Last night HBO Watch was invited to a special screening of HBO’s series The Newsroom in downtown Seattle. Needless to say we were extremely excited take a peek at the series as we’d been on the edge of our seats in anticipation since the first trailer debuted in April. The venue itself was a bit underwhelming in comparison with some previous HBO events I’ve attended. The woman in charge of the event ended up saying just two sentences to the group of eager onlookers. One of which was an incorrect premiere date for the series (she told the audience “some time next month). I was half tempted to get up in front of the crowd and correct her– it’s what Will McAvoy would do, right? Anyway, I know you aren’t here to listen to me complain about the lack of fancy cocktails at the HBO screening. You’re here to find out whether or not The Newsroom is the second coming of the once great Sorkin series The West Wing.
Friends, countrymen and fellow HBO subscribers– I’m here to tell you that the answer to that question is: probably.
The show starts out with what I would consider to be one of the most poignant, fake speeches I’ve ever seen on television. The setting is a university debate and Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), dubbed “The Jay Leno of News”, is pushed to take a stance on an issue. In this case – “Is America the Greatest Country in the World?” The pundits on both the left and the right give their answers but McAvoy, pushed to his limits, decides to answer honestly this time. I’ll let you watch for yourself and won’t attempt to paraphrase Mr. Sorkin but the speech makes a strong case for a properly informed electorate and sets the stage for the entire series.
After the fallout of McAvoy’s deviation at the university (3 weeks later) he returns to his day job as a major news anchorman to find that his staff has been shuffled and that he’ll now be working with a former (estranged) love interest. Sparks fly and we get to know a lot of the characters in the show right away. I particularly enjoyed Sam Waterston’s scenes as the head of the network’s news division who has a soft spot for the old days, can keep up with McAvoy’s mood swings and literally carries a bottle of scotch with him around the office. His one-liners and comic relief are a great addition to the already absorbing mix of characters on screen.
The other actors were solid as far as I was concerned (though we don’t get to see Olivia Munn in this episode!) and I’m looking forward to learning more about them. Sorkin’s famously fast-paced, intelligent dialogue saturates every scene and if you’re a fan of his previous works you’ll feel right at home in HBO’s Newsroom. In typical Sorkin fashion, every character is quick-witted, semi-attractive and always down for a verbal duel in the hallway. God, I think I love this show already!
The series focuses on actual, real-life news items (in this episode, the BP oil spill) and reveals to the audience how they should have been covered. It’s great to watch Will rip into BP officials and Halliburton yes-men the way real-life anchormen should have been doing on day one. He says everything you’ve ever shouted at your television when you’ve been watching a talking head dance around an issue for ten minutes. The show is more or less a love-letter to old-school journalism and a desperate plea for authority and competency in today’s newsrooms.
Overall I very much enjoyed this first offering and am very excited to see where this new group of actors takes the show. There was an emotional moment at the end that you won’t forget any time soon and I’m convinced that you’ll want to come back for more.
Some reviews I’ve read this past week have called the show “pseudo-intellectual” and “histrionic”. But these descriptions leave me convinced that they’re simply unfamiliar with, or not particularly fond of Sorkin’s previous (extremely successful) work. The other day I engaged in a Twitter conversation with Jace Lacob of The Daily Beast on the subject of this new series. Jace contends that the show is overacted and engages in faux-intellectualism at the expense of the viewer. I didn’t get that feeling in this pilot episode and to be fair Mr Lacob insists that he enjoyed the first episode as well but that subsequent episodes were where he started to feel betrayed. I can’t speak to episodes 2-4 but I find it difficult to believe the show deviates so much from the pilot. I throuroughly enjoyed every moment of the pilot.
@HBOWatch It’s histronic, cartoonish, and faux-intellectual. So much yelling, so little substance. Characters barely more than caricatures.
— Jace Lacob (@televisionary) June 18, 2012
Perhaps Emily and Jace watched their four-hour press screeners all at once and were simply overwhealmed with the fast-speaking intelectual chatter that Sorkin specializes in. I probably wouldn’t enjoy 4+ hours of The Newsroom in a row. Perhaps they have political leanings that don’t match up with Sorkin’s mostly liberal themes– this could also hinder one’s ability to stay open to the program. Or maybe they feel this way because they work in a real-life newsroom and feel a bit guilty as journalists after listening to Mr. McAvoy’s speech? Emily for one described HBO’s Veep as “so cynical that it somehow felt naïve“. I couldn’t disagree more and loved Veep. Maybe she feels the same way about The Newsroom. But speaking for myself as a huge Sorkin fan, a card-carrying liberal and a non-traditional journalist, I truly enjoyed this opening episode of HBO’s The Newsroom. Check out Mekeisha’s review over at MSN.com for a more fair minded look at the series.
I think some of these critics are holding HBO, Sorkin and The Newsroom to a higher standard than is fair for an undertaking of this scope. They expect a lot from these players and little from some of the other shows they’ve given positive reviews on the same page. I suppose that’s the curse of being the best network with the best shows on television.
I guess you’ll have to judge for yourself. But to be fair: there are 10 episodes this season (Emily, Jace and other negative reviewers have seen less than half of them) and there will most likely be a second round as well next year.
Be sure to set your DVRs to record this series at 10PM on Sunday nights. HBO’s summer lineup is looking better than ever with both True Blood and now The Newsroom to keep us cool on those hot summer nights. If you’ve been missing The West Wing lately you’ll most likely find solace in this new political drama on HBO.