Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom on Sky Atlantic: Episode 1 Review – Jeff Daniels shines in The West Wing mark two!

by Matt D

In some people’s eyes Aaron Sorkin can do little wrong, the writer and creator of The West Wing has more recently found success on the big screen with both Moneyball and The Social Network with the latter winning him an Oscar. Now he’s back on the small-screen with The Newsroom, a look at the people who front current affairs shows and those who make sure that these programmes run smoothly. As with all of Sorkin’s recent works The Newsroom looks at the inadequacies in American life and specifically here the way the reporting of the news has changed over the years in order for the networks to achieve higher ratings. Jeff Daniels stars as Will McAvoy, the anchor of News Night who is loved by his viewers as he is seen as a placid figure who is partisan in his political beliefs and answers hard-hitting questions with witty retorts.

The first scene places McAvoy in a debate at a university as we see him hear others talk, he sits back quietly, however when pushed to give an answer to a question about what makes America great he snaps launching into a long diatribe about how the country isn’t the greatest any more but it could be. This opening scene was obviously hoping to emulate the Howard Beale breakdown in Network but Sorkin has already used this scene once before when Judd Hirsch’s Wes snapped in the opening episode of Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip.

Two weeks later after the incident, which Will blamed on an overdose of vertigo medicine, he returns from vacation to find that his co-anchor is leaving the programme taking his producer Don along with most of his other staff members. The only staff members who have stayed loyal to Will are Don’s girlfriend Maggie, a former intern now Will’s assistant, and Neil the author of Will’s blog. Much to Will’s dismay his boss Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston donning a bowtie to portray someone who is slightly eccentric, hires a new executive producer in Will’s ex-girlfriend McKenzie ‘Mac’ McHale. Mac, played by Emily Mortimer, has spent the last two years in various warzones and is now physically exhausted so wants to work in a more stable environment however first she has to win round the sceptical Will. Mac’s producer Jim has followed her to News Night and instantly strikes up a friendship with Maggie, obviously setting the stage for a romantic triangle as the show progresses, and is also the first to notice a story about an oil spill off the coast of New Mexico which we should all be familiar with by now.

Sorkin then reveals to us that this show is taking place on the 20th April of 2010 and what Jim has discovered is in fact the start of the controversy surrounding the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, a story that he and Mac eventually convince Will to start reporting on. The Newsroom came alight when News Night was on the air with Jeff Daniels showing us why Will loves his job so much and in addition how good Mac is at running her staff. This being Sorkin we also get to see the rest of the characters look awe-inspired a lot as thoughtful music plays in the background, composed by Thomas Newman taking over from Sorkin’s regular collaborator WG ‘Snuffy’ Walden, obviously completely taken with Will’s great work. The story going forward is obviously how Will and Mac will be able to work together as well as what will be the big current affairs angle next week?

I think how much you will enjoy The Newsroom will be on how much you like Aaron Sorkin’s previous TV series because his new programme his so much like them it lapses into self-parody. As well as those all-important inspirational scenes, all the characters talk with the same fast-paced tempo that you would expect from Sorkin and I suspect that he brings a metronome on set with him to measure the speed in which the actors are delivering his words. Some of the characters are also reminiscent of Sorkin’s earlier creations namely Maggie who bares obvious comparison with Donna from The West Wing as both are assistant-types who often fret about their personal life but are also adored within their workplace. Even though actress Alison Pill is wonderful in the role I do wonder how Maggie got the job in the first place as she seems completely flustered and out-of-her-depth in addition she seems to keep being promoted so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if she were running the network by the end of season one.

One thing The Newsroom has going for it is Jeff Daniels’ performance as Will the typical flawed male of the piece who is able to deliver, with conviction, most of the speeches that Sorkin throws his way. I felt that Daniels really got across the fact that this was a man who believed that he was more affable than he actually was and also someone who was tough on the surface however had obviously suffered heartache at the hands of Mac. Emily Mortimer is as feisty as ever however I don’t feel that she and Daniels share enough chemistry to believe that they were ever a couple and while we’re on believability I’m also struggling to picture this glamorous Brit anywhere near a warzone. The one-upmanship and bickering between the pair has screwball comedy elements to it some of which work others that don’t however both actors try their best. Of the supporting cast John Gallagher Jr. does his best to play the earnest producer Jim up against Thomas Sadoski’s more cynical Don with the two obviously being destined to square off for the love of Maggie. As previously mentioned Sam Waterston’s role is essentially to look quirky usually with a glass of scotch in one hand though his scenes with Daniels are some of The Newsroom’s best only because the two veteran actors share a strong chemistry. With the Will-Mac tension as well as the Don-Maggie-Jim love triangle it’s a shame that there is no story yet for our own Dev Patel as Will’s blogger Neil, whose role in the first episode seems to be to type furiously while occasionally pitching in with his ideas about the oil spill. In fact I think Neil is solely there to mention that ACN does actually operate in modern times as everything is terribly old-fashioned and as far as I counted there was only one mention of Twitter which even in 2010 was used as a vital way to judge what the big news stories were.

The big theme of The Newsroom though is that there should still be some integrity to the news, however because of the worries about advertising and ratings Sorkin seems to be insinuating that today current affairs programmes are pandering to the lowest common denominator. In that vein Will represents the man who has come to terms with the fact that his job isn’t as important as it was once, while Mac is still determined to cover the news even though nobody’s watching. If you don’t mind these themes being delivered in a series of monologues between characters then I think you’ll enjoy The Newsroom however don’t expect anything particularly cutting edge as in my opinion the programme has little new to say. If you love Sorkin’s style of writing and characters then I feel The Newsroom will be for you however don’t expect anything ground-breaking as overall this is a very old-fashioned programme. Personally I wasn’t bowled over however at least the programme showed promise and I always give debut episodes the benefit of the doubt as they have to spend a certain amount of time establishing the characters as well as their past relationships. When Will takes Mac that, ‘that whole speech did nothing for me’, I had to agree with him as there were plenty of corny monologues cemented within the script of episode one however I feel that that’s par for the course with Sorkin. A well-acted piece with a few good one-liners that ultimately suffers from being too much like Sorkin’s past works however there’s still enough promise that the programme will improve in weeks to come.

Did you watch The Newsroom? If so what did you think? Leave Your Comments Below.