The Newsroom – Will McAvoy, Following a Quixotic Quest

That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,

To reach … the unreachable star

Jeff Daniels as News Anchor Will McAvoy in HBO's The Newsroom 2012

‘Will, Vanity Fair reports that…’you are popular because you don’t bother anyone – how do you feel about that?’ The first ten episodes of HBO’s new television drama The Newsroom, created by Emmy award winning screenwriter producer and playwright Aaron Sorkin reports our American correspondent, has just ended its first season in America and just started on Australian television. It has evoked all sorts of highly ‘emotive’ responses from the public, the media and countless nitpickers, many of whom seem to have forgotten that it is supposed to be ‘entertainment’. The complexity of the characters and the strength of the fine cast assembled to perform in The Newsroom surrounding its main protagonists Will McAvoy aka actor Jeff Danniels and Mackenzie ‘Mac’ MacHale aka English actress Emily Mortimer, is indeed impressive. In Episode 1, currently a ‘popular’ news anchor of the fictional television network ACN’s program News Night, presenter Will McAvoy gives in to his pent up frustrations and delivers a ‘mad’ diatribe at a girl student in a university interview. He is goaded by what he perceives as her inane question. It sets the scene for what it is to come, a fast talking drama with some very witty, very clever, sometimes sanctimonious, sometimes politically incorrect, often pompous and delightfully refreshing comedic repartee.

Aaron Sorkin, he knows what buttons to push

Its Creator and Executive Producer Academy and Emmy award winning American screenwriter, producer and playwright Aaron Sorkin (1961 -) as well as stirring the pot a great deal also delivers a finale to the first series, which has the promise of news hero Will McAvoy perhaps achieving an ‘impossible dream’ at the end of his quixotic quest.

Sorkin’s other outstanding powerful drama The West Wing ran on television for many years. It was, for many including me, simply the best television series of the 20th century. Its setting of The White House was one he couldn’t ever hope to emulate again. So why not go to a different part of the spectrum, The Newsroom, where American Presidents are sometimes made and sometimes broken. It does in reality take Sorkin and his team of writers until about the end of the fourth episode of this 10 episode series to get this show, and its many back stories and wonderful set of convincing characters really into stride. From then on it moves along promisingly at a great pace as we begin to heavily invest in them all.

The Newsroom may prove to be infuriating for some, exhausting for others in its speedy delivery, but in the grand scheme of things it is passionate and quite simply irresistible entertainment. It gives us a real sense of the excitement and exhilaration attached to producing news live, but always within the boundaries of both its corporate and commercial restraints, which for the team involved would sometimes seem like a huge damper. It’s all about maintaining the checks and balances and see how the characters deal with that.

The News Night Team from The Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin

Sorkin is renowned for producing amazing often lengthy and brilliant monologues; ‘Mr McAvoy – can you say in one sentence why America is the greatest country in the world? ‘… it’s not the greatest country in the world’ – but it can be…it used to be…’today we lead the world in only 3 categories; number of incarcerated citizens per capita; the number of adults who think angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies… in the past …‘we stood up for what was right, we fought for moral reasons, we waged war on poverty, not on poor people, we sacrificed, we cared about our neighbours and we put our money where are mouths are.

We never beat our chests, we built great big things and made technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men we aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it and it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by whom we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy; we were able to do all these things and be all these things because great men who were revered informed us. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world any more …enough?’

Actors Left to Right: Dev Patel, Olivia Munn, Thomas Sadoski, Sam Waterston, John Gallager Jr., Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill

Aaron Sorkin also has a reputation for producing scripts that appeal to people, from all walks of life and all backgrounds, especially if they don’t want to be cast down by others as not being ‘intelligent’. The greater public proves time and time again that those people who assume they are not intelligent are the ones who usually end up looking fools.

Fictional ACN news division President Charlie Skinner, aka Sam Waterston is Will’s revered boss and buddy. He brings the renowned Executive Producer Mackenzie MacHale in to take over production of his network’s popular News Night, which has Will as its ‘burned up’ anchor man. He likes the speech Will delivered from his heart at the university. He is happy that, if he rights the ship at last they will be able to deliver real news again together like they did in a previous era, not just cater to their sponsor’s needs and ‘populace’ story ratings, which he notes Will has been doing co-incidentally since ‘Mac’ originally left the station three years before.

