Review: THE NEWSROOM, Season 2

The second season of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom improves on the shortcomings of the first, but still fails to really coalesce into something other than an earnest-but-tone deaf misfire.

Except for the things we did wrong, we did everything right.

-Charlie Skinner

Before anyone had seen a single episode, The Newsroom had palpable buzz. Aaron Sorkin, fresh off Academy Awards success with The Social Network and Moneyball, was returning to television, and to a show ABOUT television (his previous offering, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, flamed out with critics and with viewers). He’d be back in his sweet spot, writing about a fast-paced office while commenting on current events and creating (hopefully) memorable characters. How could it NOT be terrific?

And then the first season debuted, and the knives came out. It was lambasted for its smugness, sanctimony, seeming bias against its female characters, and–above all–the creative choice to set the show in the recent past, allowing the fictional ACN network to cover the news the way “it should have been covered.” We had to watch the News Night with Will McAvoy staff high-five each other for their restraint and good instincts, when as a viewer it just felt like annoying 20/20 hindsight.

Even that would have been okay if the characters and dialogue–usually Sorkin’s strength–worked. We couldn’t invest in the relationships, the “will-they-won’t-they” between Will (Jeff Daniels) and the impossibly-named MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) pushed the limits of anything I could possibly care about, and overall detracted from what was the sole positive aspect of the series: journalists DOING THE NEWS. The show was effective as a show about media when it wasn’t being preachy.

In the interim between seasons 1 and 2, Sorkin defended his choices, but there were rumblings as it went back into production that it still wasn’t working, and a few episodes were partially re-written and re-shot (at great cost to HBO, who knocked an episode off what was a 10-ep order). So now that critics were starting to “hate-watch” the show, could it bounce back?

Well…kind of. It’s undeniably better, I’ll say that. For starters, the opening credits are different. Begone, reverent/pompous orchestral theme! You’ve been replaced by a new, more “modern” (staccato piano) arrangement. The images of Murrow, Cronkite, and the others that the show wanted us to compare Will to? Also gone. So that’s a start.

How about the writing? Some of the more annoying subplots from the first season (the eternal love quadrangle between Jim, Maggie, Don, and Lisa) were back-burnered, and we refreshingly began to see examples of ACN not doing things perfectly. MacKenzie–who was introduced in the pilot as a tough war correspondent, but devolved into spasmodic flake who didn’t know how e-mail worked and needed Will to swoop in and rescue her at every turn–was a more assertive and competent character this time around, and Will’s smug edges were slightly dulled, or at least more internalized. Even Neil’s (Dev Patel) obsession with Bigfoot was conveniently forgotten!

The show still attempted to “speak truth to power” in its own way, with Jim’s (John Gallagher, Jr.) embedding on the Romney campaign bus and then dumping off said bus, and the election season arc as a whole was pretty strong…again, when it wasn’t about the personal drama of the whinier characters. One standalone episode–the “Maggie goes to Uganda” ordeal–was manipulative mediocrity in the worst way. It also led to a confusing subplot about how her harrowing experience made her cut off her hair, the timeline of which never really made sense to me with all the flash-forwards and flashbacks and whatnot and wasn’t it really about Jim, anyway? (Honestly, I don’t know. Jim thinks so because Jim thinks everything is about Jim.)

The largest divergence in Season 2, however, came with News Night chasing its own story for the first time, about a rumored sarin gas attack committed by the United States that echoed the “Operation Tailwind” scandal from the Vietnam War. (Here, they called it “Operation Genoa.”) Will, Mac, and the increasingly inebriated Charlie (a probably inebriated Sam Waterston) decide to run the story, based on the fraudulent report of one of their own, and it blows up in their faces. For once, ACN had committed a series of very grave errors, and some genuine drama was at last manufactured.

Except…The Newsroom couldn’t quite commit to it. Since the fabrication was done by Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), who had just joined them from the D.C. bureau this season, with the sole purpose of this character’s existence apparently being to do this thing, naming him as the scapegoat was a narrative escape hatch. And it was all Jerry talked about, all year. In the office: “What about Genoa?” Out for drinks: “Hey, so Genoa?” We never saw Jerry at home, but one can assume he was talking about Genoa there, too. He wanted so badly for the story to be true that he doctored a tape that was run as part of the broadcast, but since we barely knew him as a person, he’s the thinnest of villains in a show already full of cardboard cutouts. He’s swiftly fired, and after some back-and-forth (never really in doubt) all the others get to keep their jobs. …Yay?

It was a thud of an ending to what had been a promising story, but there were a few other bright spots. Two of the show’s secondary players, Don and Sloan (Thomas Sadoski & Olivia Munn) tear into Sorkin’s dialog with relish, and their snarkiness is fun to watch. Also, Chris Messina and Marcia Gay Harden steal almost every scene they’re in. I would honestly jettison half the cast and just watch a show about them. That’s not a discredit to the work done by those other actors, who are just playing the hand they’ve been dealt (especially poor Alison Pill as Maggie), but a complaint about Sorkin failing to make all but four of the characters either unbearably smug, misguided, flaky, or drunk. DON + SLOAN 4EVA.

The two-part season finale, set during Election Night, began with great promise but ended with enough eye rolling to cause strain. Since the future of the The Newsroom is still up in the air (HBO would like it to continue but has to work it around Sorkin’s schedule), Sorkin took the opportunity to tie a lot of subplots into little bows, not least of which the on-again-off-again-don’t-care-again courtship of Will and Mac. One scene, she’s justly threatening to punch him in the face for being a selfish windbag, and the next he’s proposing(!) to her and she’s saying yes(?!), and then there’s another cheesy pop song playing, and…sigh.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the future Mrs. MacKenzie Morgan McHale McAvoy. I think I just threw up in my mouth.

Would I come back for Season 3, should there be one? Yes. Because the moments this show works–as few and far between as they are–allllllmost make up for its failures. And the rest is just a trainwreck you can’t look away from. It’s a win-win! Or a win-lose-win. Not sure. Will would know.

Grade: C+

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