In an early scene of HBO's new Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom, a college student asks the show's hero, Will McAvoy, why the U.S. is the best country in the world.
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It's a vapid question, to be sure, but Will's mean-spirited answer — he says simply that it isn't, and then rattles off a withering, Sorkinian litany of statistics about literacy, life expectancy and infant mortality that prove his point — is both electrifying and kind of depressing.
Will (Jeff Daniels, in his first TV series role) is a moderate Republican cable news anchor whose show, "News Night," has succeeded in the ratings because Will has played it safe, journalistically speaking. (One critic calls him the "Jay Leno of news anchors.") When we first meet him, he's in a rut, and his staff, none too impressed with his very public tantrum, has decided to seek other employment.
Borrowing from Network writer Paddy Chayevsky, who Sorkin mentioned in his acceptance speech when he won an Oscar for writing The Social Network, Will's mad as hell and he isn't going to take it anymore. But Sorkin says he's hoping to do more than spew venom.
See photos of the Newsroom cast
"I can understand the temptation to compare The Newsroom to Network, but they're actually opposites," Sorkin tells TVGuide.com. "Network was a pitch-black and very cynical look at television while The Newsroom looks at TV news through an aspirational lens. ... A newsroom seemed like a good place to do a show that was idealistic and aspirational."
What Will aspires to, with an assist from his bowtie-wearing mentor/boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), is a newscast that both honors and tries to reclaim the traditions of Murrow and Cronkite. "Will has some personal issues that get explored as the season unfolds," Sorkin says. "He's the son of a violently abusive alcoholic and was forced at a young age to protect his younger siblings. The great anchors of the past became his father figures and role models. ... Charlie, who's pulling the strings, [forces] him to try to become the man he's supposed to be."
Enter MacKenzie "Mac" MacHale (Emily Mortimer), an ace executive producer who's just spent 26 months working in Iraq and Afghanistan and who Charlie has hired to right the "News Night" ship. One problem: Will and Mac used to date, and their breakup three years prior left Will a broken man.
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"Amidst everything — the politics, the humor, the questioning of television journalism — [Sorkin] has written a romantic comedy," Daniels says. "[Will's] basically still madly in love with her and can't stand the sight of her. And that's pure Aaron: 'What is the biggest obstacle I can put in between these two people?' And then he throws them together and forces them to work together on the show."
Mac is undaunted by the awkwardness and quickly assembles a new staff, including senior producer Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), Will's blogger Neal (Dev Patel), and Maggie (Alison Pill), a plucky assistant-turned-associate producer who is torn between being a part of "News Night 2.0" and following her boyfriend Don (Thomas Sadoski), who is also Will's former executive producer. Because they are Sorkin characters, they're young, whip-smart, and they talk very fast.
And according to Mac's oft-used Don Quixote metaphor, they're underdogs. "Underdog would be a promotion for this team," Sorkin says. "They're on a doomed mission and reaching unrealistically high."
Or maybe not. Because Sorkin sets the show in the recent past — the pilot takes place in April of 2010 — these journalists cover the news we've already lived, including the BP oil spill, the Casey Anthony trial and the killing of Osama bin Laden. But with 20/20 hindsight, they get to report the news "right" the first time. "Setting the show in the recent past ... allowed me to not fictionalize the news," Sorkin says. "It's also exciting when the audience knows more than the characters do. Think of All the President's Men."
VIDEO: Meet the News Night 2.0 team in The Newsroom trailer
It also gives Sorkin, who also created Sports Night, The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a platform for political commentary. In early episodes, for example, it becomes clear that Will does not think highly of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement she supports. "The part of [Will] that spoke to me was the angry American," Daniels says. "There are a lot of us out in the country who are not happy with either side, not happy with the state of the union. And Aaron is a voice for that person — a very intelligent, articulate voice."
But Sorkin doesn't exactly see it that way. "Americans are angry about a lot of different things. Some of them will be angry about this show," he says. "What Will's most passionate about — other than MacKenzie — are facts, his responsibility to the public, the value of debate and American potential."
He's also quick to note that The Newsroom isn't trying to lambast the press either. "I am absolutely not doing that," Sorkin says. "I think bad information, wrong information and no information are dangerous for America. ... [But] we're not doing the news; we're doing a show about people who do the news. Our set's on Stage 7 at Sunset Gower Studios — the same stage where they shot The Monkees. Our goals are no different than theirs."
The Newsroom premieres Sunday at 10/9c on HBO.
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