ANC anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels)
No one can make you happier, or drive you crazier faster, than someone you love.
That's the lesson relearned Sunday by cable news anchor Will McAvoy and his former girlfriend and current producer MacKenzie McHale, the His Girl Friday couple at the heart of Aaron Sorkin's latest TV show. And it's a sometimes enchanting, sometimes painful lesson for those of us who love Sorkin's work, as represented at its TV best by The West Wing, and who wish we could get that best without enduring his excessive worst.
Well, let's be clear up front: We can't. The Sorkinish good and bad are so tightly entwined in The Newsroom (three stars out of four, HBO, Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT), even the best surgeon could never separate them. On my TV scale, what works about the show outweighs what doesn't, but others will read the results differently.
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As in The West Wing, Sorkin once again offers a romantic, optimistic paean to the essential worth of institutions - their power to do good and the deeply felt desire of the dedicated people who run them to do better. In this case, the institution is a fantasy cable news network (it's not for nothing that it's called Atlantis Cable News), which serves as a platform for many of Sorkin's obsessions: his earnestness, his affection for the rapid-fire dialogue of old screwball comedies, his willingness to grind political axes, and his belief that entertainment can coincide with debates about big ideas.
Sunday's big idea - that democracy depends upon an informed electorate, and the news business should do a better job of informing them - is somewhat forced upon Will (Jeff Daniels), who believes the best road to ratings is to avoid offending anyone. (Professionally, anyway; personally, he's an egomaniacal mess.) But the head of the network (wonderfully played by Sam Waterston) believes ACN has a higher mission and brings in MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) to shake up the show.
It's wonderful to have a series that discusses current affairs and the way they're covered, even if Newsroom can be a bit self-righteous about it, and Sorkin does have a gift for amusing chatter, even if he does overindulge it. Indeed, he's probably so used to such criticisms, he's now supplying them himself in the dialogue, from a warning that "Nobody's going to watch a classroom" to the admonition that "You should shut up more than you do."
Talkiness is not Newsroom's only flaw. The secondary characters need to be better developed and MacKenzie, who morphs from a strong woman tonight into a ditzy klutz, needs to get back to strength. And while Daniels gives an excellent performance, the script isn't showing us the wonderful person MacKenzie says she sees.
Those problems can, and possibly will, be fixed. The preachiness and preponderance of banter won't be; they go with the Sorkin territory. But it's a wonderful, witty, erudite territory and I, for one, love visiting.
When it doesn't drive me crazy.