When I say that HBO's summer series The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin to the fullest, by which I mean to compliment and criticize Sorkin in equal measure. Sorkin's a savvy writer but he's also a smart businessman, and he knows how to toe the Hollywood line. Witness his incisive look at the fraying edges of friendship when corrupted by business in The Social Network, which netted the writer an Oscar. But Sorkin can also be our generation's Frank Capra, cutely and optimistically tip-toeing around serious issues with shows like The West Wing and films like The American President. Newsroom leans closer to those latter works ? an odd move for HBO, with increasingly edgier and formula-free fare like Girls and Boardwalk Empire ? and despite a talented, sometimes heroic cast, the verbose writer's ideas sometimes get obscured by a romper room setup. Jeff Daniels leads the cast as Will McAvoy, a hotheaded, right-leaning, self-loathing anchor in the Keith Olbermann mold. After going off on a tear at a DC seminar on journalism, Will returns to his New York show, News Night, to find boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) has hired new blood in the form of ex-girlfriend and former producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer, masterful here), to run the show behind the scenes. MacKenzie also brings in her producer from overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq, Jim Harper (John Gallagher, Jr.), a serious and observant guy who serves a stark contrast to the more cynical exec producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski). Don and Jim dance around reporter Maggie (Alison Pill), Don's girlfriend, the same way Josh and Donna flirted on West Wing and the same way Dan, Casey and Dana became an odd triangle on Sorkin's vastly superior Sports Night. It feels a little repetitive and a little jejune, especially when the script forces these scrappy, smart idealists to act like idiots (enough with the trouble understanding email and cell phone procedures!). However, when the show digs into an issue, it's pretty terrific. And when the episodes give way to actual News Night footage, it's hypnotic. Take, for example, the second episode scene in which a recently mortified Will takes to the air for a story on Arizona Senate Bill 1070. There wasn't a moment that did not percolate with both character-fueled story as well as actually informed reportage (Sorkin has written the entire first season; MTV's Gideon Yago co-write the third episode with him). And Daniels seems to be relishing the greatest role of his career since stepping out of the screen and joining Mia Farrow in Depression-era New Jersey. Still quite youthful-looking, the actor manages to combine earnestness and irascibility. Will has an ego but Daniels isn't afraid to let us see him sweat or get hurt. He's always able to keep us from hating the man ? which the actor achieves at first by his star stature, but earns later on through his actual skill at providing dimension for Will. If only more of the characters were drawn so realistically. One plot thread found Dev Patel's Neal Samplat, Will's blogger, espousing a belief in Bigfoot; another found Maggie making a rookie mistake that was both beneath her and should have gotten her fired. I wish that Sorkin allowed Jim to show more grit, and for Keefer's dark edges to be further explored. (Why is Maggie drawn to him?) Both Mortimer and Pill are to be applauded for injecting lots of necessary credibility to their characters that aren't always there on the page; they crumble too easily when overwhelmed. In smaller roles, however, Jane Fonda and Chris Messina as mother-son network honchos have gone to town on Sorkin's dialogue without sounding like mere mouthpieces. Still, as high-minded as a lot of Sorkin's monologues are, it's better to view this show as a comedy with morals, an anti-Seinfeld, if you will, than the standard modern meta-drama. Sorkin wants his show to highlight those willing to take a stand, but sometimes the show rests a little too comfortably on its creator's laurels. The Newsroom airs Sunday nights on HBO.
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