Aaron Sorkin's 'The Newsroom' on HBO

This publicity image released by HBO shows Emily

This publicity image released by HBO shows Emily Mortimer as Mackenzie MacHale , left, and Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy on the HBO series, "The Newsroom." (Credit: AP)

THE SHOW "The Newsroom"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT It's early 2010, and big-time ACN (Atlantis Cable News) anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) finds himself on a panel at a Northwestern University conference, sitting between liberal and conservative commentators who are screaming over each other.

A student in the audience asks the panel, "What makes America the greatest country in the world?" The liberal and conservative offer short sound bites. McAvoy, instead, rants -- "This isn't the greatest country," he bellows, while adding that liberals are losers, conservatives idiots, and "you, sorority girl . . . you are a member of the worst -- period -- generation -- period -- ever. PERIOD."

The outburst makes headlines and sends Will on a forced two-week vacation. Upon returning, he finds that his executive producer, Don (Thomas Sadoski), has left him for a new anchor and show, while ACN news chief Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) has named Don's replacement -- Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer). She and Will have a history . . .

MY SAY Created and largely written by Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing"), "The Newsroom" is about the much-maligned TV news that people, or at least young people, aren't supposed to be watching anymore. The same TV news that lost its way (according to critics) after Walter Cronkite retired, then later split into warring ideological camps while shunting aside fairness, accuracy and institutional memory.

Sorkin and "The Newsroom" argue that network TV news still matters and matters very much. Imagine: A series about that.

But does any of this make it watchable? Yes . . . and no. Best to think of "The Newsroom" as an extended teleplay instead of a TV show. Indeed, there are some fine stage actors here, like Sadoski ("Reckless"), John Gallagher Jr. ("Spring Awakening"), who plays MacHale's senior producer, and Alison Pill, who co-starred with Daniels in the 2007 Off-Broadway play, "Blackbird," and here plays an earnest newsroom newcomer. Not to mention Jane Fonda, who shows up in a later episode as the CEO of the network's parent company. (Jane Fonda for Ted Turner. Inside joke. Get it?)

It's shot through with a 1930s-'40s screwball love-will-conquer-all zest, with rat-a-tat dialogue that zips along at 75 mph. There are distant echoes of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "His Girl Friday" -- you almost expect someone to yell out "Get me rewrite!" -- and less distant echoes of "Broadcast News."

Will is the cynical, embittered newsman; Mac is the girl who will reclaim his heart, and save TV news in the bargain. Frank Capra could've written this, and, in a sense, already has. "The Newsroom" is very old-fashioned -- which may be its chief appeal.

Yet at moments it can also be a proxy for Sorkin's politics. He is the off-screen Lord High executioner, who dispatches his enemies -- like the Koch brothers or the Tea Party -- scene by scene, or speech by windy speech. Plus, there's no sense of context. When Will finally gets religion and declares his new show will take the high road, you're left to wonder what the low road had been -- lead stories on Lindsay Lohan?

BOTTOM LINE At times, "The Newsroom" can be gaseous, softheaded, pretentious, hokey, ham-fisted, misguided, and maddeningly smug. And yet this is the rarest of TV shows -- one that actually cares deeply and passionately about the soul of an institution, in this case TV news. There's plenty of heart here -- and some very sharp writing and acting, too.

GRADE B

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