HBO's new series "The Newsroom" is clearly "The West Wing" at a cable news network. And that's a good thing.
Aaron Sorkin, his "Social Network" Oscar in hand, returns to television with a show that's, well, entirely Aaron Sorkiny. It's filled with well-drawn characters who are smart and witty and talk really fast.
Jeff Daniels stars as Will McAvoy, who anchors a prime-time news hour on cable network ACN. He's popular because he's avoiding controversy at all cost.
From the script of the pilot, the actor knew he was in for a ride. "A friend of mine who had worked on 'The West Wing' said, 'Wait until you see what you get to say.' "
McAvoy has worked to avoid controversy in the past until the first few minutes of the first episode (Sunday, 10 p.m., HBO) when he's goaded into an outburst that goes viral. When he returns to work after a few weeks of enforced vacation, he discovers most of his staff is leaving and his new executive producer, McKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) a seasoned hard-news reporter is also his ex-girlfriend.
If you've seen "A Few Good Men," "The Social Network" or "Moneyball" on the big screen, or if you've watched "Sports Night," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" or, yes, "The West Wing" on the small screen, you know what to expect here: sharp characters infused with idealism.
This time, Sorkin infuses that idealism in journalists.
"Mostly I like writing idealistically and romantically and in a swashbuckling way," he said. "A newsroom or at least my version of a newsroom is a place where all of that could live.
"Somewhere along the way, journalists went from heroic to derided, and I wanted to write about a group of journalists who are doing their best to do the news well reaching unrealistically high and slipping on a lot of banana peels and doing it all in the name of an honorable mission." This from a guy who made a storyline about farm subsidies interesting on "The West Wing."
"The Newsroom" is not some sort of civics lesson. It's about the personal as well as professional lives of these journalists. It humanizes them; it doesn't lionize them.
You do have to suspend disbelief and accept that 21st-century broadcast journalists are not driven by self-interest and ratings. "We're going to do a good news show and make it popular at the same time," McKenzie insists.
The Sorkin formula didn't work on "Studio 60" because he couldn't sell the importance of producing a late-night comedy show. But he can sell the importance of informing the public.
It might be a fantasy world, but it's one where we all want to live. And, judging by the first few episodes, one that may just keep us engaged for some time to come.
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.