Back to you, Aaron
Sorkin's fast-paced drama 'The Newsroom' delivers the goods
In the opening scene of the new Aaron Sorkin drama “The Newsroom,” premiering on HBO on Sunday at 10 p.m., smart but glib cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) has a “Network”-lite public meltdown. After giving an honestly acerbic opinion about the flaws of the US political system — in a move that seems like career suicide — a viewer might think that McAvoy is mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore.
It turns out that he, more realistically, is cynical as hell and is willing to take it for at least as long as the ratings hold up. But the man who has been dubbed “The Jay Leno of news anchors” — an insult meant to infer laziness and pandering, not funny headlines — gets a shock to the system when his new executive producer turns up in the form of his old lover, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer).
She is returning from covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and brimming with idealism, marching into his office and speechifying in distinctly Sorkin-esque fashion about everything that Will could and should be as a journalist, and quoting “Don Quixote” (or at least “Man of La Mancha”) as she goes.
Fearful of losing the audience and still smarting from MacKenzie’s unnamed transgression of the past, McAvoy — who has been given Olbermann-esque shades and is the butt of a “countdown” insult — is less than thrilled at the prospect of being pushed to transform into Edward R. Murrow overnight at the behest of his former flame. And then, the Deepwater BP oil spill happens.
Fans of Sorkin’s work, especially his previous shows “Sports Night,” “The West Wing,” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” will be pleased to see “The Newsroom” has all the hallmarks of its predecessors. It is a behind-the-scenes look at an interesting, hectic professional environment — in this case the fictional 24-hour cable news network Atlantis Cable News — with a strong ensemble cast who must navigate gushing waterfalls of dialogue. And that dialogue is clever, impassioned, well-researched, funny, inspiring, and, honestly, frequently exhausting.
The Oscar-winning screenwriter (“The Social Network”) is also given to didacticism, but what helps make the lecturing palatable is that Sorkin’s not above a pratfall, a double-take, or a goofy interlude to keep the rhythms from bogging down in all that pontificating. (“Wait, I have a blog?” asks McAvoy at an incredibly tense moment.)
As head of the news division Charlie Skinner, Sam Waterston is great, obviously relishing the opportunity to bust out of the button-down world of “Law & Order” and TD Ameritrade commercials to play the sly kingpin — one minute dotty, boozy, and apoplectic, and the next a cool customer.
Mortimer and the younger cast members — embroiled in romances and inter-office squabbles — are fine but still finding ways to make Sorkin’s rapid-fire repartee sound more natural and less stagy as they still seem to be marveling at the dialogue itself.
On that score, Daniels’s performance is the most effortless, voicing Sorkin’s monologues with impressive ease. McAvoy is not a model of rectitude nor a sozzled antihero, he’s a man going along to get along, and as such, Daniels pivots between wilted and formidable.
Those pivots are pitch-perfect, as Daniels evokes a man within whom lurks the soul of someone who used to care, but has since been beaten down by the noise surrounding him from polarizing pundits, ratings wars, and diminished attention spans. He approaches life with such malevolent mirth and weariness that when he gets revved up and on track during the reporting of the BP crisis, you see the journalist that he is and the anchor that MacKenzie knows he could be.
It will be interesting, and possibly exhausting, to watch him get there over the course of 10 episodes.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.