Newsroom

Jun 27, 2012 by


If I told you my biggest source of news is twitter, The Huffington Post, and The Daily Show/Colbert Report, you’d assume I’m a liberal. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but I like to think my political ideals are defined by more than where I consume my news. This assumption, however, highlights how problematic news has become. News programs, and especially the 24-hour news channels, are less about providing bipartisan journalism than they are about fulfilling a specific side of the political sphere. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report use satire to reveal the biased machinations behind the news, highlighting just how fucked the information we’re receiving has become. HBO’s The Newsroom takes a less novel and much more “noble” attempt at the same predicament.  Though the show is consistently entertaining, its fictional spin on real events definitely has an agenda, albeit a curious—if not completely manipulative—one.

Written by Aaron Sorkin (he of The Social Network, Moneyball, and The West Wing fame), The Newsroom is a workplace drama about, wait for it, a fictional evening news program.  Sorkin’s Sports Night revealed the interworkings of a Sports Network, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip did the same for live variety shows; now Sorkin sets his sights, and lightning-quick banter, on a different form of entertainment (“entertainment” being the key word). Sorkin brings his typical writing style as well as an abundance of idealism and optimism. It’s this idealism that turns out to be the most memorable and provocative character in the show—which is not to say the cast isn’t uniformly great, because they are—but it’s this peculiar sentiment that leaves the deepest mark.  Even after the first few episodes I’m not entirely sure if I want to snark on it or pump my fist in agreement.

In the pilot, Will cheekily avoids aligning with a political party during a Q&A at a local college; he’s even referred to as “the Jay Leno of news anchors” because of his utter inoffensiveness. Soon after this comparison, Will seems to have a psychotic break, chastising a student for a question about why America is the best country in the world. Will’s proclamation that America is NOT the greatest country in the world, but it was and sure as hell can be again, is refreshing in its accuracy and how it avoids right and left excuses and answers. This speech sets the tone for the rest of the season as Will and his team become the news’ Scooby Gang–they see what news has become and want to help steer the American public back into seeing fact for fact, and opinion for opinion. They make their mission to report the news the righ-er-correct way.  They will dig deep into every story to reach its main truths, no matter what political policy it demonizes. Watch how news gets it groove back.

Jeff Daniels leads as Will McAvoy, a likeable screen presence and a curmudgeon prick off-camera. Will has a thing for names: he can’t recall anybody’s, but ask him to vamp on camera or regurgitate esoteric stats, and he seems like the most knowledgeable man in the world (or at least on TV). His character comes alive on screen, and though we’re not exactly sure what caused the bitter apathy in his personal life, it’s suggested it was about a girl (as is the case in most Sorkin scripts, hopefully it’s more than that). That girl is MacKenzie MacHale (played by Emily Mortimer), a brilliant producer and fearless journalist, who’s British accent shouldn’t suggest she’s any less patriotic or American than Joe Main Street. Allison Pill plays Maggie, Will’s assistant turned Associate Producer; John Gallagher Jr. is James Harper, MacKenzie’s right-hand man and the show’s Senior Producer; and Thomas Sadoski plays Don, Will’s ex-Executive Producer, Maggie’s boyfriend, and the only asshole character seemingly without a hidden heart of gold.

Forgoing political agenda in favor of ethical integrity is, sad to say, jarring when watching a news program—even a fictional one. I was upset with myself for finding this unbridled optimism off-putting, and reading the reviews, critics seemed to find it even more so. Yes, I found parts of the show preachy and some of the characters’ grandstanding annoying, but my cynicism comes from thinking Will and Mackenzie’s plight to reclaim journalism and produce a popular AND a quality news show is not only unattainable, but overreaching in the show’s Meta approach. This is exactly the sentiment, with its divisive effect and pervasiveness in this county, the show acknowledges.  Still, the insistence that a news program (or even a television show) is capable of galvanizing great change, especially in the characters’ idealized, exaggerated proclamations, comes across a little daft. But this is a television drama, and no matter how closely it mirrors real life or reports on true events, it is still only that. It is, however, an incredibly entertaining show. Sorkin’s rat-a-tat dialogue is exhilarating at times, the acting is superb (I especially like Mortimer’s brilliant MacKenzie), and the inside look at when a story becomes a story and the relationships of insider tips are all fascinating. If the news’ job is to inform and a show’s to entertain, The Newsroom is a good compromise and worth watching as the series develops.

Kellin Zona is Old 67’s newest contributor and an associate at HBO.  These are his own words and don’t necessarily reflect the views of HBO.


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