The first thing to say about The Newsroom is that it is unashamedly idealistic. Created by Aaron Sorkin, who gave us The West Wing, the show is populated by passionate journalists who value truth and facts over such trifles as ratings and advertising concerns. As is often the case with Sorkin, the action unfolds in a high-pressure environment where a team of smart workaholics frequently burst into impassioned speeches.
At the centre of the show is Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a grumpy news anchor who is popular due to his unwavering impartiality. Will once believed in the informative value of journalism, but he has spent the last few years in a career coma. This changes during a televised debate, however, when he is pushed to explain why the US is the greatest country in the world. Will eventually snaps, unleashing an uncharacteristically truthful tirade about America’s failings. “It’s not the greatest country in the world!” he barks, before delivering a riveting, profanity-laced monologue that stuns the audience.
The Newsroom is at its best when it goes behind the scenes to show how a news broadcast is put together. Critics have complained that real journalists don’t talk like these characters, but when Mac and her team are working on stories, the results are energetic and exciting. Sorkin’s scripts, meanwhile, remain the sharpest and wittiest on TV. “I only seem liberal,” says Will, “because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.”
Daniels is outstanding as the gruff anchorman, while Sam Waterston is endlessly endearing as Charlie Skinner, Will’s supportive, bowtie-sporting boss. “I will beat the shit out of you,” he yells at an underling who is berating Will. “I don’t care how many protein bars you eat.” Then there’s Thomas Sadoski as executive producer Don Keefer, who quits Will’s team during the opener, only to re-emerge as the show’s most entertaining character. “The people at home really like you,” he tells a colleague. “And you’re handsome, too. In a droll and expressionless way.”
Sorkin isn’t aiming for gritty realism: his newsroom is a romanticised place. Still, each episode in the first season is built around a real story from recent history, such as the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the death of Osama Bin Laden, handled in quixotic fashion by the team. The show doesn’t fully hit its stride, though, until the second season, out on box set at the end of this month. Adopting a more serialised approach, it builds momentum through an overarching storyline, in which the team finds itself in all sorts of trouble after airing an investigation into a secret military operation.
Admittedly, The Newsroom can be manipulative – one journalistic victory is accompanied by Coldplay’s Fix You – but it’s also uplifting, a rare quality these days, with most shows fixated on the darker side of human behaviour. As McHale says during one of her aspirational speeches: “Being a cynic is easy.”