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HBO: Aaron Sorkin Unleashes "The Newsroom"

Aaron Sorkin is on a mission.  Armed with the near-limitless creative freedom of HBO,  he’s set out to inform the electorate, to tell the raw truth as he sees it, whether we like it or not.

His vehicle is The Newsroom, an HBO series set in a fictional cable news network called ACN.  Think The West Wing meets Broadcast News with a smattering of Network, all done up in Sorkin style -  extended, parabolic monologues, snappy laugh-out-loud lines of dialog, and the signature walk-and-talk.

The ten-part first season opens with a Howard Beale-ish outburst/epiphany.  Jaded, unpleasant news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) rants about the ugly truth of American greatness to an auditorium full of Northwestern University students.  McAvoy’s tirade is one of the finest you’ll ever witness on television.

When McAvoy returns from vacation, and to his senses, he finds his staff has deserted him and his boss, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), has hired a new Lara Logan-like executive producer - his old flame Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer).

Sorkin’s fantasy newsroom is a recreation of how Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite or the Huntley-Brinkley team might report today’s stories - if there was a living anchor with that kind of courage, with that gravitas and dignity, if news anchors these days didn’t fancy themselves as part-time comedians moonlighting on 30 Rock, or were reduced to crushing soda cans on air for laughs.

The Newsroom is going to make a lot of people really, really angry.  Provocative is an understatement.  Targets for disdain include the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, and the Koch brothers who, according to the CEO of ACN’s parent company Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), “drop Brink’s trucks on people they disagree with.”

The far-right blogosphere will probably explode.  For Sorkin, that might be the point.  Truth is a recurring theme for him.  “You can’t handle the truth!” from A Few Good Men is one of his most famous lines.

There are love triangles thrown into The Newsroom mix for some old-fashioned rom-com fun, but Sorkin mostly wants us to remember some recent history that has already faded from view:

– how lack of government oversight contributed to the Deepwater Horizon disaster;

– how the wild falsehoods about the cost of an Obama trade mission to India originated;

– how the news orgs ran with a premature announcement of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ death which was first reported by NPR and subsequently disseminated without a proper fact check by several cable news nets. It all turned out to be embarrassingly incorrect.

As he reports these stories, Jeff Daniels sounds eerily like Walter Cronkite at times.  But the real scene stealer is Sam Waterston as Skinner, a hard liquor drinking curmudgeon reminiscent of Andy Rooney.  He’s the head of the news division coping with corporate overlords - which appears to be CBS/Viacom.  Waterston’s magnificent outbursts are a wonder to behold.  He’s brilliant and his rage attacks are laugh-out-loud funny.  During the pilot, watch for the one in the hallway, when Skinner tags along with McAvoy as he confronts the staffers who’ve abandoned him for the greener pastures of the 10p slot.

Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterston make quite a pair and some of the series best moments take place during their scenes together.

A Sam Waterston Emmy nom for best supporting actor seems assured.

What’s glorious and great and wonderful about The Newsroom is this:  Sorkin assumes his audience is smart, that they’re capable and they want to understand.  At one point, McAvoy (a Republican) complains that the GOP has been “hijacked” and he compares the radical right to the radical left, the Tea Party and Students for A Democratic Society (SDS) respectively, with a reference to Bernardine Dohrn thrown in for good measure.  Older viewers may recognize the references; others will likely scramble for their laptops, to check Wikipedia.

But I love this about Sorkin.  I love that he assumes we know, or if we don’t, we’ll look it up - because it’s interesting, because we want to understand what he’s trying to say.  Because we want to think.

This isn’t to say there aren’t weaknesses in The Newsroom.  There are lots of them.  While entertaining at times, the portrayal of the earnest Gen-Y staffers doesn’t ring true.  I’m not sure that Sorkin is capturing 20-something sensibilities and concerns.

And the love triangles - the blatant UST (unresolved sexual tension) - is a distraction, a stale network cliche that feels out of place on HBO.

Yet, this is  HBO, where the greatest strength can sometimes be the greatest weakness.  The network is infamous for allowing their creatives to do pretty much whatever the hell they want, occasionally with disastrous results (John from Cincinnati, anyone?).  And this is Aaron Sorkin, unleashed.  He’s so unrestrained that sometimes you think, well, someone really ought to rein him in -  four consecutive Emmy Awards for The West Wing and an Oscar for The Social Network (etc. etc. etc.) notwithstanding.

Sometimes, The Newsroom is a train wreck, episode two especially.  Here’s what @televisionary tweeted and he was right:

“It’s histrionic, chaotic, and cartoonish. So much yelling, so little believability. Least credible email gaffe ever. #Newsroom #ep2”

But it’s still a beautiful train wreck, gilded cars flying off track into mid-air, a splendid, artistic slow motion disaster.

Even at its worst, The Newsroom is still cracktastic.  A beautiful failure at times.

However, by episode four, I was addicted.  With the exposition out of the way, the series was starting to hum along - the characters were deepening; the plot thickening.

So, don’t be discouraged by episode two. Enjoy the finer moments; it gets better.

The Newsroom premieres this Sunday, June 24, at 10p ET/PT.