NEW YORK — 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."
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, each as fun for viewers to witness as the other) 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.
"Besides," notes Sorkin, "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 Will and the "News Night" staff tease out early details of the catastrophe, a rousing 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."
The 51-year-old Sorkin explains that he comes from a family of lawyers and future 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 with a smile. "I love the sound of dialogue. It sounds like music to me. And I wanted to imitate that sound with my characters."
Conveniently, every character in a Sorkin script is, in his or her own way, silver-tongued, ironic and accessorized with a Mensa-worthy stash of cultural allusions: Referring to MacKenzie in an approving aside, Will cracks, "I just offered her the most humiliating contract since Antonio got a loan from Shylock. She took it. I don't know what that is, but I LIKE it!"
Sorkin describes his style as "aspirational writing. I'm less interested in the difference between good and bad, than in the difference between good and great. As with Tom Cruise in 'A Few Good Men' or Michael Douglas in 'The American President,'" he goes on, pointing to a pair of his hit films, "I like taking good guys who are getting by with charm and high IQ and who then, for whatever reason, are forced to be better. And be great."
And do it with all the right words.