Color bars, truth and ‘The Newsroom’

Karl R. de Mesa

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Aaron Sorkin chronicles the not-so-dangerous lives of broadcast journalists in this HBO series

JEFF DANIELS AS WILL McAvoy in HBO's 'The Newsroom.' Image courtesy of 'The Newsroom' Facebook page and HBO

MANILA, Philippines – I tell you this: when the second season of “The Newsroom” airs in June 2013, there’ll be more journos fast-talking in that patois of facts, opinion and calculated hyperbole so common in the Sorkinian landscape, it’ll be like hipsters got kicked down the pop culture ladder by a Muay Thai teep. 

Like keffiyeh scarves, it’ll be the fashion du jour.     

“The Newsroom” is an HBO TV series about how broadcast reportage and news are produced at the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel, specifically in the program titled, “News Night with Will McAvoy.” Jeff Daniels plays the lead role as the titular anchor, a popular journo who’s right up there in the anchor-as-celeb with Dan Rather and Barbara Walters. 

The brains behind this is Aaron Sorkin, creator and also primary writer. Yep, the same guy who penned “The Social Network,” “A Few Good Men” and “The West Wing” — that TV antidote to the facepalm surrealism of the Bush era. 

Is this series worth your attention? The shot answer is: hell yeah… but with caveats.

The long answer follows:

On the practical side, we get the local episodes on HBO Asia almost concurrently; meaning, we’re only one episode behind its US airing. By this time, the finale of season 1 should be on replay and you can get buzzing on the forums if you like and you won’t be too out of touch.

This series is a dose of realism while we wait for Season 3 of Game of Thrones to get its sword arm up and swinging. It’s that fusion of recent history and through-the-veil look without the bathetic light of a reality show.

Except it’s not real. 

Look, in the first episode, McAvoy suffers a very public tantrum of outrage (a breakdown from vertigo meds, he later claims) at a forum talk at Northwestern University. In a panel of 3, a liberal and a conservative sit on either side of him, talking their heads off for the student body. McAvoy answers in jest and desert dry wit, exercising that verbal judo anchors do so well. 

When the open forum comes and a blonde student — stuttering and starstruck — asks: “Can you tell me why America is the greatest country in the world?” McAvoy continues to jest. University host insists on a “human moment” from him, as if to drive home the fact that he needs to earn that speaker’s token cheque. 

This prompts McAvoy to give the “sorority girl” an epic dressing down, the kind that ruins lives. He waxes about how America “once went to war for moral reasons, and once struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest.”

To which he poetically sums up in that Sorkinian, lofty heights double apologia and killing stroke: “None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student; but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST. GENERATION. EVER. So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the f*ck you’re talking about!?”

Insert kaboom sound clip where apt. So, don’t watch this for the “authenticity,” since nobody really talks this way (not even real journos) and even the drama is stretched to the borders of plausibility; but darn, I do love a TV show with artful ambitions. 

I say artful because of the ensemble cast.

In an arc 10 episodes long, Daniels and his new executive producer slash former girlfriend, MacKenzie “Mac” McHale (Shutter Island’s Emily Mortimer), spearhead the newsroom staff into remaking the old program into what they call “News Night 2.0,” that will focus on stories that are relevant and important to be brought to the light of the American public. Unlike the former show that — as insisted in quite a few episodes — was slaved to ratings and being current, instead of accurate.   

Rounding up the drama are the sordid lives that get entangled but always somehow manage to put the best news show on air, on time, despite the odds and despite their interpersonal grievances. 

There’s the aborted, will-they-or-won’t-they budding romance triangle of news producers Jim Harper (John Gallagher), Margaret “Maggie” Jordan (Scott Pilgrim vs The World’s Alison Pill) and Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski); ACN news division president and bow-tie-wearing old school journo Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) fending off management and corporate money grubbers from ruining the show; IT and blogging savant Neal Sampat’s (Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel) quest for news producer status from the mire of zero training, his credentials at 21 years of age a coverage of the London subway bombings with his camera phone.

