Review: The Newsroom (HBO) 1×1

The West Wing meets Network


In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic. Will air starting July 10

I guess it was only a matter of time before Aaron Sorkin got around to creating The Newsroom. You could probably have proved it with Venn diagrams or something.

Sorkin does, of course, love two things above all others: politics and TV shows about TV shows. On the politics side, The West Wing looked at the undeniable vital national importance of decent politics and politicians, but Sorkin also wrote the Guantanamo-tastic A Few Good Men. As far as TV shows about TV shows go, he’s had a patchier track record: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, which looked at the vital national importance of live comedy sketch shows, was a flop, as was Sports Night, which looked at the vital national importance of TV sports shows. 

So I guess it was inevitable that Sorkin would develop a TV show that incorporated into its storylines not just politics but also a TV show about politics. Thus we have The Newsroom, almost a ‘Greatest Sorkin Hits’ collection of things you’ll have seen and loved in previous Sorkin productions: politics; a TV show with behind-the-scenes relationship problems for the production team; ditzy women; failing men; witty banter; talking and walking; beautifully written, fact-heavy sermons; ethnic minority assistants; people doing the right thing; people doing jobs to the best of their abilities; and exhortions about how much better America could be if only all its citizens were well educated.

In this show, of course, we also get journalism and long speeches about how important it is. And as with much of The Newsroom, although you may have seen something similar on Studio 60 et al, here it just about works, because journalism is plausibly of vital national importance – unlike live comedy sketch shows. It’s not quite The West Wing, either in the quality of the cast, which includes Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Olivia Munn, Sam Waterston, Dev Patel and Jane Fonda, or in the power of its execution, but it’s certainly a pretty good start – assuming you like Sorkin.

Here’s a trailer or two and if you’re in the US, you can watch the whole of the first episode.

From the mind of Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and screenwriter of The Social Network and Moneyball, comes The Newsroom, a behind-the-scenes look at the people who make a nightly cable-news program. Focusing on a network anchor (played by Jeff Daniels), his new executive producer (Emily Mortimer), the newsroom staff (John Gallagher, Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel) and their boss (Sam Waterston), the series tracks their quixotic mission to do the news well in the face of corporate and commercial obstacles-not to mention their own personal entanglements.

Is it any good?
It is, of course, good to have Aaron Sorkin back. Nobody quite has his gift for dialogue, for rhetoric and for rose-tinted optimism about the potential of America in the face of America as he perceives it. He’s also a fun writer, witty and entertaining.

Certainly, Daniels’ opening Network-like speech will have the sensible liberal air-punching for joy. The last hour of the show, once the first of the team’s news stories unveils itself, rips along at a frenetic pace and reminds you of The West Wing at its best. 

Unfortunately, the interplay between the characters reminds you of Studio 60 at its worst and there are big chunks of the first hour that dawdle immeasurably. Of the main characters, everyone’s a Toby, nobody’s a Sam in the likeability stakes, with Mortimer reminding you of Sarah Paulson at her most abrasive and Daniels simply a faster-talking, beardless Richard Schiff. Sam Waterston just ambles about pseudo-drunk, rather than achieving any kind of Martin Sheen-like benevolent paternalism, while the supporting cast are predictably earnest and bumbling/brilliantly talented in the usual Sorkin ratios. 

As of yet, there’s no Olivia Munn or Jane Fonda, so we do at least have some potentially interesting additions to the cast still to arrive, although with Munn, apart from her poor Perfect Couples performance, we also have to remember that the irritating Mandy from The West Wing only arrived in episode two. We don’t need another Mandy.

We also have Sorkin’s usual recent-day problems with women (cf The Social Network, Moneyball), with the show failing the Bechdel Test for the first hour and probably only passing in the second hour since it becomes so plot-driven, with no chance for the women to ‘talk about boys’ during that time. Mortimer is particularly relationship-driven for most of her on-screen time, as is Alison Pill’s, with both their potential and actual partners getting to talk far more about work than either of them do.

Nevertheless, despite these reservations, I liked it and I’m willing to give Sorkin time to get back into the beats of regular TV. It has, after all, been six years since Studio 60, even longer since The West Wing, and one does, I suspect, get rusty, particularly if you’ve been writing movies ever since. Given time, the characters could develop into people we could plausibly like. Mortimer could even becomes less irritating.

But give it a try. It’s uplifting, there is an important message here about the polarisation, partiality and dumbing down of American TV news, and it’s far easier to believe that there are still some journalists at news stations who’d dearly love to do proper reporting again than it is to believe that politicians are are all wise, well meaning and incorruptible. 


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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