After all ‘America is the only country on the planet that has said since its birth that we can do better, its in our DNA…we can do better if we offer news with integrity’ says Mac with all the courage of her convictions.

McKenzie MacHale, with whom Will has serious trust issues, says in a scene where they are arguing about her being hired to guide his all new show that ‘I would rather do a good show for a 100 people than a bad one for a million’… I’ve come here to take your talent and put it to some…patriotic use!  We don’t do just do-good television, we do the news’ and ‘where does it say that a good news show cannot be popular!

After much argument and jockeying about, they finally get down to it, together with their newly founded team of seeming young misfits.

So if you haven’t watched it, don’t read past this point as while we have not tried to reveal too much, except stuff about the fabulous characters, it may spoil it for some.

Emily Mortimer plays News Night’s newly hired executive producer and Will’s ex girlfriend and she is excellent as the passionate, constantly put your foot in it ‘Mac’, who is also in pursuit of her own ‘impossible dream’.

Mac wants Will to become the team’s ‘moral centre’ and ensure integrity for her all-new version of News Night Mk II. She wants him to take on this seemingly, on the surface at least, bunch of green youngsters they are left with as the seniors all defect to work on a new show.

She wants him to help her to grow them into a cohesive unit, because she believes that, as yet, they are not jaded or spoiled by life’s experiences. She tells Will, ‘ they don’t know how to do the news badly’ and assures him they will be supervised well.

Mac’s verbal debates with Jeff Daniels as Will, where she explains everything she is feeling, often in obsessive and minute detail, are often challenging and wonderfully self righteous, but hey it is supposed to be ‘real’ and many people are like that.

McAvoy and MacHale, mixing it up

Caring about what they are doing, reaching for the stars, being curious and sometimes great team players is an important aspect of the characters and their many strengths.

Will is quite obviously the love of Mac’s life and she of his, but as is normal today, pride too often gets in the way of either of them admitting how they really feel about each other and they both go about dating other people unsatisfactorily.

Mackenzie MacHale: You’re going on a date with a cheerleader?
Will McAvoy: Not a high school cheerleader, a professional cheerleader.
Mackenzie MacHale: That doesn’t make it better!
Will McAvoy: Can I help you?
Mackenzie MacHale: She’s a student!
Will McAvoy: A graduate student.
Mackenzie MacHale: In philosophy?
Will McAvoy: Physical therapy.
Mackenzie MacHale: There are better ways to get back at me.
Will McAvoy: I’ll put up a suggestion box.

Sweet Maggie in the newsroom

Mac’s insistence on producing un-biased news is a trend many journalists would surely want to see in contemporary contention. While the television network they all work for ACN is fictional, the news stories being covered in the ‘News Night’ broadcasts are actual past news events and this makes the stories entirely credible for viewers, who will remember them well.

The younger characters may take some older viewers a while to come to terms with. They are all about emotions and expressing themselves both verbally and physically, which is completely at odds with a generation who grew up learning early on how to keep their feelings to themselves, and certainly not on display at the office.  They live their lives by email, on Facebook or by text, but hey, they are at least communicating with each other.

John Gallagher Jr as Jim Harper

Like all such previous advances in society, our age of technology has many positives, which hopefully in the end will far outweigh the negatives. And that includes having unbiased news as it is happening in our living rooms so that we can better respond, especially during disastrous natural disasters.

John Gallagher Jr., plays Jim Harper. Mac has brought him along to ACN from her last gig to be her head producer. He’s a charming youthful mild mannered ‘Clark Kent’ type and we find out early on that he is completely able to leap tall buildings in a single bound if he has to.

In the first episode he admirably cracks onto a story about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico involving BP in 2010, ensuring that the new team are all off and running together with a great start, reporting on an epic environmental tragedy as it is unfolding.

After a few episodes Jim also has a whole ‘Lois Lane’ arrangement going on with Maggie Jordon, aka Alison Courtney Pill, a delightfully neurotic blonde office bombshell, with whom he soon establishes a close working relationship.

She wants to be taken seriously by her smooth talking boyfriend, who is the ex-producer of Will’s show for the last three years Don Keefer aka Thomas Sadoski, whom Charlie Skinner is busy moving sideways.

Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith

Mac, likes Maggie the moment they meet and seizes the moment snapping her up by offering her a role as one of the youthful producers on the new show, rather than being just Will’s P.A., but only if she wants it.

