It’s impossible to adequately discuss The Newsroom without also mentioning Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin’s first series about the behind-the-scenes goings on at a struggling television show. The similarities between the two series range from the minute (including, but not limited to, recycled phrases, sight gags, and scenes-within-scenes) to the broadly obvious, from the studio setting and the name of the fictitious show within the show (News Night versus the eponymous Sports Night) to the larger plot threads of romantic triangles, worldly events affecting the workplace, and the tug of war over creative control in a profit-based medium. The Newsroom often seems like an unofficial remake of Sports Night; it’s as if, a decade later and Oscar in hand, Sorkin wished to return to his former passion project in order to conquer all its troubles once and for all. And perhaps unnecessarily, as Sports Night really did seem to conquer all the obstacles surrounding it, from phasing out its network-mandated laugh track to brilliantly incorporating Robert Guillaume’s real-like stroke into his character’s story, ultimately accomplishing as much in two seasons as any series with a similar lifespan. That it doesn’t feel unnecessary, then, points to Sorkin adequately reworking his interests in a new—and, in this case, explicitly political—setting.
Sports Night’s optimism exists in a distinctly pre-9/11 time capsule, one poignantly reinforced by that show’s regularly placeholding image of the World Trade Center towers. In contrast, season one of The Newsroom is a fittingly angry response to what America has become in the decade-plus since, epitomized in the pilot’s opening scene when Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) lets loose in a packed college auditorium on the mediocrity rampant in a self-deluded America; for a show about journalists trying to compete in the circus that is modern media, it’s fitting that this scene enjoyed heavy rotation on YouTube (along with several other diatribes from throughout the season, a personal favorite being McAvoy’s takedown of the Tea Party, i.e. “The American Taliban”). At once striking, self-congratulatory, illuminating, and obtuse, this sequence sets the tone (while also setting up the plot) for a season that’s defined by its peaks and valleys, unapologetic in its inconsistencies, often frustrating and rapturous all at once. Its tumultuous hour-long arcs are as informed by a talented artist (and bloated ego) as they are an incisive look into the nature of national trauma and personal heartbreak.
There’s a genesis of potential greatness in these first 10 episodes; in time, they may represent an obvious wellspring of riches to come. Meanwhile, there are still treasures to mine, if perhaps only for the dedicated viewer. The first season benefits exponentially from placing its most interesting relationship—between McAvoy and his newly acquired producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer)—at the axis point of the series, as the bulk of the character drama too frequently suggests familiar motions being halfheartedly repeated. Sorkin’s trademark habit of having his characters deprive themselves of happiness, be it out of their lack of common sense of some cruel twist of fate, here feels like a padding device, and it’s to the credit of the cast that these cipher-like characters feel as genuinely flesh and blood as they do. On the upside, there’s a genuinely self-critical tone throughout that effectively counters the often unyielding grandstanding; the centerpiece conversation of episode six, “Bullies,” is a bracing look at the damage wrought by even well-meaning assumptions, while much of the season’s story arc concerns the trade-off between success and integrity. At once unruly and overly manicured, The Newsroom is occasionally as naïve as the poor student caught in McAvoy’s ferocious headlights at the pilot’s outset, but there’s also a profound beauty in its eagerness to embrace the role of the greater fool.
Apropos of an HBO release, the image is gorgeous, from the skin tones and the barrage of monitors in any given shot to the details of the office background or the New York landscape. Good luck finding any flaws. Sound might be equally prodigious; the overproduced opening sequence is a nice opportunity for your sound system to flex its muscles, while Aaron Sorkin’s musical dialogue rings crystal clear throughout.
Five commentary tracks across the set make for an entertaining, if not exactly enlightening, experience; the "Inside the Episode" intros for each episode are mostly fatuous. A handful of deleted scenes confirm the exactitude that went into the making of this season. On disc four you’ll also find "Mission Control," a brief look behind the scenes, and a meaty roundtable discussion that runs a well-spent 26 minutes. Rounding out the set are episode previews as well as a digital and DVD copy of the season.
Equal parts frustrating and rewarding, The Newsroom’s first season provides a decent fix for your Aaron Sorkin cravings and (hopefully) signals greater things yet to come.