Weekend TV: The Newsroom, Falling Skies, The Great Escape
There aren't enough words. Except in the world of Aaron Sorkin, where there are always enough, maybe too many, as the Emmy- and Oscar-winning maestro of the hyper-verbal aria (The West Wing, Sports Night, The Social Network) aims his sights back on TV with the exhilarating, exasperating and often sensationally entertaining The Newsroom. (It premieres Sunday at 10/9c following summer hit True Blood.)
"I'm on a mission to civilize," declares cable anchor Will McAvoy (the terrific Jeff Daniels) with typical overstatement. As we quickly discover in a public meltdown of an oratory that opens the series, Will isn't just a new-generation Howard Beale who's mad as hell, he's ashamed as hell: of his own middle-of-the-road approach that has labeled him "the Jay Leno of news anchors," of what the TV news business has become, as it panders to a polarized nation and uninformed electorate that chooses only the facts it wants to hear.
"I'm quitting the circus," he announces during an on-air apology in the third episode that lasts nearly five minutes. Affable on air, apoplectic off camera, he's spurred to "speak truth to stupid" by his new producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), a former lover back from the war front and ready to tackle a new challenge: "Reclaiming journalism as an honest profession." Their combative new News Night show, set in our recent past and fueled by actual headline events, is as impossibly idealized and romanticized as West Wing's Bartlet White House and almost as enjoyable to hang around, despite the overwhelming self-righteousness on display.
Is The Newsroom preachy? Is it ever. Everyone at the ACN network — a Turner-like conglomerate overseen by an imperious Jane Fonda (frostily channeling her ex, Ted Turner) — thinks they're Don Quixote, with the Tea Party and the TV ratings system as especially daunting windmills. When Mac implores Will, "Be the integrity," you wish she wouldn't. And there are many times you may wish Sorkin wouldn't have, or that there was a limit to the "creative freedom" you find at places like HBO. There's not a single episode in the four I've screened where I didn't cringe at some moment of bombastic or pseudo-comic overkill that should have seen the editor's spike: a screwball gag involving a wayward e-mail that couldn't be more clumsily telegraphed, a staffer's tiresome obsession with Bigfoot that threads through an entire episode, and a running joke of women tossing drinks in Will's face (which would have seemed stale even without Smash having gone there already this year).
But as it dresses up its civics lessons in rom-com trappings within the ultimate workplace pressure-cooker, The Newsroom can also be a blast, featuring a staff of terrific young stars-to-be (Tony winner John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill and Thomas Sadoski in a quirky triangle) and the marvelous veteran Sam Waterston as the droll, boozy and quietly manipulative boss. And if you find yourself wondering what the wooden mannequin Olivia Munn is doing in this august company (as a don't-hate-me-because-I'm-beautiful-but-brilliant business reporter), you won't be alone.
There's no question The Newsroom is eye-rollingly full of itself. But it's also recklessly full of wit, passion, anger and humor — and timely purpose. When's the last time you saw all that wrapped up in a single TV show? The West Wing, maybe?
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PURSUIT AND ESCAPE: I was away last week when TNT launched a second season of Falling Skies (Sunday, 9/8c), the post-apocalyptic alien-invasion combat thriller that has returned in much tougher fighting form, with some of the best sci-fi action you're likely to see this summer. The humans are decidedly the underdogs and humanity itself at a premium in this grueling and degrading battle, as our heroes try to elude when they're not attempting to eradicate the nightmarish spider-like "Skitters" and their robotic "Mech" muscle, who have taken over most of Earth.
"If we're resting, we're not resisting," cautions Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), the conscience of the 2nd Mass regiment, who is still bedeviled by suspicion and self-doubt following his mysterious return from the alien mothership. While on board, he was admonished by the Grand Poobah alien, "Be honest. Oppression is in your nature." Try telling the historian something he doesn't know. But as he countered, "Be careful about drawing too many lessons from the past. Our history is yet to be written."
So is Tom a true rebel or is he a "walking time bomb," as the rebel biker Berserkers and their confrontational leader Pope (the dynamite Colin Cunningham) contend? Just as enigmatic: Tom's conflicted son Ben (Connor Jessup), a former captive/slave of the aliens, who has channeled his hate into a rogue sideline as a hunter-assassin, with tragic circumstances this week. He's not sharing the fact that his psychic bond with the aliens still flares up from time to time, which seems to alarm him as much as it does us.
Falling Skies has amped up the dramatic stakes this season, even offering a glimmer of hope when an unexpected visitor drops into their midst, balancing the earnest family values with a visceral survival saga that keeps the hokum mostly at bay. Terra Nova could have learned something from the way this show has developed, and maybe if Fox had given it a second year, it could have become a contender as well.
TNT's busy summer of drama, which includes the successfully rebooted Dallas and the final season of signature show The Closer just around the corner (starting July 9), is now expanding its range to include non-scripted reality, in the form of an adventure race that fancies itself a weekly action movie. Unfortunately, The Great Escape (Sunday, 10/9c) comes off more like an elaborately silly game of hide and seek, though the premiere is handsomely produced on the grounds of the atmospheric Alcatraz prison — which has certainly had its fill of TV interlopers this year. Like last summer's Take the Money & Run on ABC, with its weekly caper-and-interrogation format, the Great Escape teams seem to be having a better and more intense time than the at-home spectator, as they follow a map to aid their escape (along with well-hidden keys), ducking searchlights and ever-present guards while tackling puzzles and challenges to seize a $100,000 prize.
I wish I could say I found the experience a rush, but the only time I leaned forward was whenever the prison guards jumped out to bust one of the teams, sending them back to the beginning "detainment" cell. So basically, I spent an hour watching a gussied-up version of tag. What's so great about that?
STARRY NIGHT: One of Hollywood's greatest, Shirley MacLaine, receives one of the movie industry's greatest honors when the American Film Institute presents its 40th Life Achievement Award tribute on TV Land (Sunday, 9/8c). Former honoree Meryl Streep, who memorably played MacLaine's daughter in Postcards From the Edge, is on hand to present the award, with plenty of other celebrity testimonials and clips. But as William Keck previously reported, one of the night's great surprises was a sneak peek at her role on the next season of Downton Abbey as Martha, the mother of Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who inevitably tangles with Dowager Countess Maggie Smith. Reason enough to watch, I'd think.
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