Imagine, for a moment, what our lives would look like if scripted by Aaron Sorkin.
We’d all be witty, golden-tongued literates who spout verbal symphonies. We’d aspire to big, high-minded goals and refuse to be slaves to The Man. Moreover, we’d firmly believe that arcane data points and policy issues are sexy, not nerdy, and we’d routinely espouse the virtues of Mom, Dad and apple pie while racing through office hallways as dramatic music swells in the background.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that the mighty Sorkin, who spent some time flirting with the big screen (“The Social Network” and “Moneyball”) has, at last, returned to television with his utopian world views, and he’s looking for a few (or many) starry-eyed dreamers to come along for the ride.
Nearly 13 years after Sorkin’s “The West Wing” arrived on the scene to portray Washington politics as a noble pursuit instead of the ugly mud wrestling it actually seems to be, he’s bringing a similarly idealistic approach to TV journalism. In HBO’s “The Newsroom,” he envisions a swashbuckling band of reporters committed to so-called serious news in an era of political polarization and celebrity obsession. To which we say, good luck with that.
At the center of this compelling, timely and vital drama is veteran anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). He’s considered the “Jay Leno” of newsmen — a play-it-safe kind of guy who found a cushy niche with solid ratings by delivering the news down the middle of the road, all the better to avoid alienating anyone.
Whatever fire remains in Will’s belly is reserved for launching sarcastic insults at his newsroom minions and generally being a pain-in-the-butt blowhard. No wonder, then, that most of his frazzled staff is poised to jump ship.
But Will experiences a major reality check after having a very public, mad-as-hell meltdown and a subsequent management-enforced vacation. When he returns from his break, he’s stunned to discover that his old-school boss (Sam Waterston) has hired a former war correspondent, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), to executive produce his show.
For Will, this new arrangement is a nightmare, because he and MacKenzie once dated, and their relationship apparently ended disastrously. On the other hand, she’s the one person who can jolt the apathy right out of him.
She wants to do it by producing a newscast that is more concerned about integrity than ratings and attempts to reclaim “journalism as an honorable profession.” Sure, it’s a noble goal, but will it work when so many viewers seem more concerned about the latest travails of Lindsay Lohan? And can the damaged Will actually risk losing his only “friends,” the audience?
Sorkin clearly is attracted to the behind-the-scenes frenzy of live TV, having embraced the conceit twice before with the highly acclaimed “Sports Night” and the Nielsen misfire “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” But “The Newsroom” comes with an intriguing twist: It’s set in the recent past, which allows his fictional reporters to cover real-life events. Sunday’s opening episode, for example, focuses on the horrific BP oil spill of 2010.
Otherwise, most of the familiar trademarks are in place: the gale-force blasts of Sorkinese banter, which sometimes feel like congressional filibusters, only more articulate; the dizzying rush of workplace scenes; the occasional doses of wry humor; the thorny workplace romances and, of course, the seductive aura of wish-fulfillment.
As usual, Sorkin has an exceptional cast to deliver the goods. It’s great to see the underrated Daniels, who has languished in marginal roles recently, get something meaty to sink his teeth into. And longtime “Law & Order” fans might be surprised at just how funny — and profanely feisty — Waterston can be.
Mortimer, too, has a wonderfully engaging presence, as does Alison Pill as a razor-sharp, but less-than-confident newsroom newbie, and John Gallagher as a gung-ho senior producer. The third episode brings on Jane Fonda in a recurring role. for which she essentially plays a female Ted Turner.
Sorkin, who was accused of being too liberal with “The West Wing,” deploys these characters as equal-opportunity bashers. They rip into Democrats, Republicans and the tea party as well as lazy journalists, callous corporations and the uninformed audience. As for the latter, he points out via McAvoy that America once “... aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it.”
And unlike much of television, this is a show that aspires to great heights. From what we know about Sorkin, it won’t always succeed. There will be times when “The Newsroom” will get too overwrought and ponderous, too earnest and even sanctimonious. And there will be times when some viewers will find themselves rolling their eyes.
But just as someone who prefers Conan to Leno, I’d rather spend time with an edgy show that aims high and sometimes falls short, than one that doesn’t. And I’d rather be in the company of a great screenwriter than a run-of-the-mill one.
So welcome back, Mr. Sorkin. It’s a pleasure to have you.