Jeff Daniels storms out of the glass-walled conference room for the fifth time in 25 minutes. Apparently, Nancy Grace can do that to a man. Take after take, her Southern-fried commentary on the Casey Anthony murder case has been blaring on multiple television monitors around the set of a TV newsroom, and her "Oh, God, will you look at that" attitude is more than Daniels' character, Will McAvoy, can bear. McAvoy is a veteran anchorman unraveling before our eyes on The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin's new HBO drama about the inner workings of a cable news channel. Imagine a Walter Cronkite type in our 24/7 schlock news cycle and you get the picture. McAvoy is mad as hell and he couldn't care less what Grace, God or Twitter has to say about it.
Although set amid real-life headlines—the Anthony trial, the BP oil spill—and with actual news footage courtesy of CNN, The Newsroom is as much about current events as Sorkin's The West Wing was about the electoral college. Like all Sorkin projects (Sports Night, The Social Network) The Newsroom finds its true meaning in places where idealism meets idiocy and practically every character is smarter, higher-strung and talks much, much faster than you. "We only have so much time, so I like to get a lot in," Sorkin says of the rich dialogue. Most one-hour scripts run around 60 pages. The Newsroom's run 80 to 90.
Sorkin has quality help with all those lines: Sam Waterston (Law & Order) as the bow-tied network news boss putting a tweed shoulder to a changing media landscape; Emily Mortimer (30 Rock) as the exec producer of the troubled news show-within-the show; Olivia Munn (The Daily Show) as a smart but socially awkward financial reporter ("I think I've been typecast playing fake reporters," she laughs); Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) as the network's 21-year-old blogger extraordinaire; Alison Pill (Midnight in Paris) as wide-eyed associate producer Maggie, who "wants to save the world and fix her dating life," Pill says; acclaimed theater actors Thomas Sadoski and John Gallagher Jr. as combative producers; and Jane Fonda—no stranger to cable news networks herself as Ted Turner's ex—as Leona Lansing, CEO of the company that owns the channel. "You bring together talent like this and you simply can't cruise as an actor," says Daniels, best known for movies like Terms of Endearment and Dumb and Dumber. This is his first starring role in a TV series. "What are you going to do? Bring your B game with Jane Fonda? You'll fall flat on your face!"
The acting is intense from the get-go. As the series opens, McAvoy is on a panel at a university when the normally uncontroversial newsman—one panelist calls him "the Jay Leno of news anchors"—goes ballistic at a student for asking why America is the greatest country on earth. McAvoy fires off a long list of gloomy stats on America's global decline, then barks, "When you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the f--- you're talking about—Yosemite?" America's Most Trusted Newsman is suddenly public enemy No. 1.
"You can imagine a guy like this who has suppressed his opinion for so long and now wants to blow the doors off the place," says Sorkin. Adds Daniels, whose character must rebuild his image on the public stage: "Will has reached a point where he says, 'Let's get back to telling the truth. Let's take the marketing away, let's take the spin away and do what news people are damned well supposed to do.'"
That might sound like Woodward and Bernstein territory, but The Newsroom is at heart a comedy. "The more these people strive for what they believe in, the more they slip on banana peels," Sorkin says, and he's almost being literal. "I've had to do a number of pratfalls," says Gallagher, whose 27-year-old senior producer, Jim, has already covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not that he's infallible. "My entrance on the whole show is me walking into the room, tripping on luggage and absolutely eating it. Aaron saw how natural a klutz I could be and said we'd have to do more."
People fall in and out of love, too. Jim has a thing for Maggie, who is in a relationship with Don (Sadoski), and Mortimer's character, MacKenzie, has a romantic past with Will. That's especially messy since she's been brought on—without Will's permission—to revamp his news program, post-meltdown. "It's been three years since their relationship ended, and ended badly, and Will does everything in his ability to get rid of me," Mortimer says. "My contract says he can fire me at the end of each week, but then I get to come back on Monday."
His characters are as tenacious as Sorkin himself, who put his usual 110 percent into every script. "In the last five months, I've written about a thousand pages," says Sorkin. "But I can honestly say, I'm as engaged following the lives of these characters as I am with any news story I might follow." And that's the way it is.
Editor’s note: David Hochman is freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has been published in TV Guide, Esquire and The New York Times.