Sorkin returns with a fictional look at cable news

In "The Newsroom": from left: Thomas Sadoski as a producer, Sam Waterston as the boss, Jeff Daniels as the anchor. John P. Johnson / HBO
In "The Newsroom": from left: Thomas Sadoski as a producer, Sam Waterston as the boss, Jeff Daniels as the anchor. John P. Johnson / HBO
Posted: June 25, 2012

TV's prodigious son is back. Throw a Hungry Man dinner in the oven and let us feast.

After a spectacular sojourn in films (The Social Network, Moneyball), writer Aaron Sorkin returns to the weekly grind with not his most ambitious series (that would be The West Wing), but certainly his most daring.

To celebrate the staff of a nightly cable news broadcast — even a fictional one — at a time when the country is so antagonistically polarized (and in an election year, no less) is simply courting trouble. So let's get ready to rumble.

The Newsroom is the story of anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his unlikely redemption. McAvoy's on-air success is based on his easy affability and studied neutrality. Off camera, he's prickly and a bit of a tyrant to his crew.

Then one night during a panel in front of students at Northwestern University, he erupts in a profanity-filled rant about all the ways our country has gone off the rails.

It's almost like Jack Nicholson's furious charge in Sorkin's earliest movie, A Few Good Men: "You can't handle the truth!"

Of course, half the young crowd is capturing McAvoy's every (less than patriotic) word on their smartphones. And the anchor's carefully cultivated air of blandness is swept away in a viral tsunami.

Meanwhile, back at the cable channel's headquarters in Manhattan, McAvoy's wise, bourbon-slugging, bow-tie-wearing boss (Sam Waterston) seizes the opportunity to clean house.

Waterston sets up his tarnished golden boy with a new executive producer and (former flame), MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer).

She challenges McAvoy to stop following the herd and "be the moral center of this show. Be the integrity."

So, what is this brave new format the mighty Macs unleash upon viewers?

After several hours of listening to the characters talk and talk and talk about it, the concept remains a little fuzzy. As I understand it, the mission is to go beyond the day's big headline stories in order to shine a light on issues of deeper significance, "to successfully inform and educate" the public.

Sounds more like Oprah than Scott Pelley, doesn't it?

Among Sorkin's points: The media, shooting for balanced coverage, have settled on a nullifying strategy that predictably alternates opposing viewpoints. Red says it's good. Blue says it's bad. Let's call the whole thing off.

Sorkin uses his cable proxies to preach for the sanctity of truth, arguing that independent of all the bloviation and polemics, there are facts that need reporting.

Sounds more like Socrates than Scott Pelley, doesn't it?

It's also a little disingenuous, because facts and statistics are the favored weapons of all the talking ideologues on television. They hurl them like so many Angry Birds at their opponent's bulwarks.

The Newsroom wants to pose McAvoy as a lonely crusader, In fact, Don Quixote is name-checked in all the early episodes. But in the segments from the show within the show, he comes off as a bully — or at least the most antagonistic interviewer in prime time. No one escapes the lash of his tongue — or his encyclopedic grasp of the most arcane data.

(Although you have to question why McAvoy repeatedly insists Quixote rode a donkey. What would Rocinante say to that?)

Media, bias, and Sorkin's personal framework — that's the argument that will swirl around The Newsroom in its early going. But it's not the reason to watch the show. In fact, I'm not convinced that Sorkin himself sees all the agonizing over politics and the fourth estate in his scripts as more than a very labor-intensive background setting.

The great pleasure in watching The Newsroom comes from Sorkin's scintillating trademark dialogue. I'm willing to wager his word-per-minute count here exceeds even the crazily prolix Gilmore Girls.

If all they did was turbo-talk, the characters in The Newsroom would get annoying fast. But they're incredibly and alluringly articulate, intelligent, and funny.

All of them. The office assistant (Alison Pill), even when falling-down drunk, throws off perfectly honed metaphors faster than Dennis Miller. (I shouldn't refer to her as an assistant. Pill's Maggie gets promoted about three times in the first episode. I'm just not sure what title she holds by the time it's over.)

Listening to people smarter than you trade brilliant quips at top speed is pretty heady stuff, like being invited into the writers' room at The Simpsons.

It's more impressive that The Newsroom crew can stay so fabulously flippant in their crushingly stressful work environment. Even their meltdowns are kind of adorable. At least, the minor characters' are. McAvoy is a different matter. Everyone lives in fear of the Great Man.

Critics who got an early look at the show have suggested that McAvoy is based on Keith Olbermann. To me, he seems more like Lester Holt with a serious mean streak.

Daniels is an odd choice for a Sorkin hero — or anyone else's for that matter. With his doughy face, he's had a steady, rather undistinguished career mainly as an inoffensive best friend or as an only-revealed-at-the-end villain. When he did get the starring role (Fly Away Home), he had the spotlight stolen by a gaggle of geese.

Other characters are constantly marveling over McAvoy's Mensa IQ, his talent and vast charm, but that description doesn't fit Daniels any better than the too-small leather coat that Will always wears when he's away from the office.

In fact, no one in this cast is all that convincing in his or her role, especially Olivia Munn as rising business reporter Sloan Sabbith with her Ph.D. in economics from Columbia.

It is nice, however, to see Waterston get a late-career reprieve from all those years of dour muttering on Law & Order. And it was rather inspired casting getting Jane Fonda to play the channel's owner, considering she was once married to the man who created cable news.

All of this goes down well as long as you like your news with a big side of fantasy. A news director standing up to his corporate master while his anchor night after night bashes the rich and powerful with a vengeance, to dwindling ratings? Not in our lifetime.

Put aside plausibility and judge it strictly as entertainment, and The Newsroom is uniquely engaging. Among the best TV writers of this generation (David E. Kelley, Joss Whedon, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, Greg Berlanti, Kevin Williamson, Jason Katims, Amy Sherman-Palladino), no one touches Sorkin for creating such rich moments of humor and pathos in the same script.

The Newsroom is the final piece in Sorkin's TV trilogy. Sports Night was about the staff of an ESPN-like clip show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip about a comedy show, and now this fanciful re-creation of cable news.

Sorkin's TV shows about TV have not been his most successful ventures. Let's just hope the third time is the charm.

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tvdaveondemand_tv. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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