‘The Newsroom’ premiere review: HBO, Aaron Sorkin have a winner

Critics are divided on this one.

From the moment it was announced, “The Newsroom” was a show with lofty expectations for HBO. It marks Aaron Sorkin’s first major foray into television since “The West Wing” (at least successful one, since we’re forgetting about “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), and it also boasts a cast of such talent that it is almost jaw-dropping to see them all as a part of the same series.

Luckily, the show itself manages to live up to this standard and be jaw-dropping all on its own. The extended series premiere on Sunday night did everything that you would hope to see from a pilot — defined characters, big moments, and a hook to keep you watching it. Was it talky at times? Sure, but we also don’t see why some critics out there expect anything different from a Sorkin product. Dialogue is what he does best, and the reason so many monologues worked was that we were constantly in the midst of seeing the characters reacts cynically to them. Ultimately, we wonder if some of the critical lambasting that is going on out there has something to do with either a desire to shy away from political viewpoints or to subtly complain that the show replaced “Girls” on the schedule and they no longer know how to feel hip.

The plot of the series revolves around Will McAvoy (a superb Jeff Daniels), a news anchor who is confronted with a major crossroads in his career after losing his marbles during a college appearance and then trying to change the nation’s perspective of him. As a part of a restructuring, his boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterson) decides to completely revamp his entire team, which includes hiring an executive producer in Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) who also just so happens to be his ex. It didn’t take long to find out that Will does not exactly appreciate decisions being made without him, and thus we had our hook — he gave up a million dollars annually on his contract just so he could have the power to fire Mackenzie at the end of any given week in her contract; with that, she is going to have to earn her place telling him what to do. The same goes for her team, which includes a hotshot senior producer named Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.) who wasted no time in putting some of the old regime in its place when it comes to chasing leads.

While Daniels’ performance was indeed superb, what made the pilot almost entrancing was how Sorkin managed to juxtapose Will’s world of ego and spin it with the innocence, heartache, and often uncertainty presented by Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), who somehow managed to be promoted from an intern to an assistant to associate producer all within a span of the episode. In some ways the dual storytelling is reminiscent of Don Draper and Peggy Olson, but in a much more class-oriented way. On one hand Will is in St. Lucia with Erin Andrews, while on the other Maggie is just trying to get her boyfriend (and Will’s ex-EP) Don to go out to dinner with her parents.

For a pilot that almost took place entirely within one building, “The Newsroom” is captivating TV. It’s smart, funny at times, and contains more heart than you’d probably find on any real cable news network. Does it need more to sustain a full season? Definitely, but we’re not sure that we have been hooked on one episode of a series so quickly since “Game of Thrones” back in spring 2011. Luckily for HBO, both happen to air on the same network.

If you didn’t catch “The Newsroom” this weekend, find a way to watch it. If you love engaging storytelling and a few Emmy-worthy performances, you will not be disappointed. We’re already waiting for the next breaking story to air in a week.

Photo: HBO

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