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The Light from the TV Shows: HBO’s “The Newsroom” is unabashedly Sorkin-esque…which is a good thing

It’s arguably the laziest possible comparison to suggest that Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” comes across like “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” fused with “The West Wing.”

With that said, however, it’s also hard to deny the inherent accuracy of such a statement, given that it’s a series that takes place behind the scenes of a television program, except rather than sports or comedy, the predominant thrust of the program is politics. Plus, it’s full of bombastic speeches, rapid patter, romantic comedy, and – oh, yes – more than a few walk-and-talks.

In a nutshell, “The Newsroom” is about as Sorkin-esque as anyone could possibly hope for his return to television to be. This, of course, opens a whole other can of worms…but we’ll get to that.

“The Newsroom” begins by introducing newsman Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, as he sits on a political discussion panel in a college auditorium, and although it’s basically a blind introduction which offers us nothing about his career, we can already tell from his responses that whatever talents he once had as a newsman have been supplanted by a desire to play it safe. It’s also a bit of a given that, in short order, he’s going to give an answer that causes him to break out of his rut, but it’s a testament to Sorkin’s writing and directing that, when it does finally happen, it still manages to feel pretty damned inspirational.

I won’t spoil the specifics of Will’s response, but suffice it to say that it causes a shift in his profile and results in Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), the president of Will’s network, deciding to reunite Will with the only producer who ever challenged him: MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). Unfortunately, it just so happens that MacKenzie and Will also used to have kind of a thing, and, uh, the thing didn’t exactly end well. Through a bit of backroom maneuvering, Will manages to broker a ridiculous deal that only just barely forces him to work with Mac, but when a major news story breaks in the midst of Mac’s first hours back in Will’s midst, she quickly proves that the two of them working together can prove to be an unstoppable force in TV journalism. Probably.

Okay, so it all sounds pretty clichéd when you lay it out like that, but it’s hard to truly appreciate an Aaron Sorkin series unless you’re looking at it and listening to it. It won’t surprise you that the back-and-forth between Daniels and Mortimer drives a great deal of the goings-on during the initial hour, but the real star of the show turns out to be Sam Waterston, who, freed of his straight-laced Jack McCoy persona, gets to play Charlie as a functioning alcoholic whose workday indulgence seems to work well for him. Charlie’s not afraid to speak his mind or get all up in the faces of those who aren’t paying sufficient attention to him, and the surrogate-son relationship he has with Will makes for some highly entertaining interplay between them.

The first hour also introduces the existing staff of Will’s newsroom, including associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), Neal Sampat (Dev Patel), who ghost-writes Will’s blog and perpetually scans the ‘net for breaking stories, and Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), Will’s current executive producer. As soon as Mac arrives, however, she brings her own producer, Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.). Unsurprisingly, Don and Jim clash instantly, partially because of their differing opinions on what news story is the most important, but also because Jim’s quickly developed a crush on Maggie, who – wouldn’t you know it? – is already dating Don. Will, however, barely knows anyone’s names and can’t be bothered to change his ways. Hell, not only did he think Neal was the I.T. guy, but he didn’t even know he had his own blog!

Ah, but here we are wasting our time talking about characters, and we haven’t even mentioned the politics. Sorkin utilizes a device in telling the story of “The Newsroom” that provides him with the opportunity to retroactively right some wrongs that he’s seen committed in the business of TV news, and in doing so he’s also able to make some statements on various events in recent history. His efforts are almost certainly going to feel heavy-handed to some viewers, but if you agree with his political views, as I do, it’s fair to say that it goes down a great deal more smoothly. Politics aside, however, “The Newsroom” really gives Sorkin the opportunity to get up on his soapbox and preach about the problems existing in TV news today, the concerns of earning ratings versus telling a good story, of being afraid to report the big news stories for fear of offending someone somewhere. Again, this is going to drive some people up the wall, but for my part, it kind of made me want to cheer, as Sorkin’s best work has always done.

But now we come back to the can of worms I mentioned earlier: does the fact that “The Newsroom” pretty much defines the concept of “Sorkin-esque” mean that the man’s work has become a parody of itself? I say “no.” Certainly his work has enough consistent elements from project to project that one can’t really say it isn’t ripe for parody, but if he’s delivering what people want from him and it hasn’t yet gotten old, what’s wrong with that?

Nothing, I say. HBO sent me the first four episodes of “The Newsroom,” and I promptly devoured them one after the other, enjoying some better than others but ultimately liking them all. Do I agree with every political statement made? I do not. But the dialogue is great, the characters are interesting, with their depth expanding with each subsequent installment, and the cumulative effect was that I found it nearly impossible to turn away from the screen. (Wait ’til Jane Fonda enters the picture.)

In short, Aaron Sorkin is back on the small screen, and from what I’ve seen of “The Newsroom,” it seems to me that he’s as good as he’s ever been.

  

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