Let’s make this simple: “The Newsroom” is the most important drama to make it to television in years.
This is not a political statement — unless the national debate has plunged to such lows that complimenting a show that dares to say what thinking people have been questioning for years is somehow political.
HBO’s drama, debuting Sunday, June 24, has it all: actors who feel as if they were born to these parts and writing that proves there is hope for TV beyond talent contests, braying shoppers and those in need of psychotropic drugs.
Tackling the issue of how crucial an informed public is to democracy, the drama captures the terrific energy in a newsroom when a huge story breaks. It uses its characters to question what’s happening in the national arena. There’s a lot going on and it takes the singular talent of “West Wing” creator and Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “Moneyball”) to pull it off.
“I want to emphasize the show is not a ventriloquist act,” Sorkin tells Zap2it. “All of my education and training is in theater, not politics. I like writing romantically.”
The romance here is between Will McAvoy and Mackenzie McHale (Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer). McAvoy plays a cable station news anchor everyone dismissed as a milquetoast, but he reveals a sharper edge. In the pilot, McAvoy and colleagues are at a Northwestern University journalism symposium, and he’s pressured to answer why the United States is the greatest country.
McAvoy answers with searing honesty that America is not, reminding students that 207 sovereign states have freedom. He clearly loves his country and the principles it’s founded upon but is distressed by the current lack of civility, among other ailments.
“It used to be we waged war on poverty, not poor people,” McAvoy says. “We aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it.”
The first four episodes are full of such plangent lines, and as McAvoy, Daniels (“Good Night, and Good Luck.“) gets many of them. Daniels stresses that despite buzz, his fictional character is not modeled on Keith Olbermann.
“Ten minutes into the pilot, you have that speech,” Daniels says. “We are going to clear the room of people who can’t handle it. They are very smart people saying very smart things.
“He is a ratings whore,” Daniels continues. “He loves to look in the morning and see that [his numbers] bumped. When he talks about Sarah Palin, he does so in a way that doesn’t hurt his numbers. He loves the money and he loves to be No. 1, but he does so by not telling people what he really thinks.”
Or what they really need to know. That’s where McHale strides in, reminding everyone that journalism is more than snarky comments on a blog. As McHale, McAvoy’s new executive producer and former lover, Mortimer (“Hugo”) is unflappable during a crisis and passionate about digging for the truth.
“My friend Shaminder Nahal does exactly this job in England on ‘Newsnight,’ ” Mortimer says. (Coincidentally, “News Night” is McAvoy’s show.) “She doesn’t let anyone off the hook – ever.”
“The most important thing is the news and not f***ing up,” Mortimer says. “She is not in it for the money. There is something very addictive about it that takes over your life. I have met people who have been up for 28 hours. That is the thing, they care so crazy much.”
Like all great journalists, McHale believes she can right injustices.
“She has the feeling she can change things and harking back to an era where it was more civilized and chivalric, and a time when people did ask difficult questions but in a way that was classy, and she is sort of crazy to think like that, but that’s what it takes to change things.”
McHale brings along her senior producer, Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.). He gets insanely lucky as far as sources go when the BP oil-rig disaster occurs. And Alison Pill as Maggie Jordan, an earnest newbie whom McHale instantly mentors, is tentative and idealistic, as she should be.
If anything, the show is idealistic, but scratch the surface of journalists, and idealists emerge. “The Newsroom” hits on the usual internecine power struggles, including the relentless frenzy over ratings.
Sam Waterston (“Law & Order”) is a delight as Charlie Skinner, the seasoned, soused editor who, even after 50 years in the business, considers it a sacred trust to deliver impartial facts.
Jane Fonda shows up as the station owner, who doesn’t want her political cronies put in a bad light. Hope Davis appears as a gossip columnist under the delusion that “taking down” a Bravo “Real Housewife” is as important as covering real news.
The artistry of the show comes through as the characters’ personal issues deftly mesh with the global issues. Footage from the BP disaster, the attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and President Barack Obama’s gun policies are used in the fictional newscast.
“By setting a story in a newsroom, any story you want can come through,” Sorkin says. “It’s a big buffet table.”
And if viewers are lucky, they will graze here for years.