Best. Show. On. Television. Period.
” [America’s] not the greatest country in the world….but it could be” – Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels).
In the most basic terms, this is how we open Aaron Sorkin‘s beautiful new HBO drama The Newsroom, which makes everything else on TV feel absolutely underwhelming (save for maybe AMC’s brilliant Breaking Bad). It is simultaneously funnier than the vast majority of sitcoms on TV and incredibly sharp drama that crackles and keeps you watching like no other.
Because I feel like this review could boil over into a gushing love rant, I’m going to organize it categorically:
CHARACTERS and PLOT: The show centers on Will McAvoy, a self-absorbed, angry and brilliant news anchor who’s popular ‘because he doesn’t bother anyone’, like a ‘Jay Leno of news anchors’. When he goes off on a sorority girl, ranting at an event at Northwestern University that America isn’t the greatest country anymore, he fears he’s gonna lose his audience and prepares to backtrack. Unfortunately, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), his boss, the news division head at ACN, won’t let him. Charlie orchestrates a simple scheme in which king realist and Executive Producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) jumps ship to the 10 o’clock show (which he wanted to do anyway), which allows Charlie to bring on human sparkplug Mackenzie McHale (a brilliant Emily Mortimer) to run Will’s show, much to the anchor’s disdain. Will hates Mackenzie and doesn’t want to ever see her again, much less let her run the show. But Charlie insists, so Will does something crazy–he lowers his salary by a million dollars(!) (apparently chump change for the hotshot anchor)–so that he can fire her anytime he wants. It turns out that Will hates Mackenzie for some good reason–she apparently did a terrible thing to him three years prior, when they were apparently dating (Sorkin makes you play catch-up, it’s always fun). However, Mackenzie longs to be the Don Quixote of news, and on Will’s show she has a chance to be. The crux of the show lies on the debate that Mackenzie has with Will about the news, and the country in general. Mackenzie argues that Will can do a real news show, a good news show, a smart news show and be popular at the same time. Will argues that that’s impossible. Welcome to the newsroom.
In the meantime, we also meet Don’s girlfriend (whom he doesn’t treat too well), Maggie (the marvelous Allison Pill), Will’s intern (whom he continually forgets about), who’s young and nervous and neurotic enough to warrant Mackenzie’s attention, as well as the attention of the paralyzingly awkward Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), Mackenzie’s young number two. The interactions between Maggie and Jim are probably my favorite thing about the show, and Jim has to be my favorite character–though our true protagonist Mackenzie would be a close second with Will in a tight race for third. Plus, we meet Neal (Dev Patel, aka Slumdog Millionaire), a bright guy on the news squad that writes Will’s blog, and Sloan (Olivia Munn), whose scenes were all but gone in the rough cut version of the pilot I watched, though she is intriguing for the 30 seconds in which she does appear–stay tuned.
The plot is a minor concern for me, not because it’s poorly executed, but because it is simply unlike anything else that has ever aired on TV before–which could end up amazing or…not-so-much. It’s a huge risk, but I admire Sorkin for taking it. The first episode is primarily set on April 20, 2010–the day of the BP oil spill. Guess what the story of the day is. Revisionist history? Not really. It’s simple in the pilot, but we’ll see how that goes moving forward.
There’s one teeny element I didn’t like about the plot that popped up in the last 10 seconds of the show, but I assume that won’t be a problem in the final cut. I’ll follow up on that.
DIRECTION: Greg Mottola is generally known for lighthearted stuff like Superbad and the underrated Adventureland, but he brings a madcap energy to the show present in The West Wing when Alex Graves directed (he directs episode 2, by the way). A lot of handheld stuff, docu-style. The pacing and rhythm are great, but the humor is amped up, which I have to assume was helped by Mottola’s experience in comedy. Excellent work.
WRITING: Pure Aaron Sorkin. Perfect rhythm, great intellectual debate, surprisingly funny humor, well-defined and multidimensional characters, refreshing idealism, controversial social satire and of course the dialogue of a great theatrical work all in an episode of television. He is the greatest writer currently alive and I can only dream of being half as good. I could spend weeks ranting about exactly why, but I won’t bore you with such trivialities.
PERFORMANCE: Every actor and actress is on the ball, but I’d like to give a particular shout-out to Daniels, Mortimer, Waterston, Pill and Gallagher. Daniels plays a weathered soul to perfection, giving us both sides of a dangerously (and brilliantly) designed coin. Mortimer raises the energy in the room tenfold, and you can tell that her character is Will’s muse, whether he wants to admit it or not. Waterston plays his character lightly, but with an unprecedented depth–a tough feat to accomplish when Sorkin writes the character like that. Not many actors could pull that off, but he did. Allison Pill has had a great run as a supporting player in art films (see Midnight In Paris, Milk) and here she gets to go to town on Sorkin’s finest material. Her character is intentionally young and naïve in episode one, but that gives her room to grow, and develop her relationship with Gallagher’s character, whose social naïvete is given a reprieve by his intense professional acumen and chutzpah. Gallagher (the other lead in Broadway’s Spring Awakening) treads a fine line, playing socially awkward but rebellious, and he aces it.
CAMEOS: There’s a doozy of a cameo from a big-name star of one of Sorkin’s films as a caller in the pilot. Bonus points for anyone who guesses the correct answer. It’s magnificent casting.
IF I HAD TO CRITICIZE ONE THING ABOUT THIS SHOW: “Drop the ‘the’. Just ‘Newsroom’. It’s cleaner.” – Sean Parker, paraphrased.
OVERALL: If you don’t watch this show, you’re missing out on what could potentially be the best show of the decade, and most definitely the best new show of the season.