The Newsroom Season 1 Review

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The debut season of The Newsroom, while met with harsh criticism from some and high praise from others, proved one simple fact: Aaron Sorkin’s still got it.

The season was somewhat divided on character development, with some characters and relationships already feeling stagnant, and some evolving into truly fascinating dynamics. Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy obviously carries this show. No matter what other issues the show has, his charisma is the rock that will hold it together, and has held it together from the first episode. Charlie Skinner, portrayed charmingly by Sam Waterson, is the other most solid character on the show from beginning to end. Some characters started out shaky, but developed into really interesting people to watch every week. Most notably Don, who took a while to find his footing in the show but has turned out to be one of my favorite characters with a lot more complexity than he originally let on. Sloan is another, from the beginning it was hard to tell how much involvement she’d have in the show, but as her role became bigger her character became a very strong and delightful presence. Olivia Munn is the actor aside from Jeff Daniels who seems to me to fully embrace her character. Jane Fonda brilliantly pulls off Leona Lewis, the seemingly villainous CEO of ACN, and her strong integrity coming to light during the finale when she found out about her son’s illegal added worlds to her character’s depth. Neal, played by Dev Patel, contributed more and more as the season went on, and enhanced every scene he was in, contributing with comic relief and, as the season progressed, playing a larger role in significant plot points, most notably with the death threats against Will. And Dev Patel’s performance in Amen, episode 5, is one of the strongest of the entire season.

Some characters didn’t fare so well though. Jim Harper is a thoroughly likable and charming character, but aside from an ill-fated love triangle, he was hardly utilized to his full potential. I hope this is amended next season, and we see more of Jim in a professional setting, because it’s clear that’s where everybody shines the most on this show. Everybody, that is, except for Maggie. Maggie is a vulnerable and fragile character who needed a stronger actor than Allison Pill to be able to hold her own amongst the sea of solid veterans. Granted, she was rarely given much to work with, mainly playing a confused little girl caught between the man she should be with and the man she’s with, and though she did have a handful memorable scenes (most notably her Michelle Bachmann “identity theft” rant) it couldn’t save her character from feeling pathetic. Paul Schnieder’s portrayal of Brian, Mackenzie’s ex-boyfriend and the reporter who wrote the story that sent Will into a downward spiral, was nothing if not forgettable. Reese Lansing was another character who was one dimensional and who fell flat.

Mackenzie is the hardest character for me to write about. Much of the criticism Aaron Sorkin received for The Newsroom had to do with sexism in his portrayal of the women on the show. Maggie clearly was not portrayed in a very strong or flattering light, but for me she was much less of an issue than Mackenzie because she was not supposed to be one of the anchors of the show. Mackenzie’s job was to be the moral center, to keep everyone together on their mission to civilize the news. I understood where she was going and what her role was, and in some episodes she pulled it off, but more often than not she was a frustrating character to watch. She should have been a grounded, professional, composed presence. Instead, her scenes were littered with over the top completely irrational temper tantrums. When the men in the show, namely Will and Charlie, were reacting calmly and rationally to situations, she’d fly off the deep end. I understand that Sorkin was using her to make his points, to try to keep things on track, but the effect was almost unsettling. In any of Sorkin’s other series, the women were above all else talented and competent at their jobs (Dana Whittaker of Sports Night, CJ Cregg of The West Wing), and when they did falter professionally they reacted appropriately. With their personal problems they were always relatable, always a little quirky, never perfect, but always trying. Mackenzie, supposedly an acclaimed executive producer at a major network, couldn’t even recognize the ethical boundaries she was crossing by having her boyfriend with political aspirations appear on their show. Her crazed manner also took away from her relationship with Will, which is supposed to be the central relationship of the show. It’s hard to tell if it’s Emily Mortimer’s portrayal or the writing or a combination of both that’s to blame for the way she comes off this season, but it definitely requires attention.

The episodes themselves were just as much of a roller coaster as the character development was. I’ll Try to Fix You (episode 4) and 5/1 (episode 7) were spectacular episodes of television. It’s clear that huge news stories, such as Gabby Giffords’ shooting and the death of Osama Bin Laden, are where both the writing and acting staff shine. Whenever Will McAvoy is reporting on a huge issue, it’s nearly flawless. Many episodes were fillers, enjoyable but not particularly memorable. And some were just poor, News Night 2.0 and THE BLACKOUT: Part I Tragedy Porn are two that stick out in my mind as just having missed the mark with what they were trying to accomplish.

I couldn’t do a season wrap up without at least mentioning something that plagued the series and my reviews all season. Sorkin repetition. A lot of borrowing from his other shows went on. Both with story lines and with direct quotes. Sometimes it was infuriating, as someone who was hoping to see a lot of fresh material from this talented writer, some of it was less obvious, and some of it was there for the purpose of nostalgia. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that one of Sorkin’s signatures is to continually reuse his signatures. I’ve learned to accept it, because he’s just that good of a writer. But I do hope for some more original story lines next season.

Another thing I have to touch on is the amount of time covered. Over ten episodes, more than a year went by. It’ll be interesting to see which big news stories Sorkin covers next season, and how he balances the pace of time in the show.

Overall, this was a relatively strong debut season. It’s hard to keep an audience captivated for a full hour with no commercial interruptions every single week. The Newsroom successfully did this…for the most part. There are some dramatic improvements to be made, but I think if the focus stays on the news itself and the dynamics of the workplace that feel more natural rather than forcing all these romantic relationships that seem contrived, the show will work as it’s supposed to. Ultimately, I’m excited for season 2. And that’s really what’s important as a debut season ends. (7/10)

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