With the broadcast of its tenth episode this week, HBO brought the first season of “The Newsroom,” Aaron Sorkin’s comedy/drama about the cable news business, to a close. A second season, to air next spring/summer, has already been announced.
Mr. Sorkin is, if nothing else, one heck of a writer of crisp dialogue. The comic aspects of the series are almost entirely wound up in the witty exchanges that characterize just about every conversation between the folks who work in the fictional cable news network. This conceit can wear thin (how realistic is it that everyone in the series would be that clever?), but it also gives the show an intellectual appeal that more than makes up for the silliness of the interpersonal relationships depicted ad nauseam from week to week and for the overly pompous preaching that also permeates just about every episode.
In short, “Newsroom” is hard not to watch, even if it is also hard to get overly worked up about.
As was the case with his previous mega-hit, the long running “West Wing,” Mr. Sorkin has a message to deliver. And that would be fine if he didn’t deliver it incessantly. His message is that cable network news (indeed, all broadcast news) is profanely trivial to the detriment of the nation’s democratic traditions and legacy. His central characters in delivering this message are a female executive producer (played by Emily Mortimer) and a leading news anchor (played by Jeff Daniels).
Ms. Mortimer’s character (MacKenzie “Mac” McHale) is introduced in the series’ opening episode as a woman with a mission: to produce intelligent newscasts that tell the truth. Mr. Daniels’ character (Will McAvoy) is quickly converted to that view. The twist (if that’s the right word) is that Mac and Will were once a romantic couple, but Mac cheated on Will and he has never forgiven her.
So there is that “real life” drama to spice things up, except for the fact that after a while (like the first three episodes) the question of when they are going to get back together becomes just plain boring, and wouldn’t you know, even by the end of the tenth episode they still haven’t.
And then there is the other “soap opera” story, again apparently included by Mr. Sorkin to pump up the ratings for the show (did someone say hypocrite?) or maybe just because he really longs to be a low-brow rom-com writer instead of a modern-day Paddy Chayefsky.
That second relationship is actually a three-way, with the one gal (intern Maggie Jordan, played by Alison Pill) in a current relationship with another exec producer (Don Keefer, played by Dan Sadoski) while she ruminates about her feelings for another (Jim Harper, played by John Gallagher, Jr.), who also has feelings for her.
That story line is a permanent tease in the series, and, wouldn’t you know, it, too, was unresolved at the end of the last episode.
The acting in “Newsroom” is fine, and the cast is large. Sam Waterston has a typical Sam Waterston role as the president of the network’s news division; Jane Fonda has an atypical Jane Fonda role as the nasty owner of the network. Other characters fill in the fringes of the stories and make the newsroom set look busy.
The actual reporting of the news is presented with a clear liberal bias, but Sorkin is smart enough to pick the news stories that play well to that slant. (He is especially rough on the Tea Party and its adherents, and don’t they make an easy target?) Some scenes actually do a nice job of showing how a prime-time show like McAvoy’s comes together every night, with the star having only limited control over what actually gets on the air. (A nice touch is revealing that McAvoy has a blog that he never writes a word for; Dev Patel plays his blog writer.)
But what makes “Newsroom” eminently watchable, and even enjoyable, is the top-notch production values that HBO gives to it. This network could probably produce an intelligent version of the Jerry Springer Show if it had a mind to. “Newsroom” would be a throw-away, quickly cancelled sit-com on one of the broadcast networks.
But on HBO, it is, despite its overbearing scripts and its tedious storylines, compelling television. Which may sound paradoxical, but maybe that’s Sorkin’s ultimate point.