This is the Golden Age of television. It’s been obviously the case after The West Wing (1999-2006) and The Wire (2002-08). For those in the UK (or their cultural stalkers), there have been too many examples to name that support that claim. You can look at my Sit Com guide for a fraction of that proof. Yes, there is crap. A dossier could be assembled to prove that it is the Crap Age of television as well. My argument is that so long as it’s both, it’s golden.
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is one of the most popular anchors on television. He’s incredibly intelligent, witty, and is very sarcastic. When asked why America is the greatest nation on the planet, he goes on a rant that denies the premise. Three weeks of vacation later, he comes into work to find out that a protégé of his has taken his whole staff with him to a new show. Apparently, he’s hard to work with. “I’m a perfectly nice guy, I have the focus group data to prove it.” The only people left is his assistant, who he thinks is called Ellen, but is actually Margaret Jordan (Alison Pill), because she believes in loyalty, and there’s also Neal (Dev Patel), who Will thinks is the IT guy and calls him Punjab, but he blogs for Will, so he can’t exactly go anywhere.
The head of the news division, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston)—“Would you like another, Mr. Skinner?” “Yes, please”—has hired Will’s former squeeze, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), to be the new Executive Producer (who directs the show) to replace Don (Thomas Sadoski), who’s dating Margaret and is a bit of a villain. That doesn’t go over very well, but when a major news story breaks—and it’s set in 2010, so you’ll recognize the story—and Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) puts it together (with Neal) faster than anybody else, the story gets huge and Mackenzie is running the show. (Spoiler: It goes pretty darn well.)
I thought the only credit I needed to recommend The Newsroom (2012)—oh, I was always going to recommend the show—is that it’s written by The West Wing (1999-2006) and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip(2006-07) creator/writer Aaron Sorkin. If you’ve ever seen anything from Sorkin and not liked it, then you’ve got serious judgment issues. What’s more likely is you just haven’t seen it. [I’d definitely get Studio 60, here, for $12 and The West Wing, a much bigger investment, there.] Brisk, chock-full of wit and humor, and a little touch of Frank Capra. So, while I was right and that was the only credit I needed, it isn’t the only thing to recommend it. Instead, we’ve got three great actors, two great characters, and an ensemble that will win itself some Emmys.
I’ve listed them, I’ll describe them. I’ve never been a massive Jeff Daniels fan, more because I haven’t seen much of his serious work, but he’s showing some colors now. He also benefits from playing one of the two great characters. Slightly mean, wicked smart, and expresses himself through Aaron Sorkin. Since I’ve double dipped, I’ll do so again with Sam Waterston. He’s a drunk with an unbelievable desire to make things harder for himself and the tendency towards colorful expression. If he’s in the scene, it’s going to make you laugh. Mortimer closes out my idea of a great actor, but she does so with a character far too close to normal to be a great one. She’s still very witty and much more than a love-story subplot.
It’s all the sound of Sorkin, but filmed with a different camera and light design. No Schlamme. It happens. We’ve still got the belief-in-action that Americans aren’t actually stupid, walking and talking, and a break-neck speed that he makes believable. These are elements that you expect and rely upon. The alchemy here comes in the content.
Example. A story breaks, it’s an explosion off the coast of Louisiana. That’s all they’ve got. Don, the soon-to-be-gone Executive Producer, ignores it because “It’s yellow.” Meaning, it looks like a small scale story. Jim and Neal’s instincts, however, are firing. In short order, they figure out the scale of the problem: massive. They push it forward, Don pushing back all the way, but when it turns to orange, he starts taking it seriously. After they do the show, the news alert turns to red.
Isn’t that exactly how the news is going? The news shows are just collating the three current news stories off the AP wire instead of driving the news and being…the word…journalists. If that’s not what’s going on, then we live in a far simpler world than I’d imagined.
While I expect that the same criticism you’ve read about every Sorkin show there’s been—i.e., it feels like that, but the characters are a million times smarter than anybody who actually does that work—will become the home base for most every critic, you should immediately disabuse yourself of the idea that that matters (or that the critics know anything). What matters is how important these issues are and the truth the show expresses.
If I may fire a pre-emptive strike, if the news says they aren’t that smart, then who is and why aren’t they running the news? Oh, that’s right, she didn’t get a degree in journalism and had too much potential to try out every possible career in existence. Anyway…
For the Fans
Don a solid villain. In Studio 60, the main character (Matthew Perry) locked horns with the previous writers of the sketch show (rather similar to The Newsroom, in fact) who continuously showed how bad they were at their jobs and did everything they could (very little) to stand in the way of the obviously right thing to do. Don, however, is a couple steps above that. While he’s good at his job, he isn’t as good as the new guys, and while he stands in the way of doing the right thing, he accepts defeat and is, excuse me for using a buzz word correctly, a professional. That’s just better work, basically. It’s almost too obvious to say more than that, but I will say that it can’t be easy or else we’d have more consistently better television. And, as I said at the start, it’s the best of times and it’s the irritable bowel of times.
If I may point out a flaw, I think the musical choice when Will sees Mackenzie for the first time was unacceptably maudlin. I think we can let the shock play without so intrusive a device.
Watching this show twice in quick succession—thank you, weak Sunday night programming—is incredibly helpful in understanding both what’s going on and the hilariousness of the dialogue. It was great the first go through and f-f-f-fantastic on the second. And I loved the swearing. HBO HBO H-B-OOOOOOOO. That was a Hook (1991) reference.
Great show. Let me pull something out here… Best of the year? *shake shake shake* “Sources say yes.” Will it make it into more than one season? *shake shake shake* “Ask again later.”