Finally, there’s former “Attack of the Show” host and geek icon Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith — the business anchor, of all things. Beautiful and socially awkward, Sabbith is an economist at heart and she’s also on a mission. Mackenzie is quick to note and exploit this by giving her a segment on the primetime broadcast. 

Why? Because, as Mac puts it, the other guys just “(don’t) have your legs! If I’m going to make people listen to an economics lesson, I’m going to have to find somebody who doesn’t looks like George Bernard Shaw.”   

And she’s completely right! Sabbith, over the course of the season, develops into a better journo, notably in the episode that covers the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Munn, whose mostly done comedy and some action, performs surprisingly amazing in this dramatic role. So believe me when I gush that there’s not enough Olivia Munn in this show.  

This isn’t all news wonderland, though; there’s a lot going against this HBO series. The most glaring of which is that it is 90% talking heads. 

A newsroom is like an airport in its organized chaos, only faster. Sure, there’s always a buzz of hurried energy. People run around checking facts, furiously typing, calling out to people across the room, and calling sources, calling guests, calling experts. Aside from an occasional argument on a New York street, everything happens in the studio or the office. 

Probably the most action we get is when “Expendables” star Terry Crewes (as Lonny) comes in as McAvoy’s bodyguard in response to Internet death threats. There’s some chasing involved with cops, but I won’t spoil it for you. 

McAvoy himself can be that character you utterly love or hate, and for the same reasons. He describes himself as a moderate Republican — sometimes a RINO, or Republican In Name Only — and presents that template gruff exterior when he’s off cam. But his world easily turns topsy turvy when MacKenzie re-enters his life.

Not exactly inventive there, Mr. Color Bars.

He also has a WASPy vituperative streak; that prescriptive, blowhard aloofness except with depth and good intentions — but a blowhard nonetheless. They’re a dime a dozen in the broadcast profession and it looks like “The Newsroom” has just as many flies to this honeypot. Exhibit A: McAvoy’s former E.P. Keefer who is described as a “master of the dark arts” in an episode where the show needs to bring up ratings to score a presidential debate bid later on. 

McAvoy’s Quixote-ish “mission to civilize” is that same veneer of bull crap that conquistadors used to justify rape, pillage and the Christianizing of loincloth-clad natives. Except this one is closer to the tone of cultural demagoguery. The liberal media has been criticized for this over and over again, but in “The Newsroom,” this overarching malaise of good intentions is actually crafted to be likeable. 

Which is to say you should watch it.

There’s levels of metaphor here for which the drama is a custom-built trap to lure you in. Sorkin and some of the directors from former HBO hit “Rome” have also hidden sexiness in the details. But an astute viewer can’t miss it. 

The most obvious being Sloan Sabbith in tight, off grey, corporate dress suits that hug her curves like an anaconda choke. The classy and precious-faced Mortimer as exec prod Mackenzie has a penchant for a daily uniform of translucent blouses.

If the ladies like perennial college-student types with a cute overload, Harper and Keefer are diametric opposites of the confident NY male.

Mr. Sorkin, you sly guy, you.       

With that out of the way, I must say that the meat of interest going for this one is the process of witnessing how recent history got uploaded to mainstream consciousness. 

From the death of Bin Laden; the passing of racist, new immigrant laws; to the rise of Tea Party politics, News Night’s crew can be touch and go (especially in episodes 8 and 9), but they’re certainly tenacious.

You can’t handle the truth — not yet anyway — but they can. 

See the finale, titled “The Greater Fool,” where Sloan Sabbith tells McAvoy “this country was built by (greater fools).” Joyfully add me to that number and cancel the count. –

Karl R. de Mesa ( a guitar player for the drone metal group Gonzo Army and a journalist on a self-appointed beat: the culture of the human spirit. When stumped, he lets a stud-collared Snoopy push him around and call him names, because it’s better than letting a polar bear do it.

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