The Newsroom is a new HBO series created by Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter of the films The Social Network and Moneyball and the creative mind behind the television shows The West Wing and Sports Night. “Sorkin-esque” and “Sorkinisms” have become popular descriptors of his work in the last few years owing to Sorkin’s very specific and unique style of writing, especially in regards to quick-witted, rapid-fire dialogue. The Newsroom has many tell-tale Sorkin trademarks, but the pilot episode, titled “We Just Decided To,” foreshadows not just a continuation of his signature creative approach, but one of the most intelligent and entertaining TV series in the last few years.
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is the anchor of “News Night,” a nightly news program on the cable network ACN. Over the last few years, Will has become a bit of a joke in the journalism game due to his refusal to take a stand on any serious issue. (Early in the episode, he is called the “Jay Leno of news anchors” because he never offends anyone. Ouch.) At a journalism panel at Northwestern University, Will, backed into a corner by the moderator, unleashes an impassioned diatribe in answer to the question “Why is America the greatest country in the world?”. Will’s monologue is a moment of total honesty and essentially amounts to America was at one time the greatest country in the world, when people were informed and willing to fight for change. That isn’t our country anymore.
The fallout from his outburst (which he blames on vertigo medication) can be felt almost immediately. The episode jumps ahead three weeks with Will returning to an almost empty newsroom, his staff nowhere to be found. His assistant, Maggie (Alison Pill), says he needs to talk to the president of the news division, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), to find out what is going on. Will goes to see Charlie and discovers that most of his staff, including his executive producer, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), have left his show to join the new 10:00 show which will be hosted by someone to whom Will himself gave an early break.
Worse yet, Charlie has hired a MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) as Will’s new EP. We figure out very quickly that Will and MacKenzie at one time had a professional as well as romantic relationship and that it definitely did not end well. While Will is down the street with his agent trying to figure why he doesn’t have an EP approval clause in his contract, MacKenzie shows up to the mostly empty newsroom and finds out that Will was blindsided with all this news very recently and deduces that shouting will be in the near future.
MacKenzie, who has been covering the war in the Middle East for almost two years, has brought with her Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), her senior producer and a rabidly loyal MacKenzie McHale fan. As the remaining crew is patching together a rundown for that night’s show, Jim notices a news update about an explosion off the coast of Louisiana. Don tells him to ignore it since it hasn’t been coded as too important. Something tells Jim it’s going to get more important when one of Will’s staff, Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), points out that the only thing that could have exploded in the Gulf of Mexico was an oil rig and that the result could be catastrophic.
As the crew begins scrambling for answers and information, we learn that the date is April 20, 2010 which will immediately bring to mind the terrible BP oil spill that coated the Gulf of Mexico with millions of gallons of oil. Though we know how the story ends, we watch the characters piece together the details. Though every other network is covering the story as simply a search and rescue mission by the Coast Guard, Will decides to attack the BP neglect and environment fallout thanks to a couple of Jim’s sources.
That night’s episode of “News Night” comes together through a fury of last minute changes and brilliant teamwork from the entire crew. Though Will has re-negotiated MacKenzie’s three-year contract to 156 one-week contracts (meaning he can fire her at the end of any week he chooses), their professional chemistry is clear and it’s obvious Will McAvoy is ready to accept her as his new EP.
The one-hour episode flies by with a pace very close to that of Sorkin’s most famous work, The Social Network. The characters speak quickly and the action moves even faster. Setting the show in the recent past is brilliant. It allows the action to unfold at a pace uncommon for most television series because the audience will be at least cursorily familiar with the subjects. Daniels is fantastic as Will and it will be exciting to watch the relationship between Will and MacKenzie develop. Mortimer, who is always fantastic, matches wits perfectly with Daniels and is perfectly cast.
Directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad), the first episode also sets up an interesting love triangle between Maggie, Don and Jim. Maggie and Don are dating, but he doesn’t want it to be too serious. Jim obviously has an interest in Maggie, but she is too busy and insecure to notice.
The Newsroom is smart, energetic and definitely going to keep audiences’ attention. Too bad we have to wait a whole week for another episode.