HBO’s THE NEWSROOM premiered last night with “We Just Decide To.” From creator Aaron Sorkin, it is the story of a newsman, his patriotic executive producer, and a bold staff who have decided to bring back the art of journalism. No more pandering, no more softballs. They intend to make ACN, the fictional network which airs the fictional show News Night, a reputable organization.
As THE NEWSROOM begins, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels, Dumb & Dumber, Pleasantville) sits on the stage at a college campus, in between a blowhard from each major political party. Seeing his ex-girlfriend, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl), watching disapprovingly from the audience, Will is spurred to speak his mind, declaring that America is not, in fact, the greatest country in the world. Plus, there are tear downs of liberals, conservatives, and Jay Leno that will resonate with a great many viewers.
It’s an inspiring scene, just like the series itself. The haters will call THE NEWSROOM preachy and elitist. The believers will see it as a serving of hope that America can be as great as many Americans think, or claim to think, we are. The words the characters in THE NEWSROOM speak, and not just during Will’s wonderfully rude rift, encourage optimism. If people like he and Mackenzie have their way, the news will be a bastion of true facts, informing the public into action, and forcing the powers that be to act rightly for the first time in a long time.
This is what Aaron Sorkin does best. THE NEWSROOM is definitely informed by his previous efforts. The theme song instantly calls to mind The West Wing, while Will’s speech is similar to one in the pilot of Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip. Eager producers have the faith in their job that those that worked on Sports Night did. Sorkin takes all of these past efforts and rolls them together, delivering the message disillusioned and desperate people are looking for in the modern era.
As “We Just Decide To” gets underway, it becomes clear that the events of the first episode take place at a very specific date and time: April 20, 2010. Those current event buffs will recognize this as the date the BP Deep Water Horizon oil rig exploded and began spilling copious amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico because of lack of oversight and a screw up by Halliburton. This is a dark period of our history, and many think, with good reason, it has continued to be a tumultuous time these past two years since. Will THE NEWSROOM present an alternate reality, where the actions of this program change things for the better? Or will they struggle with other real events that we did, becoming discouraged as the fight refuses over and over again to turn in their favor?
Either way, THE NEWSROOM will connect with media savvy viewers and politic junkies. These events really happened, and people remember them. Thus, there is an instant avenue to relate to the characters. Seeing them behave the way we want people to, from Neal (Dev Patel, Smash) exposing the true depth of the emergency, to Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill, The Pillars of the Earth, Milk) fingering the MMS inspector, to Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr., Pieces of April) refusing to publicly name his sources, these are the types of people we want with the power and knowledge to make a difference.
Of course, THE NEWSROOM is more than just a political and social statement, no matter how effective it is at that mission. It is also a television show. In this by itself, it soars just as high. Sorkin’s dialogue is as sharp and witty as ever. The characters are well defined and complex. Romance invades in a variety of ways, but not in anything too predictable nor forced. Mortimer and Daniels have impeccable chemistry, and the younger performers all shine at one more or another in “We Just Decide To.”
The best part, keeping on the story angle, is the plot twist of discovering that big boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) orchestrated the entire thing. He saw a spark in Will that reawakened something deep within himself. Thus, he hatched a scheme to remove the old staff that Will had grown comfortable with and taken for granted, and replaces them with people who will nurture the greatness within Will. Mackenzie is the main weapon, of course, but she brings with her a host of others who will continue this theme. It’s a genius move on Charlie’s part, and one worthy of the actor in the fantastic role.
Will others, meaning the people watching at home, be as moved as Will is? There are plenty of people who are as cynical as him, who have given up on the dream of a triumphant nation, discouraged by the bickering and selling out. Of course, Will has to crack and come around, or else there would be no show. He is already showing signs of enjoyment and finding a passion that has laid dormant. This is the ember that Mackenzie, Charlie, and the others will cultivate, and hopefully, will be mirrored in fans around the country.
There is another character present who is just as hard to persuade to change as Will. Don (Thomas Sadoski, Loser) is Will’s producer who is about to jump ship as the episode starts. When the rest of the departing staff leaves for a two week vacation, Don stays. While he does fight against the tide in “We Just Decide To,” he is willing to admit he is wrong, and is impressed by what he witnesses. Maggie’s affection for him also hints that there might be a kernel of goodness within. Will he come around and decide to stay at News Night, taking a demotion to do so? Or is he a temporary character who will be an antagonist, forcing things to a head in the coming weeks? Only time will tell.
Critics are divided on THE NEWSROOM, and the public at large would probably be, too, should it be seen by the masses. But HBO’s subscriber base should be the right target for a program such as this one, and it is a moving, well-made show. For that reason, being self aware of what it is and delivering itself to the people who would seek it, it deserves more praise than criticism. And if you’re anything like me, this will probably become your new favorite weekly appointment, a beacon of light in a dark world, internal thoughts splayed out for all to see and enjoy.
Watch THE NEWSROOM Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.