Aaron Sorkin won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay to The Social Network, the 2010 movie hit about the founding of Facebook, yet it’s the medium of television that seems to captivate him most. In addition to The Farnsworth Invention, a play that ran on Broadway for just 104 performances in 2007-08, Sorkin has written three high-profile TV shows revolving around the world of television. First came the critically acclaimed ABC sitcom Sports Night (1998-2000), which still sparkles a decade and a half later (you can stream all episodes from both seasons on Hulu Plus).
After taking time off from the topic to write and produce the Emmy magnet/political drama The West Wing, Sorkin returned to television as a backdrop for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-type comedy series. Unfortunately, that show never found its creative footing, partly because while Sorkin can write some very funny scenes, the sketch-comedy format seemed to elude him altogether, and Studio 60 limped through a single season (2006-07).
His most recent series return, The Newsroom – released today on Blu-ray and DVD from HBO Home Entertainment – falls somewhere between the artistic success of Sports Night and the painful belly flop of Studio 60.
Set behind the scenes at the fictional Atlantis Cable Network (ACN) channel, the dramedy follows anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his team as they embark on a quixotic attempt to raise the level of American journalism – and, indeed, public discourse in general – by taking the high road in its News Night newscast without allowing ratings to drive content. Will is encouraged to this end by his boss, ACN news division president Charlie Skinner (Law & Order veteran Sam Waterston), who has taken the extraordinarily risky step of hiring a new producer for the show: MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), with whom Will was romantically involved four years ago until she cheated on him with a former lover.
The Newsroom polarized TV critics during its first season, primarily on two fronts. First, even if you happen to share Sorkin’s progressive politics (as, full disclosure, I do), it’s easy to see why viewers of other persuasions might be turned off by the writer’s tendency here to indulge in sermonizing. On a related note, Sorkin made the creative choice to build each episode around an actual news event from the recent past – the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the assassination of Osama bin Laden – which allows his characters almost preternaturally always to make the right choices in deciding how to handle a story.
And while Sorkin is by no means a misogynist, he took flak about how he wrote for some of the women on the show. In one scene, a peripheral female character bursts into the newsroom (on the 25th floor of a high-security building, mind you), screaming because her boyfriend, a staff member, stood her up for their Valentine’s Day date. Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), a News Night associate producer, at one point confides to a colleague that she got in trouble for signing a formal bereavement message with “LOL,” explaining that she thought it stood for “lots of love.” Seriously? A 20-something woman working in a Manhattan communications company doesn’t know what “LOL” means?
Even more irritatingly, other characters keep describing MacKenzie McHale as one of the most fearless producers on the planet, who has kept a calm head in the riskiest of combat zones, yet she keeps collapsing into a whining puddle in front of her staff over the failure of her relationship with Will – which ended, and I really think this bears repeating, four years ago. I know we’re being prompted to pull for these two erstwhile lovebirds to get back together, but it would be easier to do that if MacKenzie weren’t such a basket case from time to time.
Spending time with this new Blu-ray release, however, reminded me that, for its occasional flaws, The Newsroom still has so much going for it. For one thing, when Sorkin steps down from the pulpit, he is able to make words breakdance, somersault, cartwheel and generally thrill us like very few other writers these days. He writes punchlines that deftly and irreverently pull the rug out from under a scene that appears to be going for a tearjerker moment, and lengthy monologues that are grand opera arias without the music. It’s easy to understand why the cast of The Newsroom is populated almost entirely with theater veterans who understand Sorkin’s heightened style of writing and are able to catch the wave of his language and ride it to a thrilling climax in scene after scene.
Beyond that, The Newsroom is packed with some absolutely fantastic performances. Daniels has the toughest job as Will, our resident Man of La Mancha (a musical that keeps turning up during season one), but this underrated actor does a brilliant job of showing us the insecurity under Will’s bravado, which only makes his (probably doomed) quest that much more touching. Even more revelatory is Waterston – if you know him only from his work as poker-faced Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy on the long-running Law & Order, you are probably going to be stunned by his hilarious work here as Charlie, who frequently is halfway in the bag from the bottles he keeps stashed in his desk. John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony Award for his shattering performance in the Broadway musical Spring Awakening, makes a touching and endearing TV series debut as News Night producer Jim Harper, who is secretly carrying a torch for Maggie, and Olivia Munn, former “senior Asian correspondent” on The Daily Show With John Stewart, sneaks up on you with her smart performance as brilliant yet romantically hapless economist Sloan Sabbith. In a recurring role that plays against her public image, Jane Fonda is spectacular as Leona Lansing, the CEO of ACN’s parent company who is a veteran publisher yet needs the support of right-wing zillionaires for business reasons.
Technically, the 6-disc Blu-ray/DVD set is impeccable, with extras that include a “Mission Control” feature exploring the mind-boggling set for the show, as well as a genial roundtable with Sorkin, Daniels, Waterston and Mortimer and two producers reflecting on season one and five audio commentaries including most of the principals (although not, sadly, Gallagher) and lead producers. Be sure to listen to the commentary for episode 10, the season one finale, in which Sorkin can’t help dropping a few spoilers for season two (three words: Sloan and Don).
From left, John Gallagher Jr. and Thomas Sadoski as, respectively, Jim and Don, romantic rivals for Maggie