She immediately gains her trust and loyalty.

As time goes on we all come to realize, just like Mac has early on when she advises Jim to ‘gather ye rosebuds while he may’, that Maggie really belongs with Jim and that Don should really be with the beautiful financial news reporter Sloan Sabbith aka Olivia Munn, whom he is completely outclassed by, but absolutely fascinated with.

Olivia Munn’s Sloan is awesome, although it takes us a while to find out the depth and scope of her character. She is also very beautiful and could be working as an analyst for higher pay, but likes the daily challenges of where she is.

We shall no doubt hear and see a great deal more of her in Series 2 as she was really just gathering her stride as the first series ended.

Dev Patel is a welcome inclusion as Neal Sampat, whose role seems to be getting to the bottom of the real facts. He’s the tech head who, despite his age, contributes much in-depth wisdom to the team. He writes Will’s blog and is constantly scouring the internet to ensure they keep on top of all the coming stories.

Charlie, Mac and Will

Distinguished actor Sam Waterston is an excellent choice for the ‘old school’ president of the news division Charlie Skinner. He brings great style, pathos and the total smarts to his role.

He is also a perfect foil for Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, whose affable laid-back likeable style, as managing editor and news anchor is both engaging and endearing. Will moves from being a wise cracking smart-ass, often pompous, sometimes humble, lovable philanderer to being the seriously informed news anchor with consummate ease. He is able to hold his own with the best of them.

Will’s vulnerabilities are there on show for all to see and take advantage of, which some do. His whole world is turned up side down when Mac returns and wants him to fulfill his potential. He has been coasting for the past three years and he knows it.

An unexpected surprise is the inclusion of veteran Academy Award winning actress Jane Fonda as CEO of the network they all work for. She has a reputation for enjoying roles that involve plenty of politics. She’s feisty, opinionated and outspoken, but underneath it all completely fair and dedicated to doing things properly.

Jane eventually must back down from the high horse she is riding and her dogged pursuit of facts to have Will fired, but all because she is being fed misinformation gathered by her not so-scrupulous executive son, which the team prove in the final show of the season saving Will’s bacon.

News buddies, Sam Waterston and Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom

The finale is put together in brilliant Sorkin style, with Will beginning by delivering what many believe to be a low interest story about a 96 year old woman in American society, who has been told she cannot vote anymore.

She is being discriminated against. A new law passed in her home state forces residents to show a government issued photographic ID in order to vote.  She does not have a driver’s license because she doesn’t own a car and she has never had a passport, because traveling abroad was never part of her life journey. This means she’s being denied her fundamental American right of choosing to vote.

It is all about championing liberty and freedom, which the American constitution was founded to defend and it leads into an even bigger political story, that is to say at the very least both topical and thought provoking.

The ending is poignant, but we will not spoil it here except to say that it proves that the ‘impossible dream’ is still a possibility. Sorkin’s character’s are reaching high. They fall down a lot and slip on a few banana peels occasionally, but on the whole viewers end up enjoying many memorable moments with them in the hectic atmosphere of The Newsroom

Will McAvoy’s quixotic quest is off to a good start. His disjointed team over the course of the first season have become a real workplace family, one we all want to be part of. They are working well towards their goals and together to achieve a pleasing result, which is sometimes great, sometimes not so great. They will in the future I am sure continue to take three steps forward, and occasionally one or two back as they engage with the news and each other. By the end of the season the viewer, on the whole, should be smiling and like Will, completely at leisure. Aaron Sorkin, his talented crew and cast have set everything up well for the second season of HBO’s The Newsroom in 2013.

Can’t wait.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

*Part lyrics from the song “Impossible Dream’ from Man of la Mancha, which was a musical adapted from a play from a book by Dale Wasserman. The song lyrics were by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh. It’s inspired by the original 17th story of Don Quixote by Cervantes

HBO The Newsroom

Executive Producers: Aaron Sorkin, Scott Rudin and Alan Poul
Co-Executive Producers: Denis Biggs, Greg Mottola and Paul Redford

Jeff Daniels – Will McAvoy
MacKenzie McHale – Emily Mortimer
Charlie Skinner – Sam Waterston
Jim Harper – John Gallagher Jr.
Margaret Jordan – Alison Pill
Don Keefer – Thomas Sadoski
Neal Sampat – Dev Patel
Sloan Sabbith – Olivia Munn


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