Can Aaron Sorkin save the TV news business from itself?
Ask Jeff Daniels, star of the Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter's highly anticipated new HBO series The Newsroom, and he has a quick answer.
He's not sure Sorkin is even trying.
"A lot of what Aaron is dealing with is saying 'Let's start telling the truth,' " said Daniels, a self-described "political news junkie" now playing a disillusioned cable news anchor pushed to stop playing it safe and, in the words of one character, "speak the truth to stupid."
"It seems you can say anything (on newscasts) these days . . . just say it is true, and it is," added the actor, best known as the philandering husband in Terms of Endearment and Jim Carrey's addled brother in Dumb and Dumber. "Aaron loves grand ideas, he loves writing about big things, and how we get our news is a big thing to all of us. I don't know that he's out to save (the news business); certainly, he's saying we can do better."
Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a cable news anchor who has maintained status as the second most-watched cable newsman by never showing an opinion and relentlessly focusing on ratings. (More on why that's one of the show's many unrealistic notes a little later.)
But he melts down at a public forum where he lists all the reasons America isn't really the best country in the world — like so many of Sorkin's protagonists, he's a smart, principled guy struggling to deal with a world that often isn't either — puncturing his evenhanded image.
It's a typically epic Sorkin rant, soaring through sagging life expectancy and literacy rates to land on the closing line: "I don't know what the f--- you're talking about." (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is HBO.)
"We aspired to intelligence, we didn't belittle it; it didn't make us feel inferior," Daniels says as McAvoy. "We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn't scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed."
Enter Sam Waterston as the president of news and McAvoy's boss: an old-school newshound who hires an idealistic, accomplished executive producer for his star anchor's show to try something different.
"In the old days, we did the news well," Waterston cracks as news boss Charlie Skinner, in a welcome return to a role with some irascible humor for the Law & Order alum. "You know how? We just decided to."
Like magic, McAvoy's show turns toward more serious news, with a particular focus on deflating tea party-bred partisan extremism. Once derided as the inoffensive "Jay Leno of news," he's now free to let his inner smarty-pants fly on camera.
However liberating, it's also a message that can feel like an earnest theater workshop, similar to the liberal-centered debates characters had on Sorkin's landmark political series The West Wing.
Making Daniels' McAvoy a closet Republican won't stem the tide of conservative anger sure to come. That's because the anchor still seems to mostly agree with his liberal colleagues, challenging Arizona's controversial immigration law, along with pointedly questioning the corporate backing of the Fox News/tea party side of the political spectrum.
"I can see why the right side might get a little concerned about how it's being portrayed," Daniels said. "But one of the things Aaron's been saying is 'We're using their words.' I remember doing the opening speech (on America no longer being a great nation), and thinking 'There's nothing in this that isn't true.' For those that hang with us through the whole season, they'll find the reclaiming of what the Republican party used to be a big part of season one."
And then there's the game many industry types like to play with Sorkin's shows: "Guess the real-life person who inspired this character?"
Because the screenwriter spent research time with Keith Olbermann at MSNBC, many assume McAvoy is a thinly veiled version of him (including Olbermann himself, according to the New York Times).
It doesn't help that the pilot episode features McAvoy losing almost all his staff because he treats them terribly; accusations of similar behavior have dogged Olbermann for years.
Ex-Daily Show correspondent Olivia Munn plays a beautiful, smart business news anchor who seems at least partly molded on former CNBC correspondent-turned-CNN-anchor Erin Burnett.
According to HBO's press materials, an initial impulse to feature Olbermann and late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart alongside McAvoy during his big meltdown failed when they realized novice actors couldn't handle Sorkin's pacing.
Now, real people only appear in newsclips, though they are often referenced in scripts.
When I tell him his take on McAvoy reminds me of a curious combination of Tom Brokaw and Olbermann — he's a practical romantic who is scary smart and capable of seriously bratty behavior — Daniels shrugs while repeating the show's party line:
No character here is based on any one person.
"Whoever Aaron may have based (these characters) on, by episode three or four you start tailoring it for the character and the actor," said Daniels, who said he didn't base his performance on any existing news anchors and didn't even visit a cable newschannel for research. "We're banging these episodes out every two weeks. Aaron writes one script at a time, discovering as he goes and tailoring the world as he goes."
There are problems. Cable TV news audiences already have shown they prefer partisan opinions in primetime, so McAvoy's initial success and conversion seem improbable.
The anchor's staff figures out the BP oil spill was caused by the company's error in drilling within minutes; in fact, it took journalists days to learn the truth (all the show's broadcasts cover news from the recent past).
What might be most unreal here is the notion that a focus on facts automatically leads to an objective truth.
Cable news really suffers from an overdose of truthiness — stuff that seems true because it fits your beliefs. And combatting that isn't always about finding one truth.
It's often about having the courage to reveal when there are many truths, or none at all, with context, independence and a fealty to fairness most broadcasters avoid because it lacks the compelling drama news audiences demand.
Still, Daniels insists The Newsroom can find its own truths in the story of a flawed hero who sacrifices a lot to become a better man and newsman.
"There are a lot of angry Americans out there; Aaron's one of them, I'm one of them," said the actor. "There are a lot of people in the middle of the country who aren't right or left, they're both. And they just want to be told the truth."