Friday, June 22, 2012

This just in: "Newsroom" finds Aaron Sorkin at best and worst

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 10:49 AM

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK: Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy
Debuting Sunday night, HBO's "The Newsroom" proves that producer/scripter Aaron Sorkin sometimes delivers the best writing on television, but always gives the most writing, at least on a word-per-minute basis. Nearly without exception, his characters talk so much, so quickly, it's like they're hopped up on a cocktail of cocaine and truth serum.

Sorkin clearly loves to compose soaring speeches about the burning issues of the day, but stumbles when he tries to incorporate his stem-winders organically into the action. "The West Wing" was his best show partly because his White House staffers had the power to shape events on a global scale, so their debates and diatribes contained high stakes. Sorkin's other programs take behind-the-scenes looks at live television broadcasts: "Sports Night," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and now "The Newsroom." "The Newsroom" improves on "Studio 60" while feeling more schizophrenic than "Sports Night," with all three shows forcing an awkward marriage of screwball comedy and political sermonizing.

"The Newsroom's" first episode closely emulates the pilot of "Studio 60," in which a veteran broadcast's angry rant leads to the retooling of a venerable but tame TV program. Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a cable TV anchor mocked as "Jay Leno" for his inoffensive screen persona, who uncharacteristically speaks his mind about America's lost greatness at a college Q&A.

The ensuing kerfuffle inspires McAvoy's network boss (a surprisingly impish Sam Waterson) to hire for Will an idealistic new executive producer, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), despite their fraught personal history. A Brit born in the U.S.A., Mackenzie has a resume comparable to Christiane Amanpour and a tendency to evoke Don Quixote when describing her idealistic, probably doomed ambition to improve the news, inform the electorate and "speak truth to stupid."

The first half-hour or so of "The Newsroom's" 75 minute pilot gives the audience a rushed tour of the offices at Atlantic Cable News and its quirky employees, including Dev Patel and Allison Pill. The show puts aside the forced comic hijinks with the break of the biggest news story of April 2010 - I won't give it away, but "The Newsroom" takes place against the backdrop of actual real-world events, as opposed to the fictional U.S.A. of "The West Wing." Despite being in the midst of chaotic transition, Will and Mackenzie team up to produce a major show practically by the seat of their pants. It's Sorkin at his best, with the rapid-fire dialogue and flurries of factoids conveying the high-adrenaline urgency of live TV.

Sorkin's hyper-verbal approach suits the contemporary information age, with its 24 hour news cycle and vast quantity of facts and opinions just a mouse-click away. Unfortunately he also reveals heavy-handed comedic instincts and a weakness for tired dramatic tropes. Early in the second episode, Sorkin establishes 1.) that Will wants Mackenzie to keep details of their past relationship secret from the rest of the office, and 2.) that occasionally scatter-brained Mackenzie doesn't understand the company's new companywide email protocols. The two details collide exactly the way you expect they will - Sorkin doesn't even bother to switch up the cliché.

Later that episode, a high-profile guest drops out at the last minute, requiring Will to fill the hole by interviewing a trio of right-wing dimwits. It plays like one of those overdetermined sketches from "Studio 60's" show-within-the-show.

Daniels makes a great choice as Will, however, in a character and performance both comparable to Alan Alda's turn as GOP presidential candidate Arnold Winick on "The West Wing's" post-Sorkin years. Daniels boyish likability has aged towards the gravitas credible for a trusted veteran newsman. Will's frequent outbursts of angry diva behavior play nicely against Daniels' innate affability. On the other hand, Mortimer should dial down Mac's rabbit hyperactivity, with Alison Pill's proving even twitchier. Are Sorkin's women always nervous wrecks?

Despite Sorkin's well-earned reputation as one of television auteurs, it may be that his film scripts play better to his strengths and weaknesses. In his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network and his collaboration on Moneyball, he vigorously took on potentially heady subject matter (social networking business practices and baseball sabermetrics, respectively) with trademark humor and clarity. As two-hour movies, The Social Network and Moneyball's smaller casts and real-life source material imposed more discipline and focus on Sorkin, making him less likely to disappear down rabbit holes of contrived plotting and wonky obsessions. At the risk of burying the lead, perhaps Aaron Sorkin ought to stay in pictures.

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