Aaron Sorkin's 'The Newsroom' and the rise of smart summer TV

Dave Nemetz
Yahoo! TV

Summer TV used to mean one thing: reruns. Then about a decade ago, “Survivor” burst onto the scene and ushered in a new era of reality TV: cheap, brainless programming that networks happily used to eat up all those empty primetime hours in the summer. But now that dozens of cable channels are jockeying for attention and launching original scripted shows all year long, we’re finally -- thankfully -- seeing signs of intelligent life on summer TV.

Some of the most thought-provoking shows anywhere on television are returning this summer: AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” FX’s “Louie,” and DirecTV’s “Damages,” to name a few. And they’re joined by new entries like USA’s upcoming miniseries “Political Animals,” starring Sigourney Weaver as the Secretary of State. But the leader of this smart-summer-TV movement? HBO’s new cable-news drama “The Newsroom,” which marks the return to the small screen of Oscar-winning wordsmith Aaron Sorkin… and may be able to help us replace all those IQ points we lost watching “Snooki & JWoww.”

“The Newsroom” debuts this Sunday, and it feels different right away: The first ten minutes of the pilot alone have more brains in them than most network shows can manage in a full season. Jeff Daniels stars as disgruntled cable news anchor Will McAvoy, and when we meet him, he’s stuck on a discussion panel at a local college with the typical political talking heads bickering around him. Being the “Jay Leno of news anchors,” Will mostly keeps his opinions to himself. But when a student asks him to explain why America is the greatest country in the world, he can’t help himself. He responds flatly, “It’s not the greatest country in the world,” and launches into an impassioned rant, rattling off a dizzying array of statistics about how we stack up worldwide that shows exactly how not “great” our country really is.

It’s an incredible monologue: compelling, provocative, wickedly clever… and, for lack of a better term, very Sorkin-y. Yes, “The Newsroom” is unquestionably the work of writer Aaron Sorkin, who won Emmys for “The West Wing,” brought Mark Zuckerberg to vivid life in “The Social Network,” and has been churning out his distinctive brand of rapid-fire, hyper-intellectual dialogue for more than two decades now. If Sorkin’s writing isn’t your cup of tea, this won’t change your mind; in fact, “The Newsroom” is such an amalgam of Sorkin’s usual tropes, it almost feels like a self-parody at times. But for those who appreciate his avalanche of words upon words, it’s a welcome break from the usual vapid summer TV fare.

Get a sneak peek at HBO's "The Newsroom" right here:

As you might imagine, Will’s rant lands him in hot water with his superiors after it goes viral, and next time we see him, his entire production staff is jumping ship and his patrician boss Charlie (Sam Waterston, clad in a bowtie and tweed jacket) is ready to pair Will with a new executive producer. Well, not new, exactly; it’s Will’s former colleague and old flame, well-traveled journalist MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer). Will fights the move at first, partially due to unfinished emotional baggage with his ex. But MacKenzie convinces him to join forces with her to create a cable newscast that both informs the electorate and gets big ratings -- and, more importantly, to put his fearsome intellect to good use and dare to give a crap again.

Let’s stop for a moment to appreciate Jeff Daniels, an underrated actor with amazing range (from “The Squid and the Whale” to “Dumb and Dumber”!) who’s nothing short of fantastic here. Daniels has called Will “the role of a lifetime,” and he really sinks his teeth into it; look for him to be in serious contention for an Emmy next year. Will is irritable, condescending, sarcastic… and definitely brilliant. (Sorkin keeps denying Will is based on real-life anchor Keith Olbermann -- but he is.) He is kind of a raging a-hole, actually; he even admits, “I’m not the easiest guy to work with, but who the hell is?” But he is an easy guy to watch, and Daniels’ performance brings “The Newsroom” to the brink of greatness.

[Photos: Check Out Red Carpet Pics From the 'Newsroom' Premiere]

Sorkin seems to love writing about live TV production (he also penned “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), and the cable-newsroom setting he picked this time is certainly ripe for drama. In the latter half of the pilot, we get to watch Will’s team cover the 2010 BP oil spill in real time in a bravura, pulse-pounding sequence. Like Sorkin’s previous projects, “The Newsroom” is at its best when it’s showing us smart people working hard to do good -- a refreshing sight, indeed.

Now “The Newsroom” is not without faults, even to devoted Sorkin acolytes. Beyond Will and MacKenzie, the supporting cast is a little thinly drawn, with Will’s former producer Don (Thomas Sadoski) functioning as little more than a paper-tiger villain to be shouted down by the good guys. But it is just the pilot, so we’ll give Sorkin time to flesh out his ensemble. In the meantime, we’ll cherish the well-crafted dialogue, Daniels’ star performance, and a rare opportunity to use our gray matter during the sunny months.

At one point, in the middle of a long, rambling argument with MacKenzie, Will takes a long pause and says, “I’m thinking.” That’s nice to hear on TV these days, isn’t it?

“The Newsroom” premieres Sunday, 6/24 at 10 PM on HBO.