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A big story developing on HBO's 'The Newsroom'

Wednesday - 6/20/2012, 11:06am  ET

By FRAZIER MOORE
AP Television Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - 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 with insight and wit.

You don't look to Sorkin for car chases, pyrotechnics or other spectacle. It's his words _ playful, brainy, heartfelt and often fired out in hot-potato exchanges _ that do the heavy lifting. Yet make it look easy.

Now, having worked his verbal magic on the nation's capital (in "The West Wing"), sports talk ("Sports Night") and the backstage 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. It's also an entertaining exercise in tough love.

"The Newsroom," which premieres on HBO Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT, centers on Will McAvoy (played by 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 _ popular because he doesn't bother anyone.

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," "Shutter Island"), 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.

Is it? Time will tell during the upcoming season's 10 episodes. But even by the end of the premiere, Will _ however gruff and in a snit over MacKenzie's return _ has taken baby steps toward the light.

While Will is poised to be reinvigorated as the TV journalist he was always meant to be, "The Newsroom" already has reinvigorated Jeff Daniels.

First noted for his performance as Debra Winger's cheating husband in the 1983 "Terms of Endearment," he has since made dozens of films, from "Dumb and Dumber" to "The Squid and the Whale."

But the past few years, "I was completely bored with the business and the roles I was getting," he says during a recent interview.

"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.

Daniels calls Will "the role of a lifetime." And 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," the enchanting comedy-fantasy written and directed by Woody Allen that reached theaters way back in 1985.) "I never would have thought that, at 57, I'd get this. Then Aaron came long."

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 ("Law & Order") 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 _ to reach their full potential.

But it won't come easy.

"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 stirring 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 _ one conservative, one liberal _ who are bellowing past him at each other.

He is jolted out of his disapproving 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 bitterly, "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."

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