A big story developing on HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’

Kids hear it from their elders all the time: "Use your words." In the case of Aaron Sorkin, that childhood lesson clearly stuck.

As the awards-laden writer of TV's "The West Wing" and such films as "The Social Network" and "Moneyball," Sorkin uses well-chosen words by the carload to propel his story-telling.

Now, having worked his verbal magic on the nation's capital (in "The West Wing"), sports talk ("Sports Night") and the world of TV comedy ("Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"), Sorkin has turned his attention to television news.

"I consider it a valentine," he says.

"The Newsroom," which premieres on HBO tonight (Sunday) at 10 p.m., centers on Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a cable-news star who, in middle age, is coasting with his so-so nightly newscast, happy to avoid making waves with hard-hitting stories or controversial reports. Why not? He gets good ratings. He's "the Jay Leno of news anchors," one critic sniffs.

That's about to change. Much to Will's surprise, the newly hired executive producer for his broadcast, "News Night," turns out to be MacKenzie McHale. She's a hotshot TV journalist with whom Will was romantically involved before a painful breakup years ago that still has him brooding - and dead-set against working with her again.

Played by Emily Mortimer ("Hugo"), MacKenzie has been brought in to light a fire under Will.

"We're going to do a GOOD news show," she tells him, "AND make it popular at the same time."

"That is impossible!" Will growls.

Time will tell during the season's 10 episodes. But even by the end of the premiere, Will has taken baby steps toward the light.

"The Newsroom" marks a career renaissance for Daniels, who, as Will, makes an art of impatience and impolitic truth-telling, often while displaying a wry curl of the mouth or a world-weary roll of the eyes.

Citing the talent on "The Newsroom" both in front of and behind the camera, Daniels calls it "the best gig I've had since 'Purple Rose' with Woody." (That would be "The Purple Rose of Cairo," written and directed by Woody Allen back in 1985.) "I never would have thought that, at 57, I'd get this. Then Aaron came along."

Besides Daniels, the splendid cast channeling Sorkin's words includes Alison Pill, John Gallagher, Jr., Dev Patel, Thomas Sadoski and Olivia Munn. And in a delightful role, Sam Waterston plays the pleasantly pickled news division president, Charlie Skinner, who, despite his potent liquid diet, is fashioning an extreme makeover for "News Night" - and for Will in particular.

"With everyone reaching unrealistically high, they're gonna fall on banana peels a lot," Sorkin warns during a recent interview. And he doesn't just mean metaphorically: In the premiere, one of the characters comedically stumbles and another takes a pratfall. "Their idealism does crash into reality."

Will's hard-bitten idealism finds its voice in a monologue in the episode's first scene. Appearing on a panel in front of scores of college students, he is sandwiched between a pair of high-octane pundits who are bellowing past him at each other.

He is jolted out of his silence only after a fresh-faced co-ed asks him to explain "in one sentence or less" what it is that makes America the greatest country in the world.

"It's NOT the greatest country in the world - not anymore," he blurts out, reducing the crowd to a horrified hush. After a blistering rant, he sums up, "We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending."

Will has had a rude awakening: The country is in a mess - polarized, misdirected and stalled - and the media share the blame.

Back in the newsroom a few weeks later, he encounters the just-hired MacKenzie. But the tensions between them (professional and sexual) quickly take a backseat to a huge breaking story that day: the BP oil spill. "The Newsroom" begins in April 2010.

Setting the series in the recent past is Sorkin's way of framing actual news events to underpin his narrative while allowing a scripted drama to keep pace.

Sorkin notes, "It's always fun when the audience knows more than the characters do. And it gives you a chance to revisit the news with 20-20 hindsight."

As the "News Night" staff tease out early details of the catastrophe, a debate about business, politics and the public interest is triggered in the form of Sorkin's dialogue.

Sorkin insists his mission with the show isn't pushing any single agenda.

"I'm not qualified to do that," he insists. "The characters on the show express opinions, but one opinion is expressed so it can create a point of friction with another opinion."

Sorkin explains that he comes from a family of lawyers, where the dinner table rang with spirited debate, where "anyone who used one word when they could have used 10 wasn't trying hard enough," he says. "I love the sound of dialogue. It sounds like music to me. And I wanted to imitate that sound with my characters."

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