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 10 tonight on HBO, 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, 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 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.
"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 1985 enchanting comedy-fantasy written and directed by Woody Allen.) "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 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. 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."
Setting the series in the recent past (beginning in April 2010) 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."