Sunday, December 9, 2007

I DIDN'T STEAL TELEVISION, BUT IF I DID, I DID IT FAIR AND SQUARE: Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention got pretty roundly panned by Ben Brantley, but my assessment of it is far more kind. The first question is whether Sorkin has learned from the failings of Studio 60, and the answer is mostly yes. Although the play could be read as being self-justifying with Farnsworth as Sorkin's proxy being taken advantage of by the evil RCA/NBC people, two things undermine that reading. First, Sorkin's clearly been fascinated by this story for a long time (see, e.g., the early Sports Night discussion of the topic). Second, David Sarnoff (the RCA head) isn't one-dimensionally evil--he's as close as there is to a villain in the piece, but is far more complex (and credit not only to the script, but to Hank Azaria's performance there). Also, this is Sorkin's least political (and certainly least partisan) work in a good while. There's little or no political sermonizing.

And the good stuff's mostly still there. People still talk fast and talk smart. Sorkin's big themes--the goodness of American idealism and innovation, the dangerous relationship between addiction and creativity, and the idea that television can be a force not just for moneymaking, but for good--are evident in his prior work as well. Indeed, the play ultimately is about the power of American innovation winning over obstacles and the joy of creativity (the response not just when there's an initial image, but when Farnsworth figures out how to get a sharp picture are just moments of unbridled joy). Yes, there are flaws (the narrative device of having Farnsworth and Sarnoff each narrate the other's story isn't entirely effective, and the play can be a bit didactic at times), but it's a darn solid afternoon or evening at the theatre.

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