HBO // 2012 // 610 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 27th, 2013
More on this story as it develops.
America and journalism are tightly intertwined. Though we didn't invent the pastime (as we know it today journalism began in London), it's hard to imagine the age of the great industrialists without the rise of yellow journalism. It's hard to imagine the great post-World War II consumer boom without the melding of advertisements and reportage. It's even harder to imagine the end of the Vietnam War or Nixon's presidency without remembering all the journalists who contributed their small parts to telling the horror stories emerging. Even the absences are notable; the silence surrounding the Kennedy assassination (which Hunter S. Thompson called the greatest failure of journalism in the twentieth century). More than any other country, America turned its journalists into heroes. Whether it's Upton Sinclair writing books on the conditions of the poor to Hunter S. Thompson getting blasted out of his gourd while following a would-be president around. They're great figures for fiction as well -- from All the King's Men to the comic series Transmetropolitan puts a journalist at the center of the story to help readers find something out. TV uber-producer Aaron Sorkin knows all this -- The Newsroom is the third time he's gone back to television news as the subject for his musings. Though it has its flaws, The Newsroom: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) provides tight writing and excellent acting, even if Sorkin could stand to come down off his soapbox occasionally.
The Newsroom centers on anchor Will McAvoy, a gruff, mostly Conservative personality who hosts a news program on the cable channel ACN. In the pilot, McAvoy has a well-publicized public outburst which helps him to lose most of his staff. His new manager is his ex-girlfriend MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island), and he's left to pick up the pieces with a new staff. Each episode finds McAvoy and his team responding to a fictionalized version of a recent news event, playing out both the behind-the-scenes journalism and the lives of those in the newsroom.
David Simon (of The Wire fame) once said that one of the most crucial aspects of his writing was determining what he wanted to say with his show. He figured that since he had something like twelve hours in a season that it would be a waste to not try to impart some knowledge to his viewers. Of course he also wanted to entertain them, but in the television landscape there's a lot more shows focused on entertainment than enlightenment. Aaron Sorkin seems to agree with Simon; his most famous show, The West Wing, was all about Sorkin's obsession with telling viewers about the potential of American politics.
What separates David Simon and Aaron Sorkin -- and makes The Newsroom either wonderful or annoying -- is that David Simon is not particularly obsessed with imparting his views of the world to his viewers. Watching The Wire, one can come away with a lot of different opinions (the show was popular with gangsters and cops, for instance), but Simon's main takeaway is that certain systems are broken. Rather than telling us this, he uses the form of dramatic television to show it to us. Sorkin, in contrast, lets us know exactly where he stands. He loves a monologue and isn't afraid to put his views into the mouths of his characters.
Chances are if you agree with Sorkin's views, The Newsroom is an easy show to love. The problem is that if you don't agree with Sorkin's views, then the constant haranguing of McAvoy can get to be a bit much.
Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom have two saving graces. The first is that Sorkin is a darn good writer. He has a talent for fast-paced, clever dialogue that draws viewers in. Though I get a bit tired of Sorkin's love for a monologue, I can't help but admire the way in which these episodes are written. He seems to effortlessly juggle the historical events the news team are covering, the mechanics of the newsroom, and the necessity to move forward all the interpersonal relationships at play in the show. It's an impressive feat in its own right, and I find myself enjoying the mechanics of Sorkin's achievement as much as the episodes themselves.
Of course, Sorkin is rightly praised for his writing, but the show's second strength is in attracting a top-notch cast. Jeff Daniels has been waiting for a role this good for his entire life, and he chomps into it with everything he's got. McAvoy isn't a particularly likeable character, and Daniels doesn't try to soften his rough edges. Even better, though, is Emily Mortimer. While it's easy to read McAvoy as a mouthpiece for Sorkin, MacKenzie tempers his gruffness and provides an alternative view. She's strong and able to stand up to McAvoy without seeming like she's being domineering. The rest of the cast bring life to the characters that populate the newsroom, from recurring characters to more fleeting faces. There is no doubt that The Newsroom has top-tier talent in front of the camera.
Based on The Newsroom: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray), HBO thinks it's got a classic on its hands. The show's ten episodes are housed on four Blu-ray discs in a foldout tray, while they're also spread out over two double-sided DVDs in their own sleeve. Both of these fit into a handsome (and sturdy) cardboard box. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers are excellent. The show has a slick, bright look to it and these transfers bring out the details perfectly. Colors are also well-saturated and skin tones natural. Black levels are deep and consistent, with no serious compression artifacts to be found. The DTS-HD 5.1 tracks are similarly strong. All of Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue can be heard with ease and clarity, while the surrounds get a bit of use during tense moments.
Extras start with commentaries on five episodes featuring Sorkin, exec-producer Alan Poul, and a bunch of the cast. "Mission Control" is a making-of that looks at the sets and talks to the cast and crew, while "The Rundown" is a roundtable featuring Sorkin, Poul, co-exec-producer Greg Mottola, Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, and Sam Waterston. Aaron Sorkin reappears for "Inside the Episodes," which are basically mini-interviews on the individual episodes. Finally, there are some deleted scenes included. In addition to the DVD copies, fans get the option for various digital version, including Ultraviolet and iTunes Digital Copy.
The Newsroom is a well-made, well-intentioned show. Sorkin's fast-paced dialogue is performed by a top-notch cast, and while his particular views get tiring after a while, the construction of the show overcomes that nagging problem most of the time. It's a show worth a second look, and this handsome The Newsroom: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) release from HBO is a great way to give the show a first or second chance.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 610 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy