From the mind of writer Aaron Sorkin, who brought us such memorable shows as 'The West Wing,' and worked on the screenplays for critical favorites like Moneyball and The Social Network, comes 'The Newsroom.' This time, Sorkin uses his pen to take us behind the scenes of a fictional news cable station. The resulting series is powerful, engaging, hilarious, touching, and in short, simply brilliant.
Jeff Daniels stars as news anchor Will McAvoy, who gets himself into trouble during the opening minutes of the pilot episode as he's part of an interview on a college campus. He's been giving humorous and 'safe' responses to most of the questions until one college student asks him to list his reasons for why America is the greatest country in the world. After starting with one of his 'safe' answers, he corrects himself and replies that America isn't the greatest country in the world, then rings out a series of statistics why. Needless to say, McAvoy's answer makes its own news, and he's now caught up in a whirlwind of press.
Will works for ACN (Atlantis Cable News), where his boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), has just hired MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) as the new executive producer for Will's nightly newscast. There's one problem: Will and MacKenzie used to be in a relationship, and Will has never really gotten over it. MacKenzie has been brought in to turn McAvoy's 'News Night' broadcast into something relevant – in other words, a news program that actually reports the news.
Also of note are a number of supporting characters, first and foremost Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) whom MacKenzie has brought to ACN with her as a senior producer. Jim find himself immediately drawn to young associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), who is already in a rather unstable relationship with Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski). Don is the former 'News Night' executive producer and now going to produce the program that immediately follows McAvoy's show. Rounding out the incredibly talented cast is Dev Patel as Neal Sampat, who is kind of ACN's resident internet guru; and Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith, the resident economics expert, who hosts her own show on ACN.
While much of 'The Newsroom' revolves around the fictional lives of the characters, the news segments on the show cover real-life events. The program is set in the recent past, so the characters can deal with and report on real news stories. For example, the major news story in the pilot is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of the other news stories covered in the first season include the Gabby Giffords shooting, the debt ceiling crisis, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Although Jeff Daniels' character claims to be a Republican (although, as he points out early on, a Republican that 'believes that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage'), there's no denying that the show (just like Sorkin's 'The West Wing') takes a rather liberal slant on things that may alienate those of a hard right background. If so, that's a real shame, as regardless of one's political viewpoint, there are performances going on here that should not be missed by any fan of television, film, or the stage.
It goes without saying that Daniels, Waterston, and (frequent) guest star Jane Fonda (who plays the CEO of Atlantis World Media) all give fantastic turns as their respective characters (I would go so far as to say that this is the best thing Waterston has ever done – and that's saying quite a lot). However, even someone like Olivia Munn (who, let's face it, had little on her resume to indicate she belonged in the same room with this cast) impresses. She has an episode (entitled 'Bullies') where she makes a mistake on the air by providing off-the-record information to the viewers and then has to square off against Waterston in a highly energized scene. Munn knocks it (and the rest of the episode) out of the park, and she's strong in most of her other scenes in the series as well. In short, this is one of those rarities in television: a cast with no weak links and no lackluster performances.
As much a comedy as it is a drama, 'The Newsroom' proves to be highly rewatchable fare. A large part of that is due to Sorkin's snappy dialogue (he wrote all ten of Season 1's episodes), which bounces from character to character and scene to scene like a well-conducted orchestra. Sure, no one really talks this way in real life (let alone a whole group of people), but wouldn't the world be a lot more fun if everyone did?
I make no apologies for my love of this show. In a television age where we're getting a lot of great programing, 'The Newsroom' stands in a class by itself. It's not just the best show currently on TV, it's one of the best shows ever on TV. The bar is set pretty high for Season 2, but I can't wait for more of this developing story.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
Those familiar with recent HBO series releases should be acquainted with the packaging provided here. The four Blu-ray discs are housed on plastic hubs within a foldout cardboard design, while the two DVDs are included in a smaller separate cardboard holder, which also holds the insert with the codes for one's digital copy of the series. The DVDs in this set are 'flipper' discs with the episodes only, and none of the bonus materials found on the Blu-ray. However, the separate DVD-only release by HBO does include all of the bonuses. Both the Blu-ray and DVD cardboard holders fit inside a larger cardboard holder (again, like most HBO series releases) with a thinner cardboard flap over the back and top of the release, describing the series and listing the bonus materials.
Other than the HBO logo, there are no front-loaded trailers on any of the discs. The menus of the Blu-ray are a video montage (the DVDs just show a still) with audio clips from the series playing in the background. Menu options are on the bottom left, which open up to cover most of the left side of the screen when selecting the 'Index' option for the episodes. HBO has a habit of listing all the episodes of a series on all of the included discs, and it happens again with the menus on this release. If you pick an episode or feature that isn't on the disc you are watching, a screen will pop up letting you know which disc you need to insert.
Don't fret if you begin watching the pilot and think the picture quality is horrible for a digitally-shot television series. The pilot for 'The Newsroom' was actually shot on film, in Super 16mm. The result is a heavily grained picture that does not really match well with the remainder of the season, although the shooting style and color template do remain pretty much the same.
The remainder of Season 1 is shot using the Arri Alexa digital camera, giving a much sharper look to the series, although it does appear that a fine layer of digital grain (essentially a little boost of digital noise) has been added in post-production to maintain the film-like quality that was established in the pilot, although the heaviness of the grain between the 16mm pilot and the remaining digitally shot episodes are like night and day.
Skin tones and contrasts are solid throughout the run of Season 1, although there's often an (intentional) softness to objects and backgrounds (again, most likely to maintain a film-like quality to the picture). Sharpness does seem to improve however, with outdoor shots, where details are much more distinguishable. The color palate runs on the "cool" side, meaning the series has an overall bluish-greenish look to it, largely in part due to the color scheme of the newsroom itself. Black levels are, for the most part, strong, with little evidence of crushing or not being able to distinguish shadows.
'The Newsroom' is one of those "dialogue-heavy" series, which means that the quality of the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is not immediately noticeable. However, I quickly noted how well the directionality was being used, with dialogue jumping around on the front speakers, depending on the location of the character on-screen.
Far less used are the rear speakers, at least not in the sense they would be in a more action-based series. However, they're not exactly dormant either, as quiet, more distinct sounds and background noises can sometimes be heard, even during the "quieter" moments. Occasionally the soundtrack music will kick in, the characters will be at a bar or other party, or there will be scenes out on the streets of New York City, in which cases the rear speakers are much more active.
In addition to the English track, both French and Spanish DTS Digital Surround 5.1 options have been provided. Subtitle options consist of English SDH, French, Spanish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish.
A master class in great acting and writing, television series don't get much better than 'The Newsroom.' Each one of this first season's episodes prove to be highly rewatchable and a whole lot of fun. Even if you don't agree with the show's politics, you'll find yourself engulfed in its quick wit and engaging storylines. I have no hesitation in giving this set my highest recommendation.