TV Review: Newsroom (***)

A flawed, but endlessly fascinating and enjoyable show, The Newsroom is more like enjoyable romps True Blood and Scandal that reach occasional greatness but aren’t classics like The Sopranos or Sorkin’s wonderful The West Wing. Sorkin has crafted a very romantic, some would say idealistic, look at a newsroom and even when this show gets a bit messy or preachy, it still manages to entertain. Critics have been sharpening their knives to dig into this show, and while it deserves a critical eye, this show is crafted for maximum audience appeal and should find a pretty good audience on HBO.

Jeff Daniels stars as Will McAvoy, an affable newscaster known more for being extremely likable then a respected journalist. After his outburst towards a college student earns him a two week sabbatical, he returns back to New York to find that his executive producer (Thomas Sadowski) is leaving his show and that the head of the news division, played by an uproarious Sam Waterston, has hired his ex-girlfriend Mackenzie McHale to be the executive producer of a new show. This of course does not go over well with Will and him and Mackenzie have it out about her job, their relationship, and the place of news in modern times. But in midst of this, the office receives an email alert about a fire on an oil rig in the gulf and Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) gets a phone call about BP not being able to cap the well that sends the staff, and the show, into overdrive. The drama intensifies till it reaches a crescendo with the newly formed team producing a great news program.

The good news for The Newsroom is that the elements are there for a strong show, even though the pilot sometimes falls prey to it’s own earnest idealistic tone. Jeff Daniels is the perfect person to channel Sorkin’s rapid fire dialog and Sam Waterston is a riot as the three sheets to the wind president of the news division. Their scenes together are some of the highlights of the episode. The supporting cast is strong, although they’re not given much to do in the pilot. Only Alison Pill and John Gallagher Jr., parts of an almost assured love triangle along with Thomas Sadowski, really register as full characters in their limited screen time. Emily Mortimer as Mackenzie vacillates between acting like a sharp tongue take no prisioners producer and a pious woman kneeling at the altar of news. Hopefully Sorkin will give her more to do with the former personality and less eulogizing of news.

Aaron Sorkin’s writing is predictably strong, only faltering when he gives characters speeches regarding how great news was or could be. It’s wonderful that in today’s day and age, a dialog heavy show is getting this kind of showcase. The use of actual news stories in the show is a particularly inspired choice. Not only does it give the show an authenticity it otherwise wouldn’t have, it sucks the audience in with a kind of immediacy we wouldn’t have if the characters were reporting fictional news. The pilot centered around the BP oil spill and it’s incredibly fascinating to watch the character’s piece together what is happening and form it into a news program.

The unsung hero of this episode is director Greg Motolla. Not only does he pull out great performances from the actors, but he manages to tell this story with showy directorial flourish that don’t detract from the narrative. He seduces us withe the ease of the story, but once the BP news breaks, his camera really picks up and the show gains the energy of an action movie. The blocking that he does with the cast moving about the set is a thing of beauty and his decision to film the newscast live with the actors in different rooms really enhances the experience. The only real downer from a craft perspective is Thomas Newman’s score, which is far too melodramatic and sappy for the type of show Sorkin has created. It makes me long for what Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross could have put together for this (especially considering another The Social Network star, Jesse Eisenberg, makes a small cameo).

Overall, The Newsroom is a solid show that should only get better from this point.