Like Sports Night but more serious
Leave it to Aaron Sorkin, who has told us fairy tales about television production (Sports Night, Studio 60) and politics (The West Wing), to combine the two topics and give us a look inside an idealized world of journalism with The Newsroom. The story of the team behind News Night, including anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), the show follows them as they report the news, and make some themselves thanks to Will, who is a bit of a firebrand. With a large cast of characters, the series has a main through story of McAvoy's quest to live up to journalism's revered past, and the forces that conspire against him, but spends a bit of time with several members of the crew, exploring their personal stories.,
The conceit of the series that makes it all work is that the show is set in the recent past, so the news being reported on, including the BP oil spill, the Gabby Gifford shooting, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the Japanese nuclear meltdown, actually happened, so it's not a period piece, and the audience likely has a good memory of what happens. This puts the audience in the unique position of knowing more than the characters, and increases the challenge to Sorkin and his team to surprise the viewers. Sorkin's ability to turn traditional plots into mysteries, often showing you what happened, then jumping back and revealing how it unfolded, helps make it all possible. Because Sorkin doesn't telegraph the real-world news connections, letting you experience them as the reporting happens, so when you realize that you know what's going on, there's a genuine sense of discovery.
Part of what allows that connection is the fantastic cast, with Daniels and Mortimer leading the way as a pair with a past that affects how they work together today. Daniels is supposed to be a Republican news anchor (often referred to as a RINO (Republican in name only)) but he's fed up with his party's behavior, which makes it a bit hard to distinguish him from a liberal (as you never see a big Republican media figure criticize his party the way Will does.) Mortimer, on the other hand, is a somewhat harried professional trying to rein in an increasingly-erratic Will, who starts of the show by blowing up on a college student at an appearance. It just gets worse from there, as he keeps digging himself a hole, with the tabloids reporting on his every flub (as well as a touch of Network in there as well.) These very public problems don't make the owner of the network (Jane Fonda) too happy, especially since his broadsides at the government are messing up their business in front of Congress.
The rest of the crew is equally good. Alison Pill and John Gallagher Jr. play a pair of will-they/won't-they co-workers, both trapped in separate unfulfilling relationships, while Sam Waterston plays the head of the news division in a classic cranky-veteran role, getting some of the best moments. Thomas Sadowski and Dev Patel don't get the same screentime, as a rival producer and a resourceful researcher, respectively, but both make an impression, though not as much of one as Olivia Munn's, who plays Sloan, a financial reporter brought onto Will's show by MacKenzie. Many criticize Munn, since she got her breakthrough wearing a French maid's costume and jumping into a pie, playing up her sensuality on a basic-cable video game channel, but she more than holds her own against a very experienced cast, and gets her own chance to shine when she takes on a Japanese translator for not translating quite right.
Though the mix of drama and comedy is nicely handled by Sorkin, the series also features a less-complementary hallmark of Sorkin's work, as it's exceedingly earnest. No one in the main cast does anything for anything less than the most utopian of reasons, and everyone is striving for greatness, which makes it feel like the show is trying to change the world. There's nothing wrong with that, but if someone was a bit less idealistic, it might lend a bit more realism, and help grow the audience. It shares a lot of the tone and energy of his great series Sports Night which had plenty of episodes based in the moral strength of the characters and the pursuit of a higher calling in the face of more earthly concerns, especially ratings (heck, the shows-in-the-shows are even named Sports Night and News Night). If you're a fan of Sports Night, you'll find a lot to like here in this somewhat more dramatic series, and will notice a lot of similarities, including characters and storylines that are practically lifted directly from the earlier show (like having an observer on the set allowing for an external perspective on the characters.) That's not a bad thing, considering how good the shows are, and getting more of Sports Night is hardly the worst thing that could happen.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks are mostly about center-channel dialogue, as you'd well expect considering this is a Sorkin series, and there are no issues with his aspect, as it sounds clean and clear, even when everyone is talking over everyone else. The surrounds get a bit of work in most situations, delivering the beautiful score, source music and atmospheric sound (often conversations around the room) and handle some nice directional work as well, like off-screen dialogue. It's not a bombastic presentation, but it's not a bombastic show.
With the exception of the first episode, each episode is accompanied by a recap of the previous episode, and a preview is available for every episode along with an Inside the Story segment. These clips, featuring Sorkin, run between two and four minutes each, as the creator summarizes each episode and offers some thoughts in a sort of mini video commentary. Getting more Sorkin is always a good thing.
Five deleted scenes are available from four different episodes, all of which were cut for time. There are some interesting moments here, including Will going after Sean Hannity and an angry fan going after Will on the street. They're definitely worth watching, but they wouldn't have changed the show much. There are other deleted scenes mentioned during the commentaries, but they remain MIA.
Two quality featurettes wrap up the set, starting with "Mission Control" (5:17), which gives an in-depth look at the series' incredibly detailed set, via footage of the newsroom, studio and control room and interviews with members of the cast and crew. It's truly a sight to behold.
The other featurette is a nearly-26-minute roundtable with Daniels, Sorkin, director Greg Mottola, Mortimer, Waterston and Poul, which lets them discuss the progression of the series, the cast, the challenge of coverage, the set and the role of romance in the show. The set-up encourages discussion, but like the commentary on the finale, some of the participants get a bit dominated, and the focus naturally falls on Sorkin. Even so, it's an entertaining chat.
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