On “The Newsroom,” Jeff Daniels plays a cable news anchor with a renewed dedication to integrity. Creator Aaron Sorkin calls the HBO series “a valentine” for journalists fighting the good fight.
Updated: July 23, 2012 7:22AM
Aaron Sorkin is on a quixotic quest to fix network news. Literally.
“The Newsroom,” the latest drama reflecting the acclaimed writer’s fascination with the intersection of media and politics, arrives at 9 p.m. Sunday as his first project on HBO. Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, the anchor of a popular prime-time cable newscast whose success is based on an unwillingness to offend. But in a crisis of conscience fueled by his boss (Sam Waterston) and a new producer (Emily Mortimer), he aims to do a newscast that can boast of integrity and popularity.
Sorkin’s not looking to portray the gritty, greedy, cynical reality of TV news. Instead, his utopian fantasy starts with the fictional network’s name, Atlantis Cable News, and references to Broadway musicals such as “Man of La Mancha,” “Brigadoon” and “Camelot” are purely intentional.
“When I did ‘The West Wing’ [NBC’s Emmy-winning look at a noble presidency], I thought, looking back at our popular culture, our leaders have been portrayed as Machiavellian or dolts,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Well, what if I create a highly competent group of very dedicated people?”
With “The Newsroom,” “I wanted to try to do the same thing. Rather than go for the reality, I went for the wish fulfillment and made this as a valentine for those people who are out there fighting the good fight.”
In Sunday’s premiere, McAvoy is twice insulted by being compared to Jay Leno as the middlebrow milquetoast anchor who’s desperate to keep his audience. “He’s a ratings whore, so much so that it influences how he reports the news, how he interprets the news, so that he looks good,” Daniels says.
But after a public meltdown at a college appearance — reminiscent of Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” tirade in “Network,” the classic 1976 film — he’s greeted by the return of his ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Mortimer), newly hired as “News Night’s” can-do executive producer.
The show has Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue and long-winded speeches, but it isn’t all media navel-gazing. Like his earlier work, it mixes in lots of office romance, comedy and political advocacy.
Each episode is set in the not-too-distant past and includes real news footage and a storyline in which the fictional news team covers an actual news event, from BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill to the killing of Osama bin Laden. In one episode, McAvoy decides to ignore the Casey Anthony trial, “but in one week they manage to lose half their audience to HLN and Nancy Grace, so they rescramble and cover it,” Sorkin says. “They’re reaching really high and they fall down.”
Sorkin has been busy of late: He won an Oscar for the screenplay of “The Social Network” in 2011, was nominated this year for “Moneyball” and has just signed on to adapt a biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs for the big screen.
Gannett News Service