Toward the end of the first season of “The West Wing,” there’s an episode in which President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his staff decide it’s time to stop being the kind of ineffectual power players former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell would call “wusses.”
“Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” became a rallying cry not just for the characters but for their creator, Aaron Sorkin, who wasn’t so much interested in making a drama about how things worked in Washington as he was in showing how they could work. If only Democrats and Republicans could agree to do things Sorkin’s way. And network and studio execs could stay out of it.
Sadly, governmental gridlock continued. Sorkin’s term as “West Wing” show-runner ended after four seasons. He followed up with “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” of not so blessed memory.
The writer of “A Few Good Men” also returned to Broadway, with “The Farnsworth Invention” and wrote some movies, winning an Oscar for “The Social Network.”
But always there were people asking: When’s the guy who made “Sports Night” and “The West Wing” coming back to television?
Well, he’s here.
Though judging by “The Newsroom,” Sorkin’s new series about a middle-of-the-road cable news anchor (Jeff Daniels) who’s transformed into a wonky hell-raiser, the answer should probably have been: When he’s mad as hell and decides he isn’t going to take it anymore.
Premiering Sunday on HBO, “The Newsroom” is what happens when someone who’s always had a lot to get off his chest is once again given access to superb actors, along with the freedom to make them say and do anything he pleases.
HBO’s letting Sorkin be Sorkin. What could be simpler?
Lots of things, it turns out. Herding cats. Ending poverty. Harnessing nuclear fusion.
Not that those aren’t all things worth working toward. The cat thing’s a stretch, of course, but with enough money and smarts, I think those other things are within reach.
And it’s from that place of boundless optimism that I’ll argue it’s possible to enjoy “The Newsroom” — which is both wonderful and terrible — without necessarily believing a bloody word of it.
I don’t go to Woody Allen movies expecting realistic depictions of romance between well-adjusted people. I don’t watch David Milch shows (“Deadwood,” “NYPD Blue”) expecting the dialogue to be simple, and I think I’m finally over expecting Aaron Sorkin shows to be fair and balanced — mentally or otherwise — or for his characters to sound like anything but Aaron Sorkin characters.
Perpetually on edge, they’re twitchy and eloquent and they talk very, very fast. They tend to be romantic, sometimes about people, more often about ideas, but nearly always in a way that precludes their finding lasting happiness. All this we’ve known for a while.
What I didn’t realize until I saw the metamorphosis of Daniels’ Will McAvoy over the course of the first few episodes was that Keith Olbermann is apparently also a Sorkin character. Though it explains a lot.
So, too, are Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie McHale, who plays Will’s ex and his new producer, and Sam Waterston’s Charlie Skinner, the news division president who’s for some reason determined to be the wind between Will’s wings. Along with characters played by Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, John Gallagher Jr., Dev Patel and Olivia Munn, they form what even CNN’s Wolf Blitzer would have to acknowledge to be the most hopelessly endearing news team in television. And most of them care, very deeply, about all the things Sorkin does.
“This isn’t nonprofit theater. It’s advertiser-supported television. You know that, right?” a not yet transformed Will tells MacKenzie in Sunday after she starts telling him how important a well-informed electorate is.
“I’d rather do a good show for a hundred people than a bad one for a million,” she replies. Honest to God.
10 p.m. EDT Sunday