Aaron Sorkin's new play about the glories of television.

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Dec. 6 2007 8:17 PM

The Farnsworth Invention

Aaron Sorkin's new play about the glories of television.

Jimmi Simpson in The Farnsworth Invention
Jimmi Simpson in The Farnsworth Invention 

The Farnsworth Invention, Aaron Sorkin's new Broadway play about the genesis of television, is propulsive, pedantic, occasionally gimmicky (and always unashamed when it is), very clever (though a crucial 5 percent less clever than it thinks it is), hokily grandiose, and blaringly self-aware. The drama, with its bits of verbal brilliance and its throbbing narcissistic flaws, is of a piece with Sports Night and The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the series that have made Sorkin a household name in certain demographically desirable households.

Sorkinworld is a distinctively odd realm, abounding with tics, at once sophisticated and crudely melodramatic. It happens four or five times in The Farnsworth Invention that a character, having just been dealt some rebuff or dismissal, makes it halfway to the wings before discovering the courage to turn back around and say whatever needed saying. At one point, actors playing newsboys actually run around flapping newspapers and screaming "Extra!" I'm embarrassed to admit that the newsboy business was rather exciting.

The play turns on the race between broadcasting pioneer David Sarnoff and self-schooled inventor Philo Farnsworth to develop a commercially viable TV set, and the play's tone regularly swells as if to woo us into thinking we're watching a contest for the soul of world culture. In its first scene, Sarnoff says, with the playwright's seeming approval, that television is "the most influential invention in history"—a line that inspires a cocked eyebrow from any audience member who has ever seriously considered the impact of the printing press or lived in an apartment without a dishwasher. Even if the statement were true beyond question, that would still be no excuse for Sorkin and director Des MacAnuff to turn a battle for the patent rights to the picture tube into the stuff of an epically sentimental diorama.

In one corner of this fight ring is Farnsworth, an Idaho hayseed first seen as a schoolboy in overalls. It's the fall of 1921, and on the day that his first science-class assignment of the semester is due, he heaves a block of file folders onto his teacher's desk—the full year's worth of homework. The lad proceeds to draw a schematic of his whiz-bang picture box. Soon enough, Philo has grown up into a polished caricature of an absent-minded professor. Returning to the sticks after securing an investor in San Francisco—and toasting his success with Irish whiskey on the train home—he shows up under his girlfriend's bedroom window, set to propose. "Guess what?" he slurs. "I parked right on your lawn. Wait—that's not good!" That the play nearly gets away with this corn is a tribute to its momentum—a flow of dramatic instants that can be a pleasure itself and, in any case, hurries the audience away from such light nonsense.

Meanwhile, back East, David Sarnoff first rises to become the mayor of Radio City—the head of RCA and the founder of NBC—then begins riding the boys in the lab to crank out a TV. Hank Azaria plays Sarnoff as an adult and, in the moment, seems to bark proudly enough in the part. But why is that, one day later, attempting to recall his performance, I am mostly summoning memories of the pinstripes on his suit and images of Alec Baldwin's farcical network boss on 30 Rock? This Sarnoff isn't just a stereotype of a ruthless businessman; he's a cracked archetype—the father of all media moguls. The play's cheapest laugh line relies on historical irony, Sarnoff's vision for the future of television: "It's gonna end ignorance and misunderstanding! It's gonna end illiteracy!"

The critique of the medium doesn't get any deeper than that, though it does somehow get broader. It gives nothing away to say that RCA developed the TV and that Farnsworth died in semiobscurity, and the final moments of The Farnsworth Invention find the inventor, long gone to seed, among a swarm of barflies watching the launch of Apollo 11 on the set in their local saloon. The march of science! The global village! The laudanum of the masses! It's typical that Sorkin wrings optimal tension from the mission-control countdown—and also that the play ends before liftoff.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.