If you've seen an Aaron Sorkin show in the past — The West Wing, say, or Sports Night — then you know to expect certain things, and they're all present and accounted for in The Newsroom (HBO, Sunday at 10 pm), Sorkin's first show since the poorly received Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Eloquent speeches. Rapid-fire banter. Tension between integrity and profits. A paternalistic condescension to females. And an ensemble full of characters who preach to the lefty choir (even those who self-identify as Republicans). The Newsroom is a dose of concentrated Sorkin, by turns maddening and exhilarating.
The show begins with cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) onstage at Northwestern University, seated between a conservative colleague and a liberal one. Rather than say anything of substance, he cracks a few tepid jokes. The moderator presses him for stronger answers, and finally he snaps, launching into a classic Sorkin rant, rattling off a bunch of statistics about ways in which the US has been surpassed globally and eventually talking about how great the news used to be, his true-believer optimism failing to move anyone. Following this event, he's asked to take a few weeks' vacation, returning to discover that virtually all of his staff has abandoned him, except for his personal assistant Maggie (Alison Pill), whose name he doesn't know, and Neal (Dev Patel), who maintains the blog Will doesn't know he has. Will's boss Charlie (Sam Waterston) hires McKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) to produce Will's show; it quickly becomes clear the two of them have a history together.
When news breaks — as it often does, suddenly and in the midst of momentous character moments — Newsroom comes alive. In the pilot, it's thrilling to watch the staff discover each others' strengths (the marginalized Neal is more knowledgeable than anyone realizes) or their own (Maggie finds she's a natural reporter). As he he did with Sports Night and The West Wing, Sorkin has written another work environment that's impossibly supportive, where your big-shot boss will still listen to you talk about Bigfoot, or your romantic rival will still invite you out to the nearby karaoke bar for cheap drinks. Newsroom's ensemble also lives up to its pedigree. Waterston has fun with Sorkin's dialogue in his role as Will's enabler as well as protector from the corporate overlords (including, har-har, Jane Fonda as the Turner-like media emperor), and Mortimer, who's overdue for a mainstream breakthrough, impresses with the multifacted McKenzie.
But then, there's the downside of Sorkin — he's writing an idealized vision of a newscast wherein anchors and reporters cut through the lies and tell the people what they need to know. Which is fine, except that show exists; it's called The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and it's not really a new thing. Adding to that feeling of familiarity: the intrusion of some of the more famous news events from recent memory (the first four episodes cover April 2010 through January 2011), which helps Sorkin stack the deck in Will's favor by having him be the guy who was right all along; some liberal news junkies may find it annoying to be reminded of things they already knew about in such a self-congratulatory fashion. Then again, what's the point of watching a Sorkin show if not to have one's intelligence flattered?