June 21 (Bloomberg) -- Derided by Vanity Fair as “the Jay Leno of news anchors,” Jeff Daniels’s charm-challenged news anchor Will McElvoy is tired of playing it safe and dumbing it down.
“The West Wing” with pundits, HBO’s glossy “Newsroom” has the requisite Aaron Sorkin tics: hyper-articulate ethical wrangling and jacked-up storytelling that can raise goosebumps one minute and hackles the next.
In a rare unguarded moment, Will informs a stunned audience of college students that America is not, in fact, the greatest country in the world.
“But it could be.”
Hardly Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” speech from “Network,” McElvoy’s obscenity-heavy declaration goes viral nonetheless. Soon enough, the newsman, encouraged by the executive producer who once broke his heart (Emily Mortimer), is on “a mission to civilize.”
“I’m quitting the circus,” McAvoy announces on camera, pledging that his newscast will henceforth “be the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole and nonsense.”
He should have added humility to that list.
Set in the recent past, “The Newsroom” chronicles the fictional ACN network as it tackles news stories from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the rise of the Tea Party.
“We lost David and Charles,” laments a network numbers crunchers after McAvoy’s heresy angers the mega-wealthy Koch brothers.
Current events notwithstanding, “The Newsroom” is thoroughly situated in the Sorkin universe, where people don’t chat, they bloviate.
“There’s nothing that’s more important to a democracy than a well informed electorate,” says Mortimer’s idealistic, hard-charging producer MacKenzie “Mac” McHale. “I’d rather do a good show for 100 people than a bad one for a million.”
Later, she’s more succinct. “Be the integrity,” Mac tells her self-doubting star, the romantic sparks obvious to everyone but them.
Unrestrained by the outside source material of his best movies (“The Social Network,” “Moneyball”), “Newsroom” doesn’t skimp on Sorkin’s TV self-indulgent homilies.
Daniels taps into the loveable jerk he unveiled decades ago in “Terms of Endearment.” Mortimer, though saddled with Sorkin’s worn-out brand of female insecurity, can pull off even the weightiest pontifications.
Alison Pill, as an eager intern, doesn’t fare as well, mugging through her jitters. Better is John Gallagher Jr. as the brainy, puppyish J-school grad smitten with her.
Thomas Sadoski is a stand-out as the newsroom’s resident cynic, and Sam Waterston as the bow-tied news division president represents the old guard -- in the cast as well as the newsroom -- with surly grace.
Waterston has his best moments when Jane Fonda sweeps into the series in the third episode. As the fire-breathing network owner none too pleased with the newscast’s new eat-the-rich attitude, Fonda tells Waterston’s defiant Charlie Skinner to cool it.
The Koch brothers, she warns, “drop Brinks trucks” on their enemies.
No one writes the breathless walk and talk like Sorkin, and no one has a better instinct for choosing his actors.
“The Newsroom” airs Sunday on HBO at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***
Dramatic re-creations and cheesy music might be in the DNA of every true-crime series, but Smithsonian Channel’s “Forensic Firsts” has a bloody fingerprint all its own.
Illuminating grisly crime tales with egghead investigations, “Forensic Firsts” takes a science nerd’s delight in explaining, for example, how DNA cracked the BTK serial killings, or how fingerprint analysis was first used in 1892 Argentina to crack a case of child murders.
Re-enactments and, for the more recent crimes, news footage place the series squarely within the lurid cable genre, but the science lessons can be intriguing.
That smudge of blood on the wall? It’s actually an intricate mosaic of arches, loops, whorls, bifurcations and dots. And it’s literally a dead giveaway.
“Forensic Firsts” airs Sunday on Smithsonian Channel at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: **
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on tech and Lance Esplund on art.
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